Viktor Stalberg era likely over in Nashville

By Jim Diamond

Flash back to the summer of 2013. Coming off of a miserable lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Nashville Predators went on a spending spree on July 5th, the first day of free agency.

The most repeated phrase that day was, “The Predators paid how much? For who?” Nashville raised the white flag on one of those signees Thursday when they put forward Viktor Stalberg on waivers.

Forwards Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, and Eric Nystrom were all inked to multi-year deals in an effort to change Nashville’s low goal totals as well as collect the “entertainment tax” then head coach Barry Trotz wanted opponents to pay when they entered Bridgestone Arena.

“A couple of injuries early in the season have prevented this from being the season Viktor trained all summer for,” General Manager David Poile said in a release.  “He has worked hard to return to the lineup. With Paul Gaustad and Taylor Beck day-to-day and still on our 23-man roster, the best option for Viktor and the organization at this time is to place Viktor on waivers with the hope that he will clear, go to Milwaukee to play games and continue his efforts to be ready for NHL game action.”

Not to put words in Poile’s mouth, but I’m pretty sure what he REALLY hopes is that one of the league’s 29 other teams rushes to their fax machine and sends in a waiver claim on Stalberg.

Stalberg is in the second year of a four-year, $12 million contract. Coming in as a free agent after his time with the Chicago Blackhawks, it was thought that Stalberg just needed an opportunity to crack the top two lines of a team in order for his offensive numbers to take off. Heck, he was just a season removed from scoring 22 with the Blackhawks in 2011-12.

Poile took a shot. Stalberg did look like a guy who just needed some ice time, but it didn’t work out for him.

Even with forwards just a shade less talented than Chicago’s, Stalberg couldn’t make the top six in Nashville. He had just eight goals and 10 assists in 70 games played last season. Injuries and players who are better than he is have troubled Stalberg this season. The injuries will heal, but the fact that there are many ahead of him on the depth chart will not.

Poile was somehow able to unload Hendricks’ four-year deal last January when he sent the rugged winger off to Edmonton in exchange for goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk was terrible in his brief shot in Nashville, but moving Hendricks in that deal should have given Poile consideration for general manager of the year.

There is little to no chance of another team taking Stalberg’s contract off of Poile’s hands. And by little to no, it is really no to no chance. The official word of his clearing waivers will come Friday at 11 am CT.

When he clears, he will officially be assigned to Milwaukee. There is a Catch 22 associated with that move. He could find his game down there and become attractive to another team, but the problem with that course of action is that if he is put in the Admirals’ lineup, he will be taking ice time away from prospects.

The most ideal situation for all would be if Stalberg does find a spark in the AHL and Poile is able to find a trading partner for him. That will be a tall task even with the Predators able to absorb some of the remaining money on that contract.

As far as dollars and cents are concerned, Stalberg is due $3.5 million in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. His cap hit is $3 million for each of the contract’s seasons.

In all likelihood, Stalberg ends up in Milwaukee for the rest of the season and the final two years on his contract are bought out next summer. 

Eric Nystrom pumps his fist in celebration of his goal. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Eric Nystrom has eventful two shifts at the end of the first period Thursday

By Jim Diamond

Late in the first period of Thursday night’s game against St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators center Mike Ribeiro was sent off for a hooking penalty at 16:53. As is custom, Eric Nystrom was one of the forwards who got the tap on the shoulder to go out and start the penalty kill. One difference was that Paul Gaustad, Nystrom’s normal penalty killing compadre, was not out there with him due to the fact that Gaustad was scratched because of a lower-body injury. Mike Fisher joined Nystrom for the start of the penalty kill.

Things got hairy quickly for Nystrom early in that kill after his stick was broken after blocking an Alexader Steen shot and drifted harmlessly into the neutral zone. He was stuck out there sans twig, as heading to the bench for a change or a replacement stick with the puck in the defensive zone would have been akin to giving the Blues a 5-on-3 advantage.

