Nick Spaling probably did not need to get in a fight the franchise that traded for him roughly a month ago.
It made sense, therefore, that the former Nashville Predators forward avoided arbitration Thursday when he agreed to a two-year, $4.4 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The $2.2 million annual salary is twice what he made with Nashville in 2012-13. He earned $1.5 million last season on a one-year deal.
Oddly, on a team with as much star power as any, he is now the sixth highest paid forward and one of only six signed beyond the coming season.
“To me, it seems like a fair deal,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “We really like Nick. We know he's going to play a good role.
“… He's coming out of a role and a system where it was more of a defensive system. Now, he's going to go into a new system that could give him an opportunity to put more points up.”
Spaling, 25, set career-highs with 13 goals, 19 assists and 32 points last season. Nashville drafted him in second round (58th overall) in 2007 and traded him, along with Patric Hornqvist, to Pittsburgh on June 27 for left wing James Neal.
As far as Plan Bs go the Nashville Predators could have done a lot worse than James Neal.
Their new first-line left wing is a rugged 6-foot-2, 208-pound sniper whose shot is regarded as one of the game’s best. He also is signed through 2017-18 at $5 million per season, an unquestionably reasonable rate for a player who has and – given that he’ll be 27 at the start of the season – might again average a point per game for an entire season.
Of course to get him general manager David Poile traded forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh. Two days removed from the deal he felt better than he did in the moments that led to it.
“I told [Pittsburgh general manager] Jim Rutherford, ‘I’m getting nervous about this trade,” Poile said Sunday. “I think when you get there you’re at the point where you know it’s good for both teams. It was certainly, in our minds, a trade for a top forward. He’s a natural goal scorer. … He is strong on the power play. He’s got a great release. He’s got a great one-timer. Basically, he provides a dimension we have lacked here with the Predators.”
No team generated more headlines during the National Hockey League’s draft weekend than the Predators, who made news because of who they got in a trade (Neal) and who they did not get (Ottawa center Jason Spezza).
Poile declined to address specific questions, but what he did say on the subject gave the overwhelming impression that Neal and Spezza were an either/or proposition and not a swing for the fences that ended up a ground-rule double.
Senators general manager Bryan Murray wanted to deal Spezza, the second overall pick in 2001, but was unable to do so. He told reporters at the draft in Philadelphia that he had an acceptable offer from Nashville but Spezza, who has a limited no-trade clause in his contract, refused to sign off on the move.
“I don’t want to say what we did or didn’t do,” Poile said. “Bryan Murray said what he said. All I’m going to say publicly is we called and we were told by Ottawa and his agent that he did not want to go to Nashville.”
He refused to offer any details about whether Hornqvist and/or Spaling were included in that offer, although it seems virtually certain that they were. He conceded only that those discussions took place “way before” draft weekend, when the Predators finally settled on and, in a manner of speaking, settled for Neal.
As recently as 2011-12, Neal averaged a point per game when he had 40 goals and 41 assists in 80 games for the Predators. In 413 games with Dallas and Pittsburgh he has 315 points (161 goals, 154 assists) in 413 contests.
“My vision is that at some point we will get a top center,” Poile said. “We’re trying to get top six forwards. I believe that Neal is a top three forward. I’m open-minded to when you have the opportunity to get one of these guys to be able to do it. I was very happy I was able to do it because it didn’t disrupt our defense and it didn’t take away our first pick.
“… I think James Neal dramatically changes the look of our forward roster.”
Even if he is a different guy than the one they initially envisioned doing so.
Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over the Calgary Flames was an example of just what the Nashville Predators always have professed to be – a team built through the draft.
Three of the four goals and all eight assists came from homegrown draft picks. And for the most part they were early selections.
The eight point producers included the first pick in franchise history, David Legwand, and the most recent first-round selection, Seth Jones. Seven of them were first or second-round selections, a.k.a. the rounds in which teams are supposed to find NHL players.
The breakdown of Tuesday’s points from draft picks:
David Legwand (1998) – three assists
Ryan Ellis (2009) – one goal, one assist
Seth Jones (2013) – one assist
Shea Weber (2003) – one goal
Kevin Klein (2003) – one assist
Roman Josi (2008) – one assist
Nick Spaling (2007) – one assist
Craig Smith (2009) – one goal
The lone exception was the third-period goal from free agent left wing Viktor Stalberg, which extended the lead to 4-1 with 9:08 to play.
