Giving a player a second chance not a first for Poile

By Jim Diamond

Despite his reputation as being conservative and one of the NHL’s old guard, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile has rolled the dice on more than one occasion on players who carried some degree of baggage with them into Nashville.

Poile should be commended for giving players another chance when many of his peers would not do the same.

In the early years of the Nashville franchise, Poile traded away Cliff Ronning, then the team’s only true star, leading scorer, and fan favorite, in exchange for Jere Karalahti. Prior to the trade, Karalahti was featured in a piece in Sports Illustrated that detailed his bout with addictions that included heroin and LSD. In the end, Karalahti could not overcome his substance abuse issues while in Nashville, and he was eventually suspended and allowed to become a free agent after playing just 15 games with the Predators.

To Poile’s credit, that situation did not dissuade him from bringing in other players who also had substance abuse issues in their past as evidenced by the acquisitions of Brian McGrattan and Rich Clune.

The Predators claimed McGrattan off of waivers in October of 2011 and Clune, also off waivers, just before the start of the lockout-shortened 2013-14 season in January 2013. Since being claimed by the Predators, both McGrattan, now with the Calgary Flames, and Clune have stuck in the NHL and earned new contracts while also speaking openly of their battles with substance abuse away from the ice.

Tuesday’s signing of Mike Ribeiro to a one-year, $1.05 million dollar deal is the latest chapter in Poile’s book of second chances.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney made headlines with his comments to the Arizona Republic following the team’s announcement that they were buying out the three remaining years on his contract. “Mike had some real behavior issues last year with us I felt we could not tolerate going forward,” Maloney told the newspaper.

Those are pretty harsh words, and even if true, they are not something often heard from an NHL general manager.

Poile said Tuesday that the Predators did their due diligence on Ribeiro, consulting many who knew him. But Poile also said that he spent time with Ribeiro and his wife before making the offer to join the Predators.

Many have said that the Ribeiro contract is low risk at just one year and relatively little money at just north of a million dollars. While that may be true in theory, there is a decent amount of risk involved in bringing in a player who had problems in his previous location. Players who miss meetings, flights, and have shouting matches with their coach – all things that reportedly happened with Ribeiro in Phoenix – have the potential to tear apart a locker room.

Ribeiro has all the incentive in the world to make things work in Nashville; not so much on the ice but more off of it. He revealed that many of his issues in Phoenix stemmed from marital difficulties that caused a separation from his wife and children for a time. The family has been reunited now, and the family was in Nashville checking things out to see if it would be a good fit for them. Things going right at home will go a long way toward getting them going in the right direction on the ice.

Poile said that this would be Ribeiro’s last chance. At 34 years old and with the reputation at his last stop in Phoenix, that isn’t hyperbole on Poile’s part. Should problems present themselves in Nashville, it will likely be Ribeiro’s last NHL stop. Given that it took him two weeks to land a one-year deal at a salary way below what a player of Ribeiro’s quality should earn on the open market, not too many general managers were calling him with better offers.

Good on Poile for giving him that chance, though.

More free agent signings further exposes the paucity of quality forwards in the Nashville system

By Jim Diamond

During his Tuesday afternoon press conference to announce the signings of centers Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile mentioned the fact that going into the season, they probably have more numbers at forward than the maximum 23-man roster will allow.

Heading into this offseason, Poile made no secret that becoming a more potent offensive team was a priority. His trading for James Neal and signing Ribeiro, Roy, and Olli Jokinen are the major steps he took to address the on-ice portion of becoming more offensive. These moves came after he named Peter Laviolette as the second head coach in franchise history.

“We now in my mind have 16 NHL forwards,” he said. “Realistically, we are only going to keep 13 or 14. The depth, the competition at training camp should be higher than we have ever had before, especially at this position.”

Those 16 NHL forwards are presumably and in no particular order: Ribeiro, Neal, Roy, Jokinen, Mike Fisher, Matt Cullen, Craig Smith, Paul Gaustad, Viktor Stalberg, Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Rich Clune, Gabriel Bourque, Eric Nystron, Colin Wilson, and Colton Sissons.

Poile did what he had to do to try and improve his team in the short term. After finishing two straight seasons out of the playoffs, the short term may be all he has with this team can he not right the ship in the extremely tough Western Conference.

But the thing that stands out as the most alarming among those 16 forwards Poile considers being NHLers is that fact that just four of them – Smith, Bourque, Wilson, and Sissons – were drafted and developed in the Nashville system. Four!

With trades hard to make and solid free agent finds very difficult, the Predators have to do better at drafting and developing talent up front or else they are in long-term trouble.

In baseball terms, batting .250 is not great and unless you hit a lot of home runs, that kind of average will not keep you in the majors for very long.

Edit: A wise sage pointed out the fact that Neal was acquired for draftees Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling and Forsberg for Martin Erat, so the average could be tracked somewhat higher and it is a fair point. But the fact still stands that they have had too many misses with their forward draftees.

Of those four players, two of them could very well be on the outside of the NHL roster looking in when the Predators break camp this fall.

Sissons saw limited time with the big club last season, and while he did not look out of place, he didn’t give them a reason to keep him in Nashville. Bourque struggled last season and by no means should feel comfortable that he has a spot locked up given all the new faces that will appear in the locker room in September.