“You’re just useless once you have no stick on a penalty kill, you’re just trying to get in the way out there,” Nystrom said. “Earlier in the season, I went to the bench to grab a stick and the guy went back door and ended up scoring. We decided it was probably best just have a body in the way out there. I battled it out. It was tiring.”

So Nystrom did what he could in trying to fill the passing and shooting lanes tried to make himself as big as he could.

“Lucky it was him, he’s one of our veteran PK players and kills a lot of penalties,” Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “That was one of the key kills in the game and overall, I thought that we did a really good job on PK.”

Later in the long 1:26 shift, Nystrom was able to chase down the puck near the left boards before clearing it just over the blue line with a jai alai type move with his glove. Soon thereafter, he was able to change and the penalty was over not long after that.

“Right at the end of the penalty kill and get it out,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought he had a good game. Mike Fisher and Ny did a good job, penalty killers in general.”

After a brief rest, Nystrom’s name was called again, this time for a shift at even strength. It wasn’t nearly as long as his previous one, but it ended with him scoring Nashville’s second goal of the game, and it was the kind of goal that brings a smile to a coach’s face.

Let’s look at the photos:

Eric Nystrom open for a pass. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Eric Nystrom open for a pass. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Fresh out of the penalty box, Ribeiro has the puck on the left boards, so Nystrom goes to an open space and gets into a good shooting position with his head up, shoulders square to the passer, and his stick ready for a one-timer.

“He’s such a good passer that he just put it right in my wheelhouse and I shot it as quick as I could and got lucky,” Nystrom said.

Eric Nystrom gets off a shot from the slot. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Eric Nystrom gets off a shot from the slot. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Vladimir Tarasenko tries to close the gap on Nystrom, but he’s too late and the puck is already en route toward Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur, and yes, it’s weird writing that.

Eric Nystrom absorbs a hit from Vladimir Tarasenko (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Eric Nystrom absorbs a hit from Vladimir Tarasenko (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Tarasenko continues on and finishes the hit, knocking Nystrom to the Bridgestone Arena ice. Nystrom takes a hit to make a play.

“I didn’t even feel it,” Nystrom said. “When you know they go in, you don’t really even think about that.”

Eric Nystrom pumps his fist in celebration of his goal. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Eric Nystrom pumps his fist in celebration of his goal. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

While still on a knee, Nystrom gives a subtle fist pump in celebration of his fifth goal of the season.

The Predators celebrate Eric Nystrom's goal. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

The Predators celebrate Eric Nystrom’s goal. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

And then there was much rejoicing with friends.

Wild Turkey (Jim Diamond)

Favorite Thanksgiving foods of some U.S.-born Predators

By Jim Diamond

On the eve of Thanksgiving in the United States, many will gather around the dinner table Thursday to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. With a Thursday evening game against the Edmonton Oilers on the schedule, it is a workday for the Nashville Predators, so a gigantic feast and an L-tryptophan induced sleep is not in the cards for the players.

When asked about their traditional Thanksgiving routines, many of the American-born Predators said that when they were growing up, they were often away from home playing in hockey tournaments this time of year, so it was difficult to develop many family traditions revolving around Thanksgiving. For Seth Jones and Eric Nystrom, their fathers being professional athletes made getting together for turkey on the assigned day that much more of a challenge.

“It was pretty tough, but we tried to sit down as a family,” Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, said. “It’s not like an overwhelming meal, but we tried to sit down and have a nice family dinner together.”

“There’s not too many Thanksgivings that I can say that I have spent with the family,” Nystrom said. “The whole family goes to Florida for the holidays, so there is no way I was going to get them to come to some of the places I have played around the holidays. They FaceTime me, so that is nice.”

Despite the fact that their Thanksgiving routines may differ from the general populace, several of the American Predators weighed in on their favorite Thanksgiving food items.

Jones: “I would probably say the sweet potatoes. You put some marshmallows and brown sugar on top, makes it a little better.”

