By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
The Bruins did not make a lot of noise in free agency but were lauded for their one major move, signing right-winger Craig Smith. Smith signed for $9.3 million over three years. He is considered a great value at this price tag due to his consistent goal scoring and frequently finishing well on the positive end of the possession ledger. He is a player we at blackngoldhockey.com felt the Bruins should target and one we believe will provide reliable secondary scoring, especially at even strength.
From a statistical standpoint, Smith’s consistency as a 20-goal scorer and reliable two-way player is well-established. But beyond the numbers and reputation who is Craig Smith? To answer that question we will take a look at a Craig Smith game to give Bruins’ fans a sense of what to expect from the newest forward to don the spoked B. This will by no means be a comprehensive breakdown of all of Smith’s ticks and tendencies but should present an idea of what a normal evening will look like for the new number 22. I selected a Nashville Predators versus Edmonton Oilers game from February 8th, 2020. I picked this game because from an analytics standpoint it was an average game for Smith. It also meant I got to watch Connor McDavid, never a bad thing.
What to watch for
Before diving into the video I wanted to do a little background research so I could hone in on what to look for. For an analytical analysis, I reviewed the data from Natural StatTrick, Hockey-Reference, Charting Hockey, and Evolving-Hockey. I am also indebted to Bryan Bastin from On The Forecheck who provided a great analysis of Smith in their year-end report card series and helped me drill down what to focus on.
After the research, and before viewing, I came to the following conclusions. Smith’s reputation as a good two-way player is validated by the numbers. He is a slightly above average defensive player and posts strong offensive fancy stats. Smith is much more a puck transporter and shooter than he is a passer or playmaker. He is not a bad passer or selfish player but he is more known for playing a north-south game. He is also more likely to be the player on the line supporting the puck and getting open than the primary puck carrier. Finally, he is a high volume shooter. His shooting percentage is very average but he consistently gets pucks to the net at high rates. He is most likely to take wrist shots from the right circle and the slot.
Craig Smith Fancy Stats Player Card pic.twitter.com/jLdlmFuk4p— BruinsBreakdown (@BruinsBreakdown) December 21, 2020
With those characteristics in mind, I looked for the following in the video analysis. In the defensive zone, I looked to see how responsible Smith is in his assignments as well as how he did or did not contribute to the breakout. In the neutral zone, I looked for examples of how he contributed to transition play and entering the offensive zone. In the offensive zone, I looked for how Smith contributed to puck movement, got open, and set himself up for scoring opportunities. I also took a look at Smith’s role on the powerplay.
The video analysis is broken down into three sections – defensive play, transition play, and offensive play. These will not strictly be plays in their respective zones as in hockey you are on offense whenever you have the puck, even if it’s in front of your own goaltender, and on defense, even if the other team has the puck behind their own net. The analysis is rounded out with a section on Smith’s transition play, specifically, switching from defense to offense. Smith is number 15 in white and lines up on the right wing.
Smith’s defensive acumen exceeded my expectations and I came away impressed with his level of conscientiousness. He knows his assignments in the defensive zone and he does a great job of covering and staying above the puck on the forecheck and in the neutral zone.
In this clip Smith starts out all the way up ice on the forecheck engaged in a Smith on Smith battle in front. As the play moves towards his defensive zone he tracks all the way back and identifies the open lane and player. He deftly breaks up the play though he is unable to do much with the puck other than getting it out of harm’s way. This play showed hustle and smarts. One last note at the end of this play is Smith busts up ice once his team gains possession, a trend we will discuss in the next section.
Nashville loses the draw and go into their defensive posture. Smith does a good job of first pressing out and then retreating to the slot once the puck moves low. His head is on a swivel and stick in the lane leading to another nice interception. He, unfortunately, isn’t able to control the puck but does enough to get it out of the zone. He pursues the puck well and does his job as the first forward up ice in the neutral zone.
In this sequence Smith does strong work on the forecheck. He is not overly physical but establishes good position while engaging the opposing player. A key moment to point out in this clip is that after Smith misses on the wraparound he immediately identifies that he needs to be the high guy in the zone with his linemates engaged down low. By doing so, he is in perfect position above the play to break up Edmonton’s clearing attempt and keep the play alive for his team.
Smith displayed some strengths and weaknesses in transition play. One challenge though is identifying how much of his game in transition is due to the role he played on his line and Nashville’s system versus his own skillset. Based on patterns throughout the game it looks like Smith’s assignment is to get up ice and stretch the other team as soon the Predators gain control. He does this well. He also showed that he is capable of some smart, be it not explosive, zone entries
Here we see an example of Smith getting up in the play as soon as there is a turnover. He supports Rocco Grimaldi and gets the Oilers defender to back up in the process. Smith is a good skater but not a speed demon often electing to stop up, as he does here, rather than driving hard and wide. In this instance, it is a perfect choice and Smith shows off some playmaking touch, feathering a nice pass to a dangerous area.
Smith is not a traditional play driver but he keeps plays alive and allows his team to remain on offense. He does this by being a strong puck retriever and is subsequently very effective in cycle play. Without the puck, Smith does a great job of moving through the dirty areas. Most of the time you hear youth hockey coaches imploring their players to stay in front. By moving in and out, Smith ensures defenders cannot tie him up and uses his hockey sense to arrive at the right time for scoring chances.
In this sequence, Smith makes sure the Predators get some offensive zone time as he hunts down the puck and gains possession. He protects the puck well and moves it from low to high. Note that while he goes to the slot area he never stops moving, making him hard to check, and adjusting his positioning to provide potential options for his teammates.
Here is another great sequence. Smith twice retrieves the puck, protects it, and keeps the play alive. He then tries a cute pass to his driving teammate that almost pays off. Late in the sequence, he arrives at the top of the crease, unchecked, just in time for a good scoring opportunity.
In this sequence, Smith finds his way to the net. He jostles with the defender but does not allow himself to be tied up. He keeps his feet moving, and his stick free, just enough to corral the puck and put it between Mike Smith’s leg and the post.
On the powerplay, Smith played the bumper role for the Preds. With the man advantage, Smith does a good job in this game of retrieving pucks and provides movement in the middle to draw defenders. Similar to even-strength, he keeps his stick free to quickly get pucks on the net.
Reflections and conclusions
After reviewing the tape I believe Bruins’ fans are going to be very happy with Craig Smith. He works hard and plays smart. He does not make mistakes and makes the little plays that help teams be successful. His playmaking is underrated and his lack of assists has more to do with his role on his line than it does with a lack of vision or passing ability. In some of my research people spoke about Smith having a good shot. In this game, it was not featured and my takeaway was Smith knows how to get to the right spot for opportunities.
After viewing I believe the best fit for Smith is playing on the right of Charlie Coyle. Smith had great success with Nick Bonino in Nashville, who like Coyle can transport the puck and is great at establishing possession and working the puck in the offensive zone. While Smith has the smarts to play with Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci when needed, stylistically he is the best fit with Coyle. I also believe Smith could prove a great role model for Jake Debrusk. While not identical players, there are enough similarities that the veteran’s tutelage and example could provide a boost to the youngster’s career.