Bruins Should Target Craig Smith In Free Agency

(Photo: John Russell / Getty Images)

By: Patrick Donnelly | Follow me on Twitter @PatDonn12

Long-time Nashville Predator forward Craig Smith will be hitting the open market come Oct. 9 when free agency opens, according to his agent Kevin Magnuson and Predators general manager David Poile. With a need for consistent scoring, especially at even-strength, in the middle-six, and a penchant for looking at the bargain bin, Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney would be wise to target Smith this offseason.

The 31-year-old is coming off an 18-goal, 31-point effort with the Preds and was on track to eclipse 20 goals (21 over an 82-game pace to be exact) for the third-straight season and the sixth time in seven years before the COVID-19 pandemic cut his regular season short at 69 games. In 661 career contests, Smith has a total of 162 goals, averaging out to 18 goals per season with the lockout-shortened 2013 season (four goals in 44 games) and a pedestrian 2016-17 (12 goals in 78 games) taken into account.

Beyond the general numbers, Smith would bring serious value to the Bruins at even-strength. Last year, 14 of the right-shot forward’s goals came at five-on-five, which would rank third on the Bruins – his 18 goals overall would have been fifth on the team.

Not to mention his shot-generation at five-on-five is off the charts. In 753 even-strength minutes with Smith on the ice last season, Nashville’s expected goals per 60 minutes (xG/60) skyrocketed to 3.41, without Smith the team’s xG/60 dipped to 2.48. With Smith on the ice, the Preds out-shot the competition at a 56.62% rate (first among qualified NSH skaters) and held a share of 55.05% of high-danger chances (second on the team). Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. I mean, just look at his shot-generation heat map:

What’s more, the possession numbers are superb as well. Nashville controlled the puck at a high rate with Smith on the ice at five-on-five as he posted a Corsi-For (CF%) of 55.18%, which was highest on the team among qualified skaters. (A CF% of 55 or higher is typically elite.)

Smith posted great basic and underlying numbers in 2019-20, all the while playing decreased minutes on Nashville’s third line with Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi. According to MoneyPuck, with the trio on the ice, the Predators had a goals-for percentage of 72.5% (29-11), which ranks FIRST in the entire league among lines that played at least 400 minutes, notably beating Boston’s top line, among others. The line also boasted an expected-goals percentage of 57.5, fourth in the NHL.

In short, Smith is an excellent, extremely underrated and well-rounded piece to add into the lineup – probably on the second or third line – who can drive the bus and excel at both ends of the ice. With increased ice-time next to Boston’s centers, Smith could thrive. Magnuson sees his client in the same way as well:

“I feel like he is especially unique, just with his analytics and his production, his consistency,” Magnuson told Adam Vingan of The Athletic. “For having played 660 games, he’s been very fortunate not to be injured very often, so he’s kind of a low-mileage guy who has played a lot of games. He hasn’t been cranking out 18-minute games. It’s usually 12 to 15 minutes. He’s still got speed, and he takes care of his body. I think he’s got a lot left in the tank.”

Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, who ranked Smith eighth among this class of unrestricted free agents, drew quite the comparison for the winger:

“His best comparables are what’s really eye-opening though: Chris Kunitz, Michael Ryder, Alex Burrows, Scott Hartnell, Marian Gaborik – potent sidekicks on Cup contenders to Sidney Crosby, David Krejci, the Sedins, Claude Giroux, and Anze Kopitar. They shot the puck well, and they helped drive play. Smith fits the mould.”

Now what would it cost to attain Smith’s services in Boston? Not an outrageous amount at all. He is coming off a five-year deal that paid him $4.25 million per season, and the general consensus of Smith’s market value seems to be that he will earn a similar payday at a favorable term. Evolving Hockey projects Smith to earn a three-year contract worth an average annual value of $4.422 million, and Magnuson even said it himself.

“A three-year deal is our goal,” he added. “I think the number, because there are eight to 10 teams that have decent cap space, I think we won’t be too far off at the end of the day. He’s not going to be signing any blockbuster deals, but at the same time, he’s going to be in the market or a little bit above it, I think.”

The Bruins have a hair more than $15 million in cap space this offseason, and could have as much as $16 million depending on bonus overages, according to @BruinsCapSpace on Twitter. That could give the Bruins enough money to comfortably re-sign restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk, UFA Zdeno Chara, and explore outside options via free agency, like Smith, or trade.

Signing Smith would not be a glitz or glamour type of move that would attract a ton of headlines or buzz, but his services on the ice, from his production to his underlying numbers, would prove to be an incredible bang-for-your-buck addition. The Bruins would at least be wise to inquire.

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