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Home 2013 Off-season Identity, ‘swagger’ rediscovered in free agency

Identity, ‘swagger’ rediscovered in free agency

The Nashville Predators had an identity crisis last season. Before the injuries piled up, they had zero consistency. A depleted roster late in the season had trouble scoring goals. At no point during the 2012-13 campaign did the Predators establish their identity – a.k.a. Predator Hockey – that has won them more games than they’ve lost over the last decade.

The team finished tied for last in the NHL in goals scored and traded away Martin Erat at the trade deadline. As a result, the Predators stated their desire at season’s end to become more “dynamic” offensively in the off-season. Those plans changed a bit when they selected defenseman Seth Jones with the No. 4 overall pick at last month’s NHL Draft.

“Drafting a defensemen means we didn’t get a high-end forward,” as general manager David Poile put it simply. Leading up to the draft, the Predators expected to leave New Jersey with a forward – because they never expected Jones to be available to them. Poile mentioned that adding Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg via free agency made up for not getting that forward in the draft.

As much as boosting the offense was a priority, the Predators didn’t stray from fulfilling their other need: “Hardness,” as Poile likes to call it.

“We wanted to regain our identity, the identity of Predators Hockey,” the longtime general manager stated. “I demanded from myself and others that we were going to make some changes and some improvements and this is the plan we carried out.”

Barry Trotz-coached teams have always prided themselves on out-working the opposition and being hard to play against – from the first-line producers to the fourth-line grinders. Neither of those attributes were prevalent last season.

To address that area of need, the Predators signed veteran forwards Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom to four-year deals. The addition of those two players beefs up the forward corps and will make the Predators harder to play against. Both Hendricks and Nystrom will make the opposition feel their presence every time they hit the ice. And between those two and Rich Clune, the Predators won’t be pushed around.

“I wasn’t too happy last year at times, especially when certain people went down [to injury]. There wasn’t an entertainment tax coming into Bridgestone Arena. I think we addressed those needs,” Trotz said. “There’s going to be a little bit of an entertainment tax if you are the visiting team. It’s going to be a little harder to come in here and that’s what we want.”

When you think back just 15 months, the Predators had an identity and a swagger and it frustrated Detroit to no end – so much so that Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock praised Nashville after being eliminated in five first-round games.

“I thought their depth up front was better than our depth up front – especially their third and fourth lines,” Babcock said after Game 5. “I liked it better when they had them all on two lines but when they put them on three lines, because they can do that – they had us in trouble big time there on the matchup.”

That Predators team that ousted rival Detroit had supreme depth at forward. They essentially had 15 NHL forwards and were forced to scratch one line every night in the playoffs. They were built to make a deep playoff run because of that depth.

In addition to beating Detroit, the playoff teams in 2010 and 2011 likely most resemble what the 2013-14 Predators will look like: a team that will win games with responsible two-way play, heart, tenacity and depth – a.k.a. Predator Hockey.

Somewhere between the Detroit series and the beginning of 2012-13, though, they lost that depth and lost their swagger.

The subtractions of Ryan Suter, Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn impacted the offense. Roman Josi replaced Suter, but no one replaced Josi. Most of the veteran forwards vastly underachieved last season. And of course, once the injury bug struck it just didn’t go away.

With the 2012-13 campaign a thing of the past, Poile and Trotz worked hard in free agency to reestablish the club’s Predator Hockey identity. They got as much external help as they could get, signing Cullen, Stalberg, Hendricks and Nystrom in a matter of hours.

Assuming the roster remains the same between now and training camp, there will be heavy competition at forward heading into the season. Many will be fighting for ice time, others will just be trying to cling on to a roster spot. The holdovers will be looking to bounce back, while the newbies will be looking to make an immediate statement.

It’s going to be a hungry group of Predators in 2013-14 – and that’s just fine with the ones calling the shots.

“I feel that we’re so much better off in terms of our depth and the competition and our players better be hungrier. They’ll be here or in the minors, so from that standpoint I have to believe we’re better off,” Poile said.

The Predators still lack the one thing they’ve always missed – a goal-scorer. Until they get one, this is not your typical ‘Stanley Cup contender’. The endless search goes on.

However, it is for sure a playoff contender. This summer the Predators have added Cup-winning experience, character and leadership – and all will play a role in helping the Predators recapture their identity.

“We got bigger, we got faster,” Trotz said, “and I think we are going to have our swagger.”

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