Nystrom: “I go for the dark meat turkey, straight for it. Protein all day. My mom makes a great apple crisp that’s amazing that I always dive face-first into. Maybe she will send me the recipe and I will make it this year. Just small portions though. I like to push away before I get to the point where I feel like I am going to explode.”

Matt Cullen: “I was a huge fan of the stuffing. When I was a kid, I used to eat it until I was sick. I do love it. I used to love Thanksgiving, I still do. We used to have huge meals. We play on Thanksgiving Day, so we always have to adjust our schedules a little bit. It’s a little bit of a challenge with the travel and everything, but we make time to do it.”

Paul Gaustad:  “My wife makes the whole Thanksgiving dinner. She’s fantastic at it. Her turkey is the best. Thanksgiving is my favorite.”

Your annual quarter pole reminder

By Jim Diamond

It seems like the 2014-15 NHL season just began, but teams are starting to edge toward 20 games played on the season already, and in the case of the San Jose Sharks, they played their 21st Tuesday night in snowy Buffalo.

With a quarter of the season almost in the books, people will begin to look at the progress of the teams they cheer for or cover to date. One reference that always seems to sneak its way into these reviews will be to that of the quarter pole.

Saratoga-1

To those unfamiliar with horse racing, the quarter pole marks the point on the racetrack that signifies one quarter of a mile remaining in the race. Since horse races are of different lengths and the finish line is at a fixed point on the track, the starting point of the race is adjusted based upon the length of each particular race.

So while we encourage the use of references to the sport of kings, please save the quarter pole ones until game 61 or so. Right now, go with quarter point or quarter mark.

Stu Grimson leader in the clubhouse for simile of the year award

When Filip Forsberg struck at 7:20 of the second Saturday night, it marked his fifth goal in four games. Predators color analyst Stu Grimson punctuated the occasion nicely when he dropped this gem on the Fox Sports Tennessee telecast:

“That youngster’s hot, like a tube sock in a dryer hot.”

Shea Weber relegated to the second power play unit? It appears so.

By Jim Diamond

With their power play struggling mightily a month into the 2014-15 season, it’s no great surprise that the Predators are tinkering with their man advantage units in an attempt to inject some life into a power play unit that is clicking at just 11.1% through 12 games, ranking them 25th in the NHL entering Wednesday night’s action.

Last season, the Predators finished the season with the league’s 12th best power play at 19.2%. Even better, they did not allow a shorthanded goal against all season, the first time a team accomplished that in a full 82-game regular season.

For a team that in recent years has relied heavily on its power play to generate offense, the fact that the Predators currently sit with an impressive 7-3-2 record to this point reflects improved 5-on-5 scoring.

On their current six-game road trip, the Predators have shuffled the deck on their power play units, most evident in the players used on the points. Early on in the trip, they had just one opportunity on the man advantage in each of the first two games. They failed to score on their one in Edmonton last Wednesday, but cashed in on their one chance in Calgary Halloween night.

In their most recent two games, they had four opportunities in each game, scoring on one of the eight.

The most curious deployment of players on the point came in Nashville’s final power play Tuesday night in Winnipeg against the Jets. At 14:53 of the third and the Predators trailing 2-1 at the time, Winnipeg’s Toby Enstrom was sent off for delay of game as a result of directing the puck over the glass.

On the ensuing faceoff, Matt Cullen and Roman Josi were deployed to the points, leaving team captain Shea Weber on the bench. He did get on the ice at the end of the power play, but just three seconds before it expired though.

Despite being a forward, Cullen is not new to playing the point on the power play, but having him play 1:57 of 2:00 while keeping one of the most dangerous players in the league on the bench trailing by a goal late in the third period is odd to say the very least. The Predators were credited with one shot on goal and another three that missed the target during that power play.

After sustaining an upper-body injury in the Predators first preseason game, Cullen returned to game action at the start of the current road trip. Cullen played for and won a Stanley Cup with Laviolette when they were with the Carolina Hurricanes together.

