NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After finishing at the bottom of the NHL in offense last year — scoring just 2.27 goals per game — David Poile made an uncharacteristically strong effort during free agency to bring new offensive talent to the Nashville Predators. And while preseason performances must be taken with a grain of salt, it appears the additions of forwards Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks have gone a long way towards getting this team back to the efficient, hard-nosed brand of hockey it loves to play.
“We’ve changed our mentality to be grittier and more difficult to play against than we were last year,” Colin Wilson said after Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Tampa. “We now have enough players who can get the puck to the net and get their bodies in front of the net, and that’s how we’re going to score and win hockey games.”
Poile’s mentality going into the summer wasn’t to ink an elite goal-scorer; he knew the odds of landing one were thin at best. As Nystrom pointed out to us earlier in the month, there are only so many All Stars out there for the taking.
Instead, the veteran GM wanted to get his team back to “Predator Hockey,” which, in its most basic sense, can be defined as being hard to play against.
“When we play easy, it makes it harder on us,” said Barry Trotz. “Let’s not trade chances with [the opponent]; let’s grind it out, wear their D down and get the pucks to the net. We are going to force them to fight for their ice, and that’s a hard way to play.”
“The coaches and Poile in their interviews after the draft, they said they wanted to add a bit of grit up top in the forward lines, and adding that allows us to get more offensive, surprisingly,” Wilson added. “These new guys, they give us the chance to play the way we wanted to play last year, but couldn’t.
“All of our lines try to control the puck down low, and we’re doing a much better job of that now than last season.”
Wilson, who’s spent much of the preseason alongside Cullen and Stalberg, figures to be one of the biggest benefactors of Poile’s active summer. As he looks to have himself a breakout year in 2013-14, he now finds himself surrounded by the quality line-mates he deserves.
“I think that line with myself and [Cullen and Stalberg] has the potential to be great,” he said. “We all compliment each other well.
“Stalberg has a great shot, and as someone who likes to pass, it will be great to have him to look to. And Cullen, he’s got great vision. He’s always holding onto the puck, which I love. We’re starting to feed off each other and the chemistry is definitely there.”
The quartet of newcomers may not be the most offensively-gifted bunch in the league, but their overall skill sets fit nicely into Trotz’s system. Cullen brings play-making ability to the table that was very much absent last year; Stalberg will put lots of pucks on net, which should help Nashville improve upon its league-worst 25.9 S/G figure; and Nystrom and Hendricks should be the kind of smart, intimidating enforcers Trotz likes to deploy.
Cullen and Hendricks had notable games on Tuesday, each doing wonders for the Preds’ possession numbers. The lines of Cullen-Wilson-Hornqvist and Clune-Gaustad-Hendricks were Nashville’s two best versus the Lightning, and their success stemmed from the way they cycled in the offensive zone, particularly in corners and behind the goal line.
Part of what makes the Clune-Gaustad-Hendricks trio so good is the fact that it combines two enforcers on the same line. And while Clue and Hendricks are more than willing to drop the mitts when necessary, their strong forechecking and work in the dirty areas of the rink are what will make them valuable 2013-14.
“Two enforcers is always better than one,” Clune said. “I’ve never played with a guy similar to me. Teams have always felt that enforcers should be separated; but the trend now is to have two, three or four guys who are going to be physical like that on the ice at the same time. He can skate down low, he can hit, he has legs like a telephone pole — and I’m going to listen and soak up as much info from him as I can.”
“The Gaustad line did a great job with puck possession,” Trotz said after Tuesday’s victory. “They’re going to wear people down, they’re going to draw penalties, they’re going to create a lot of mismatches because they’re all intelligent players who can really battle.”
According to Clune, Nashville’s staff has the team steering clear of up-and-down hockey — or, as he calls it, “track meets” — and instead focusing on out-working opponents with their superior conditioning and size. This was evident against the Bolts, as the Preds were able to use their muscle to dictate the pace and rhythm of the game.
“Toughness comes in a lot of ways,” said Clune. “It’s tougher to play down low in the corners than fight; it’s tougher to take cross checks off the back and control the puck than it is to throw a punch — and these new guys, they can all do these things for us.
“You saw it on full display tonight, and you’re going to see it a lot this year.”