Wisconsin forward Craig Smith will leave Madison to sign with the Nashville Predators. Smith had stated that he would return to the Badgers for his junior season, but ultimately, the reasons in favor of leaving were just too solid for him to pass up.
First, Smith's stock was likely at an all-time high. He had put together two very successful seasons at Wisconsin. He notched 33 points as a freshman. The following year, despite losing a ton of scoring help, Smith increased his scoring totals to 43 points, including 11 more goals than the prior season.He was invited to play with the US Men's National team at the IIHF World Championships this spring, where he put up an extremely impressive performance.
The second issue to consider is that despite heading into his junior season, Smith turns 22 in September. By comparison, he's actually a year older than former teammate Derek Stepan, who already has a year of pro hockey under his belt. Smith is a great story of a late-bloomer that really took his game to the next level as he matured. NCAA hockey maybe took a hit in losing JT Miller today, but it's a huge positive to the game to see a kid earn an NHL contract well after he would have aged out of the CHL, and after the time WHL commissioner Ron Robison said players should, "move on with their lives".
Despite that, Smith still seemed prepared to return to Wisconsin this season, but the tipping point may have been NHL free agency and what appears to be close to the final make-up of Nashville's roster for this season. Another of Smith's former teammates, Blake Geoffrion, also turned down an offer from the Predators to play his final season at Wisconsin, and with a great season, avoided a year in the AHL and helped him play in the NHL quicker. Smith may have decided he was better off with another year of college hockey, rather than an extra year in the AHL. But after seeing the way Nashville's roster looked post-free agency, Smith may not have to spend as much time in the AHL as originally planned.
When you add up all those factors, it's hard to blame Smith for signing, even if it's likely Wisconsin won't be able to replace him this late in the summer.