Granted, it is a small sample size, but it appears that Weber has been dropped to the second power play unit with Ryan Ellis on the other point. Josi and Cullen were on the ice to start three of the four power plays Tuesday night, including the pivotal final one late in the third. Something is off when in eight minutes of power plays; Cullen finishes with 4:33 of ice time and Weber just 3:27. The game’s official score sheet had the Predators with just two shots on goal in their eight minutes of power play time.

In Sunday night’s win in Vancouver, Nashville had four power plays, again three of which started with Josi and Cullen on the points.

Following Tuesday’s game, Illegal Curve posted audio of Predators head coach Peter Laviolette from his post game press conference. Laviolette was asked about having Weber and Ellis together on the power play and he said, “They play power play together, it depends on where we are at with the rotation, but they are all capable, Roman, Elly, Shea, they are all capable offensively.”

Capable? Sure. But only one of those players had 12 power-play goals to lead all NHL defensemen last season – Weber, a guy most would think should be on the ice for more than three seconds of a late-game power play with his team trailing by a goal.

Many factors can contribute to what players are put out on the ice for any given situation. Who was on the ice when the penalty was called and for how long, as examples. With Nashville being the road team these last four games, they have to put their players out onto the ice before the home team, so the matchup advantage goes to the home coach. But even if you are the road team, if you have Weber at hand for a power play, that is one matchup you dictate as a coach no matter where the game is being played.

Mattias Ekholm takes down Michael Chaput. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Mattias Ekholm: Nashville’s golden puck retriever

By Jim Diamond

When David Legwand was traded to the Detroit Red Wings for forward Calle Jarnkrok and a draft pick at last season’s trade deadline, it opened up several vacancies that needed to be filled by others.

Legwand was always the second guy to skate onto the ice before the start of a game behind the Predators starting goaltender that night. Well, he stepped onto the ice behind him, but at home games, instead of skating through the gigantic Predator head, Legwand always took a hard right and started his laps that way.

Whenever the Predators were up late in a game and their opposition pulled their goaltender in favor of an extra attacker, Legwand’s penchant for scoring empty-net goals was always a favorite topic of conversation. Truth be told, guys who are on the ice in those situations have gained the trust of their coaching staff to be out there with the game on the line.

One unheralded position that Legwand held seemingly forever was one that fans had to arrive early to see. During the warmup skate, Legwand had the responsibility of being the player who would fish the pucks out of the net and get them to their proper locations during the team’s pregame warmup.

After Legwand’s departure, Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm took over the puck managing position in the warmup.

“I don’t know if someone really stepped up and wanted it, so I think it was just a decision the game after the last game he played,” Ekholm said. “I took it and had it for the last whatever games we played. Then this year, just started to do it again. It’s been working so far. I am happy doing it.”

Down the stretch of last season, Ekholm did follow the starting goaltender, but this year, the order starts with the goaltender, then comes James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Eric Nystrom, and then Ekholm appears.

Once the warmup starts, Ekholm distributes pucks to his teammates as they go through the prescribed routines of line rushes, individual rushes, and the like.

“That was Legwand’s job for a long time, so he has big shoes to fill,” Nystrom said. “He’s filled the void pretty well.”

Ekholm dutifully puts all of the pucks into the net before moving them all to the crease. Once there, he fires groups of three pucks up ice to his teammates who are spread out just above the blue line. Once the pucks are gone, he gives whichever goaltender is there a tap on the pads with his stick and then daps the same goaltender up with his glove.

When the time comes for individual rushes, he again collects the pucks and then deposits a cache of them in the right corner. As the Predators fan out across the zone, Ekholm grabs a puck and then proceeds to feed them to his teammates one by one for their mano a mano attempt at the goaltender. Ekholm either collects the rebound or takes another puck from his pile in the corner and gets it to the next guy.

“It’s kind of a little bit of a duty because people have their habits with the pucks a little bit, so you have to place them in the right direction all the time,” Ekholm said. “You have to know what you are doing there, but it is just a habit now for me and I am used to doing it.”

