With Gill on waivers, Preds clearing space on defense

When the Nashville Predators acquired long-time NHL defenseman Hal Gill in February 2012, they did so almost as a luxury item for what they hoped would be a length Stanley Cup Playoff run. 

General manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz expected the 6-foot-7 Gill would take some “hard minutes” off of their pair of All-Star defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter by killing penalties, Gill’s specialty. 

Jump ahead almost 17 months later and add in the factors that have intervened since Nashville traded for him and it appears that Gill is no longer a luxury that the Predators can afford. The Predators placed Gill on waivers on Tuesday. If the 38-year-old and his $2-million salary go unclaimed, the Predators will have some decisions to make. With free agency set to start on Friday, Gill’s situation adds to the moves the Preds might have to make in the coming the days. 

Speaking to the media on Tuesday evening, Poile said he has no idea what to expect as to whether another team will claim Gill. The overriding factor that led the organization to the decision came when defenseman Seth Jones, the top-rated player in the NHL Draft, fell to them at No. 4. With the Predators’ having already made the decision to slate three young defensemen on the roster — Victor Bartley, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis — the pick of Jones forced their hand.

Poile said “in all likelihood” Jones will be on the team next season, an unforeseen circumstance prior to Sunday. With Weber, Roman Josi and Kevin Klein already on the roster, Gill became the eighth man out, so to speak. 

Through his Twitter account, Gill often pokes fun of himself, at times posting photos of a stationary cone or referring to himself as a pylon, all of which served to make light of his lack of mobility. 

At 243 pounds, his combination of height and weight very possibly make him the second-largest skater in the league to Boston’s Zdeno Chara, who ranks among the league’s top defensemen. Add in his age and Gill’s mobility must have rendered him a liability in the eyes of the Predators’ management, especially after a subpar 2012-13 season during which he missed a third of the season because of injury and the coaching staff’s decision to scratch him on occasion. Gill averaged 13:23 per game last season, 23rd of 32 skaters on the team and an extremely low average for a defenseman. 

So much of a defenseman’s value these days depends on his skating ability — the Predators, who are known for developing defensemen, tend to prize that skill above others — and that obviously weighed against Gill, especially when compared to prospects that the organization values like Ellis and Ekholm, who are both highly mobile. Aside from penalty killing, Gill’s best assets are his shot-blocking ability and his leadership, which could be missed on such a young team. Nonetheless, it’s harder for young players to respect a veteran’s words when they are coming from someone whose ice time continues to dwindle. 

Poile said he is not worried about a potential lack of experience on the Predators’ back line next season. Ellis, 22, has played 64 games in the league, plus three playoff games, while Ekholm, 23, has played three games over two seasons. Bartley, 25, acquitted himself quite well in 24 games last season, the only games he has played in the league. Even Josi, who is 23, has played but 100 games in his two seasons.

That means the Predators could enter next season with four of their six defenseman having played 100 games or less in the NHL. 

“Good players are good players,” Poile said. “I’m not trying to discount experience but I feel pretty good about that.” 

Added assistant general manager Paul Fenton of Ellis and Ekholm, “We certainly believe they’re going to be a big part of our roster.” 

When it comes to free agency, Poile said the team’s “primary goal” will be to add a forward or two. The Predators remain in negotiations with restricted free agent center Nick Spaling, whose rights they already have retained, but have decided not to make qualifying offers to wing Matt Halischuk and defenseman Jon Blum, a former first-round pick. Poile said he is trying to get some return for the latter two players, whose rights the Preds no longer will retain as of Friday. 

When he spoke to the media on Tuesday, Poile also said he no clarity on the situation of left wing Sergei Kostitsyn, who led the team in goals and points in 2010-11. Kostitsyn has been negotiating with a team in Russia’s KHL and the Predators are considering allowing him to play on loan. On Wednesday, Bob MacKenzie of TSN reported that Nashville had placed Kostitsyn on unconditional waivers, possibly for the purpose of mutually terminating his contract.

Kostitsyn has one year remaining on his deal that is set to pay him $3 million in the coming season. That could add considerably to the amount the Predators have to spend in free agency.

One tempting player would be New Jersey right wing David Clarkson, 29, who scored 30 goals in 2011-12, as the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. He added a strong 15 in 48 games last season for a team that plays a somewhat similar system to Nashville’s, which could make for a good fit. 

If the Predators want goal-scoring, the mercurial Michael Ryder could be another possibility. Ryder, 33, has hit the 30-goal plateau three times and scored 27 another time; however, his totals also have dipped as low as 14 goals in 2007-08. Ryder also scored eight goals in 25 playoff games with Boston when it won the Stanley Cup in ’11 and totaled 16 goals last season between Montreal and Dallas. 

Poile said he wants to get the “best forward we can get” but does not want to overpay. He said he is looking for “certain characteristics” – most likely a team-oriented player willing to play Nashville’s style. 

Nashville also needs a back-up goalie, as Chris Mason will not return, Poile said. One possibility is long-time NHLer Johan Hedberg, who has played most recently with New Jersey. Hedberg remains under contract for $1.4 million but after the Devils acquired Cory Schneider from Vancouver, the Devils will need to move him.