Stalberg was one of four free agent forwards Nashville signed during the offseason when franchise officials overcompensated for one terrible, injury-riddled, lockout-shortened season. All four signed for multiple seasons – three of them for four seasons each – and delayed indefinitely the NHL arrival of more high draft picks such as Austin Watson (first round, 2010), Zach Budish (second round, 2009), Taylor Beck (third round, 2009) and Miikka Salomaki (second round, 2011), all currently among the leading scorers at Milwaukee.
The Predators’ aim always has been to build through the draft. Tuesday’s triumph was reason to wonder why they felt the need last summer to rebuild through free agency.
Nick Spaling probably would not have felt bad had the puck gone in off of him. After all, it took him 50 games before he scored his first NHL goal.
Pretty much all of the other Nashville Predators likely would have been disappointed, however, had their second goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over San Jose been credited to anyone other than defenseman Mattias Ekholm.
“We were just hoping [Spaling] didn’t tip it,” defenseman Kevin Klein said. “He kind of celebrated hard. It was great to see [Ekholm] get his first one. He got the puck and everything.
“That first one is the hardest and then they’ll come more [often].”
Ekholm, a fourth-round pick in 2009, was playing his 32nd career NHL contest – all but three of which have come this season. He became the 19th different player to score for the Predators in 2013-14 and left Victor Bartley, 54 games into his career and still seeking his first, as Nashville’s only regular player who has yet to score this season.
Not only was the goal a long-time coming, it could not have come at a better time for Ekholm, who 1:05 earlier had been sent to the penalty box for delay of game. San Jose scored on the ensuing power play and tied the score 1-1.
Ekholm broke the tie and – more importantly – put the Predators ahead to stay for good just 27 seconds later.
“That’s huge,” Ekholm said. “I dug myself a little bit of a hole there, taking a bad penalty. Just bouncing back after that to score a goal is pretty nice.
“… I thought [Spaling] had tipped it at first, but it was nice that it went in. It’s always special to score a goal in the National Hockey League. I always wanted to get it … [and] it’s a special feeling right now.”
The Detroit Red Wings taught the Nashville Predators a lot of lessons during the years those teams were Central Division rivals. Many of them were painful.
Nashville’s 6-4 victory Monday at Bridgestone Arena in the season’s only appearance by the Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, was joyous to be sure but it too was instructional.
What everyone ought to take away from that contest is that when – make that ‘if’ – Pekka Rinne returns this season, expectations for his play ought to be remain realistic.
It is not easy to settle in between the pipes of an NHL net and stop everything that comes your way when you haven’t done it in a while. Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard proved that point indisputably when he allowed five goals to the Predators in his first appearance since Dec. 10. He missed the last eight games with a knee injury.
“You never know, sometimes the first game [a goalie is] really good and maybe not so good the second game,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Of course, sometimes they are not so good the first game. But we are fortunate; some of the goals we scored were pretty nice goals. Howard made some good saves, and I thought he got better as the game went on.”
Howard is unquestionably one of the best goalies in the league, a winner of 35 games or more in all three of his full NHL seasons. Reports this week are that he will be included on the roster for the United States Olympic team when it’s announced Wednesday.
“It’s not like it was the first time he put on pads,” Nashville forward Craig Smith said. “I’m sure he’s been on the ice in practice and getting ready to go, but game time’s a bit different. He’s a good goaltender so he can react and come back with something like that and be just as good.”
He was far from his best on this night, though.
Nashville started the night averaging fewer goals than all but four teams yet scored early and often. Smith, Colin Wilson and Nick Spaling all found the back of the net with shots from a normally comfortable range with little or no traffic in front.
“To be honest with you, I felt like I was behind the play a lot and just didn’t get comfortable,” Howard said. “When I thought I was on the angles, I was off the angles. It’s just one of those things, but you try to use it to get yourself going. … Let’s be honest – whenever you score four goals you should win, so the guys definitely deserved better.”
Rinne has been out more than two months with a staph infection in his hip and there is no indication that he will be back in the nets anytime soon. He still needs the help of a couple canes to get around and his scheduled return to off-ice conditioning has been delayed.
Eventually the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist will play again and the expectation is that he immediately will make the Predators a better team.
Now everyone should be clear about the fact that it will take a little longer than that – just another bit of information doled out by Detroit.
Filip Forsberg might not have known that he was about to be sent to Milwaukee.
Anyone who has watched the Nashville Predators for any point of time could have seen it coming, though. The team announced Thursday that Forsberg, a 19-year-old forward, was reassigned to the franchise’s AHL affiliate and Taylor Beck was recalled to take his place.