The players have to be awake for when it is their turn, but just like everything in hockey, Ekholm has developed a routine order that he follows. But his teammates still don’t have it down for sure just yet.

“He’s got the order,” Nystrom said. “I’m trying to figure out the order. I think he has something going on. He has a little routine going.”

All of those extra touches on the puck have had a positive effect on Ekholm, at least according to his sharp-tongued teammate anyway.

“You can tell in the game, his passing skills are looking pretty nice also,” Nystrom said with a laugh.

Laviolette had to get loud and bang on the boards to call his timeout Thursday

By Jim Diamond

Following Thursday’s morning skate, Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette mentioned that he would like to clean up some things in terms of the penalties his team took in Tuesday night’s shootout win over the Arizona Coyotes. The Predators were whistled for five penalties in the game, four of which happened in the offensive zone.

Laviolette’s team did cut down on the number of penalties Thursday night against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, with Mattias Ekholm’s holding penalty at 13:07 of the second period representing the only time the Predators were shorthanded in the game.

With Ekholm in the box, Laviolette sent out forwards Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom along with defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi. And for the next two minutes, the highly-skilled Blackhawks worked the puck around the Nashville zone. Chicago put three shots on Pekka Rinne, had two missed shots, and another two attempts blocked.

Since it was the second period, the Predators on the ice were a long way away from the team bench. And since they were unable to clear the puck, those same four skaters remained on the ice for the entirety of the power play and then some. After Ekholm was liberated, the puck remained in the Nashville zone, and the Blackhawks managed another shot on goal and another blocked attempt before the Predators were able to finally ice the puck.

“That was huge,” Nystrom said. “That was one of those shifts, they were shooting some pucks, but I thought we kept them to the outside for the most part. Anytime you get stuck out there for that length of time, it’s exhausting. The legs were burning. I’ve had worse ones than that though. Penalty killing is tiring, that’s just straight stopping and starting, but I’ve had some two minute shifts where they were really peppering. That one wasn’t the worst, but it was tough and then there was an icing, so we had to stay out there.”

The big PK ignited a loud ovation from the standing-room only Bridgestone Arena crowd, so much so that it almost hurt the team. Laviolette fully intended to use his only timeout of the game at that point, but he wanted to wait as long as possible to signal it, giving the fatigued foursome plus Ekholm some time to rest. The only problem for Laviolette was that he had trouble getting the attention of the officials.

“I was buying more time and then I couldn’t get him back, it was loud,” Laviolette said. “I didn’t want him to get too far away and then blow me off, but I was waiting to buy a little bit more time. They were tanked, so I figured any second we could get, but he didn’t look at me too long because we couldn’t change, really just kind of a gaze and went on his way and I was like ‘Oh oh,’ so we had to get him back to the bench. It was good. It was enough to get those guys a quick breath.”

Since the NHL implemented the rule that teams that ice the puck can’t change, officials rarely look to the offending team’s bench. With a raucous crowd and no officials looking toward the Nashville bench, Laviolette had to get creative, so he jumped down from his perch behind the bench and hammered on the boards with his fist loudly enough to garner the attention of someone with the authority to grant him the one timeout he had at his disposal.

Less than a minute after play resumed, fresh Predator bodies finally came onto the ice and James Neal scored his second of three goals in the game.

“It was a big kill, but for the team to respond with a goal, that feels really nice for the guys who were out there killing,” Nystrom said.

Nystrom, Gaustad, Weber, and Josi were all credited with a robust shift of 2:19 in the penalty kill plus the additional time.

Early results very positive for Mike Ribeiro

By Jim Diamond

Mike Ribeiro’s exit from Phoenix was quick and unpleasant.

Prior to last season, the talented center inked a 4-year, $22 million deal with the then Phoenix Coyotes. After just one season in the desert, the team decided to buy out the remaining years of his contract, making him a free agent.

