Over the years, the Nashville Predators have built their organization so that they might not have the most skilled players, but they always tried to have the hardest-working players.
General manager David Poile said on Friday after the team signed four forwards that the organization helps will provide a course correction that last season something went awry.
“We all feel we lost a little bit of the — not hard work — but hardness,” Poile said. “We lost a little bit along the way. We got it back today.”
Two of the forwards — 27-year-old right wing Viktor Stalberg, formerly of Stanley Cup champion Chicago, and 36-year-old center Matt Cullen, late of Minnesota — were brought in to provide offense. The other two, left wing/center Matt Hendricks, who played his last three seasons with Washington, and right wing Eric Nystrom, most recently with Dallas, were brought in for grit, character and toughness.
Not only do the Predators hope that Nystrom and Hendricks can help to bring back a physical style — Hendricks led Washington in penalty minutes last season — but they want them to provide examples to the team’s young players, 2013 fourth overall pick Seth Jones and center Filip Forsberg, a 2012 first-rounder, among others.
Coach Barry Trotz said when key players got hurt last season “there wasn’t an entertainment tax coming into Bridgestone Arena” that the Predators forced opposing teams to pay. The idea is that the veterans will protect the younger players — with their fists, if necessary.
“That’s we want,” he said. “Not only for our fans but for our organizational culture and the development of young guys. You need those veteran guys.”
Nashville was the lowest-scoring team in the NHL last season. By signing Cullen, a 25-goal scorer with Carolina when it won the Cup in 2006, and Stalberg, they believe they have added two forwards to their top two lines. Cullen said he thinks last season was his best since ’05-’06 and that physically he feels great.
Stalberg is an interesting case. Poile said Chicago has among the most talented forwards in the league and Stalberg, a former 22-goal scorer, played a third-line role behind Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, two of the best in the league at that position. As also happened after Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks were forced to jettison good players.
Forward Dustin Byfuglien became an All-Star defenseman in Atlanta in 2011 and center Andrew Ladd, whose previous career high in goals was 17, scored 29 in 2010-11 with the Thrashers and then 28 the following season when the team moved to Winnipeg.
The hope is that the same happens with Stalberg.
By adding so much depth, the Predators are hoping other forces will take effect, as well. First is that so much competition will force, as Poile said, “the cream to rise to the top.” Players like Taylor Beck, who had seven points in 16 games last season with the Predators, and Craig Smith, who woefully underperformed before shining at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, will have to produce to earn time.
Another factor is that while the Predators might not have added one of the biggest name scorers like David Clarkson (signed by Toronto) or Nathan Horton (signed by Columbus), they will try to win with scoring depth. Poile said he thought the team was as strong as it ever has been at center with Cullen, Mike Fisher, David Legwand and Paul Gaustad. Legwand, at times the team’s top center in recent seasons, could play a third-line role next season along with Forsberg and possibly Nick Spaling, who is coming off a break-out offensive season. The hope is that creates mismatches against opposing teams — the kind of strategy that Eastern Conference champion Boston exploited with great success in the playoffs by having its fourth line become one of its most potent.
Lastly, Trotz talked about the increased depth giving Nashville more “assets.” To the point: if Smith or Beck or Forsberg or Rich Clune cannot earn a roster spot, then it gives Nashville a potential chip to trade and improve another area.
“We want players to be held responsible coming into camp,” Poile said.
The hope is that with the character of the veterans they just brought in, the players will hold each other accountable. Nystrom has yet to win much in the NHL, but his father Bobby Nystrom was a similar character player who the Stanley Cup four times with the New York Islanders.
“Obviously, they’ve been consistently a very good hockey team but had a bit of an off year this year,” Eric Nystrom said of his new franchise. “I want to help get them back to where the team was the previous years. I think that’s why they added the guys they did to because I think we can help get back them to that point. … I think that will really help the team get back to where everybody wants to be.”
And they’ll do it by staying true to their identity.