Smith's departure leaves Badgers in tough spot

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 11: Lukas Krajicek (R) of Czech Republic and Craig Smith (L) of USA battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship quarter final match between Czech Republic and USA at Orange Arena on May 11, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

With news breaking yesterday that Wisconsin junior forward Craig Smith would be forgoing his final two seasons as a Badger to sign a pro contract with the NHL's Nashville Predators, the confidence level among Badger fans has taken a significant hit, and with good reason. Smith, a Madison native was named a Co-Captain this summer and was supposed to once again be Wisconsin's offensive catalyst, and an All-WCHA performer. After all, he led all UW forwards in scoring last season and played outstanding for Team USA at the IIHF Men's World Championships this summer.

Many thought that Smith, a fourth round draft selection by Nashville was ready to turn pro at the outset of last season but Smith right away told reporters that he was coming back for his junior season noting in a Wisconsin State Journal report, "There are certain things on my check list that haven't been checked off here yet and I would definitely like to attain them.'' Smith was adamant all off season that he would be returning telling Andy Baggot not once, twice, or three times but on four different occasions that he would be returning.

In the Wisconsin State Journal report yesterday Smith noted that recent roster changes with Nashville gave him an opportunity that he couldn't pass up. In short, Nashville got extremely cheap in free agency (only the NY Islanders have a lower payroll) and let Joel Ward, J.P. Dumont, Marcel Goc, and Steve Sullivan walk.

More analysis on Smith's departure after the jump.

It's hard to blame Smith for taking this opportunity. While he may not make the team out of camp he'll certainly have an opportunity for a call up if his play in Milwaukee (Nashville's top farm club) warrants it. The biggest problem that many, including myself have is the timing. Signing in the middle of July really puts Mike Eaves and the Wisconsin program in a tough spot. It's too bad that NHL teams put NCAA programs in this kind of spot by signing away their players so late in the off season.

Currently the Badgers only have three verbal commitments at forward past this season. And unfortunately, none of the three players can be brought in this season since they are all seniors in high school. It's going to be extremely difficult for them to find someone to bring in to fill his spot. If I had to guess, I would say that they don't bring anyone in and give Smith's scholarship money to someone else this season. Even without Smith the Badgers still have 15 forwards on the roster, which is a standard number.

One option if they did bring someone in would be Reed Linaker from the St. Albert Steel in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Linkaer was linked to the Badgers this spring when Jordy Murray was considering leaving. Instead the coaching staff decided to bring in Brad Navin a year early from Waupaca high school. Linaker told me in late April that if the Badgers offered, he would accept.

However that offer never came. Instead Linaker gave a verbal commitment to start up program Penn State for 2012. When reached Friday afternoon Linaker told Bucky's 5th Quarter that he had not talked with Wisconsin recently.

Another option would be to use the money on defenseman Eddie Wittchow from Burnsville, MN. Wittchow turned down an offer from Wisconsin earlier this spring but with Smith's scholarship money now in the Badgers pocket, Wittchow, who is a noted long time Badger fan could possibly reconsider his options.

While it certainly stings to lose a player like Smith, it is another feather in the cap of the Wisconsin hockey program. Mike Eaves has been churning out pro prospect after pro prospect and 15 players that have played under Eaves at Wisconsin played in the NHL last season. On top of those 15 who will likely see time again, Brendan Smith (Detroit), Jake Gardiner (Toronto), Cody Goloubef (Columbus) and Craig Smith all will have opportunities to make their NHL debuts.

Next week we'll take a look at how the lineup might look without Smith centering the top line.

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