Following the buyout, stories emerged of personal problems that manifested themselves into being professional ones, causing Ribeiro problems with the team – reportedly being late for practice, late for the team bus, and even a shouting match with team head coach Dave Tippett.

Well into the free agency period, the Predators took a chance and signed Ribeiro to a one-year deal at just north of $1 million. With everyone calling it a last chance for him, Ribeiro has taken care of his off-ice issues and so far on-ice, the team’s top center looks to be on top of his game.

Against the Coyotes Tuesday night, Ribeiro scored once and added an assist. Not expected to score a ton of goals, he is tied for the team lead in that category with three. His five points also are tied for the best on the Predators so far on the young season.

Sure his goal Tuesday night was one he freely admitted to scoring while he attempted and fanned on a pass, but when things are going right for you, pucks like that go into the net.

Nashville brought him here mostly for his playmaking ability and he did just that on James Neal’s game-tying goal at 8:03 of the third.

Former Predator Martin Erat’s power play goal just 21 seconds earlier gave Arizona a lead, but Ribeiro found Neal in the left circle with a drop pass that the sniper buried behind Arizona goaltender Devan Dubnyk, another former, albeit very briefly, Predator.

Under terms of his buyout with the Coyotes per Cap Geek, he will receive $1,944,444 per season through the 2019-20. With his $1,050,000 salary with the Predators and based on an approximately 180 day season, he receives $10,802.46 from Arizona for each in-season day and $5,833.33 from the Predators.

Asked if he felt pressure to contribute in a game in which he was being paid by both teams, Ribeiro said the thought never crossed his mind.

“Yeah, I didn’t think about that,” he said. “I’m really focused on playing games. The salary comes with the job. It’s not something I was thinking about. I’m thinking about my game more than the salary.”

Following his media availability, Ribeiro walked down the hallway from the Predators dressing room toward the one for Arizona. There he greeted some former teammates and Coyotes staffers. Soon thereafter, Tippett emerged from the Arizona room to greet Ribeiro. The two shared a warm handshake and a long conversation.

Ribeiro is just six games into his “last chance” season here in Nashville. The early returns are very positive, both on the ice, and probably more importantly, off of it as well.

All-Star Game a product of many who took a chance on Nashville

By Jim Diamond

 

When the official announcement that Nashville will host the 2016 All-Star Game was made Friday morning at Bridgestone Arena, it was the culmination of many years of gambles that many people took on the city of Nashville and on the Predators as well.

Several of those people were sitting on the dais in the newly-christened Lexus Lounge on the arena’s event level during the announcement. One of the first to speak was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who awarded Nashville a conditional franchise back in 1997.

Bettman has been the NHL’s top man since 1993, when the league consisted of 24 teams. Under his guidance, the league has expanded to 30 teams, some in markets not previously viewed as ones people would consider hockey hotbeds.

During Bettman’s tenure, teams based in warmer locales like Dallas, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Anaheim and Los Angeles, California have all won the Stanley Cup.

When he was introduced Friday, many in attendance applauded Bettman. That kind of a response was in stark contrast to the type he usually receives in many NHL cities, where boos often rain down upon the man who has overseen multiple lockouts, including one that saw an entire season cancelled.

“Don’t stop, I’m not used to that,” Bettman joked to the cheering crowd.

Asked Friday if he will look back on Nashville as one of his prouder achievements when his tenure as commissioner eventually comes to an end, Bettman deflected any attention away from himself.

“I’m not one who looks back,” Bettman said. “We always believed that this would be a great place for NHL hockey and we believe that has been the case.”

Not all of Bettman’s gambles have paid off though. Atlanta was awarded an expansion franchise at the same time Nashville was, and the Thrashers began play a season after the Predators. Numerous factors contributed to the demise of Atlanta and their eventual move to Winnipeg, including poor on-ice results as well as ownership woes. The league had to take over the troubled then Phoenix Coyotes, where again, ownership issues and poor attendance plagued the team.

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