Forsberg’s playing time dipped significantly the last two games – 5:07 Saturday at Los Angeles and 6:42 Wednesday at Colorado. From there, the next stop always is Milwaukee.
Franchise officials and coaches mentioned Forsberg throughout the offseason as a top offensive prospect and a player likely to make the jump directly to the NHL in his first full season in North America. Right on cue, he scored a goal in his first game (he missed the first two with an injury).
He got regular playing time for two weeks then was scratched twice in a little more than a week, the second last Thursday at Phoenix. Although back in the lineup the last two games, he did not spend much time on the ice.
No doubt coaches are more focused on his team-worst minus-8 rating than his four power play points (tied for third on the team).
Milwaukee has three games in three days beginning Friday so the opportunity exists for him to get a lot of playing time in short order. After that, coaches and the personnel department can reevaluate the situation.
It’s likely the return trip won’t come that quickly, though.
Colin Wilson had just a goal and an assist in his first 10 games back in 2009-10. His ice time dipped to a then-low 9:45 in the last of those contests and at the start of November he was shipped off to Milwaukee, where he stayed for more than three full months.
Patric Hornqvist’s rookie season started with 14 games in which he played more than 10 minutes, followed by just 7:46 of work on Nov. 7 and then a trip to Milwaukee that lasted three months.
Nick Spaling did not start the 2009-10 season with Nashville but got the call in mid-December. Before long, he topped 10 minutes of ice time in nine out of 10 contests. His then-career-high 14:34 came in late January but two games later he fell to 9:52 then 7:17. With that he was back in Milwaukee for two months.
Craig Smith made it through his rookie season without being banished but went down for two weeks last year after a mere 7:40 of ice time in a game at Columbus.
Forsberg will be back. That much is as predictable as his demotion.
Based on his recent playing time, though, it’s likely it will take a little longer than just this weekend for him to get here.
Barry Trotz has decisions to make with his forwards.
The Nashville Predators coach has to sit as many as two for each game and lately his choices have emphasized defensive reliability over offensive potential.
In the last week he scratched both Filip Forsberg, the team’s most skilled youngster, and Viktor Stalberg, Nashville’s most high-profile free agent. Forsberg sat out last Tuesday’s loss at Minnesota and Stalberg was not in the lineup Thursday or Saturday against Winnipeg and St. Louis, respectively.
Those moves were curious given that Nashville is the only Western Conference team that currently averages fewer than two goals per game.
“It’s sort of a game-to-game basis,” Trotz said. “Some guys are playing well and some guys are playing not so well. Some guys are producing better than other guys are.
“… We need our forwards to convert. … We need a little more production from our forwards. When we get a chance, we have to convert.”
It might help if he sticks with those who have the best chance to convert.
Through the Predators’ first 12 games, six forwards have been in and out of the lineup either because of injury or coaches’ decision and already there looks to be a direct correlation between which ones play and how the team does on the scoreboard.
Gabriel Bourque – 1 game missed
Record without him: 0-1-0
Goals per game without him: 0.00
Filip Forsberg – 3 games missed
Record without him: 0-3-0
Goals per game without him: 1.00
Viktor Stalberg – 6 games missed
Record without him: 2-4-0
Goals per game without him: 1.67
Mike Fisher – 3 games missed
Record without him: 2-1-0
Goals per game without him: 1.67
Rich Clune – 7 games missed
Record without him: 5-1-1
Goals per game without him: 2.43
Nick Spaling – 4 games missed
Record without him: 3-0-1
Goals per game without him: 2.75
In short, Nashville has been much less productive when offensive-minded guys like Forsberg and/or Stalberg have been on the bench.
Both were injured for the first two games and, not surprisingly, the Predators started 0-2-0. In three contests last week one was on the bench was because the coaches put them there. Nashville won once in three games and was outscored 10-4.
Stalberg’s four-year, $12 million contract was the biggest among this season’s free agent additions and was proffered with the idea that he would play an offensive role. Yet his average ice time has been 11:20 overall (second lowest among all Nashville players) and 25 seconds on the power play – the most offensive of situations.
Forsberg, conversely, has gotten his fair share of power play time and the results speak for themselves. The Predators have six power play goals and the rookie has had a hand in four of them (one goal, three assists).
Nashville’s record with at least one power play goal is 5-0-0. Without, it’s 1-5-1.
All in all, the choice -- or choices -- seems clear.
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