Wilson is a unique case study all his own. He has at times shown flashes of brilliance while at other times finding himself in the doghouse of former head coach Barry Trotz. Beginning anew under Laviolette may be the cure for what has ailed Wilson. One thing that is clear though is that Wilson will very likely not get a sniff at the center ice position, at least this season anyway given all the additions at center.

Beyond 2014-15 is where things get interesting. Of those 16, the only forwards signed beyond next season are Gaustad, Stalberg, Neal, Nystrom, Forsberg, Sissons, and Clune.

Cullen, Fisher, Jokinen, Ribeiro, and Roy can all become unrestricted free agents at seasons end while the other forwards will all be restricted free agents.

With few guys in the minors looking like they can take spots on the team, the next 12 months will be interesting, but relying on teams like Washington (Forsberg) and Detroit (Jarnkrok) to make dumb trades in your favor to bolster your forward ranks is probably not the safest bet.

A year after coming to development camp as an invitee, Joe Pendenza returns as a professional

By Jim Diamond

During a recent trip to a car dealership to purchase a car, the first in his own name, Joe Pendenza was filling out the paperwork when he came to a line that said, “Occupation.” Pendenza thought for a second, smiled, and then put down the words, “Professional Hockey Player.”

“The guy I was buying the car from was like, ‘Really, is that weird?’ and I said, “Yeah, it’s completely weird,’” Pendenza said with a laugh.

It was a moment of pride for Pendenza, who worked hard to get to the point where he could list that as his job.

A year ago, Pendenza accepted an invitation from the Nashville Predators to attend last summer’s development camp. He was heading into his senior season at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Having not been drafted by an NHL team, Pendenza caught the eye of Nashville’s scouting staff.

As a collegian with eligibility remaining, NCAA rules prohibited Pendenza from accepting anything of value from the Predators, so all expenses like flights, hotel, and meals were on him and his family last year. That investment paid off following the conclusion of the River Hawks’ season when Pendenza inked a contract with the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s top developmental affiliate.

“Last year, I was just kind of an invitee, not so much outside looking in, but I wasn’t technically part of the Predators organization,” Pendenza said. “They just wanted to get to know me some more. This year, I am right inside of it and part of the organization. I couldn’t be happier. Nashville is a great city, and I was out in Milwaukee, and that’s a great city.”

During the season, he kept close tabs on the Predators, watching many games with his NHL GameCenter Live subscription. In addition to the big club, he kept an eye on the Admirals as well as a lot of the teams that other players he met at last year’s camp played for across the hockey world.

When Pendenza signed his contract with Milwaukee, he came home to share the good news, and ask for a ride to the airport too.

“My mom was crying when I came home and told her,” Pendenza said. “I had to find someone to drive me and my mom was crying. I have to thank them a lot – my parents, my uncle Vin – they put in so much for me. I will never be able to repay all the money and time they put in, so I was more thanking them because they were just as much a part of this as I was.”

Pendenza saw action in five games with Milwaukee down the stretch of the season. When that season came to its conclusion, Pendenza went back to school to complete his academic requirements.

“The teachers at Lowell were great about it,” Pendenza said. “They knew my situation and they were completely fine with it. I was able to come back and take my finals.”

After knocking those finals out, Pendenza not only had the title of professional hockey player but college graduate as well.

“I got my degree and walked down the aisle,” he said. “Mom was happy about that also. She wanted me to get it out of the way so I could focus on being a professional hockey player.”

Following development camp, Pendenza will return home to Massachusetts, where he will continue to train to get ready for his first full professional season that kicks off this fall.

Predators prospects take to the ice for testing

By Jim Diamond

For the first on-ice activity of this week’s development camp, the Nashville Predators put their prospects through a skating test on the Bridgestone Arena ice Tuesday morning, and it was anything but a leisurely offseason skate.

One-by-one, the prospects were put through a rigorous test under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach David Good. The players skated through a predetermined route. While each skate was in the neighborhood of 25-30 seconds, somewhat shorter than a normal shift in a game, the players were made to do the test six times in a row, and with very little rest time in between.

Following each rep, Good called out the time to an assistant at the bench area who was carefully logging each time. In most cases, the players’ times increased a little with each successive rep. Many of the other players, some already done with their tests while others still waiting their turn, hung around the player benches watching and yelling encouragement to their teammates. And by the end of the sixth repetition with their legs and lungs burning, the players needed all of the help they could get.

The prospects will return to the Bridgestone ice for workouts Wednesday and Friday from 9:00am – 12:15 pm, and the week will culminate with a scrimmage game Saturday afternoon at 3:30. All of these sessions are open to the public.

If you have a minute and don’t hate slideshows, please take a stroll through the images from Tuesday’s testing session in the attached gallery. See something you like, don’t like, photography tips – any feedback either in the comments section or on Twitter would be appreciated.

Bergevin opens door to young leaders, balanced defense on first day of free agency

By Heather Engel

It is aptly dubbed ‘free agent frenzy’. Dollars are flying, players are moving, everything is happening. And this year, somewhat unexpectedly, in the thick of it all was Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.

In came center Manny Malhotra and defenseman Tom Gilbert. Out went right-winger – and captain – Brian Gionta and defenseman Josh Gorges, both to Buffalo. Mike Weaver re-signed. All of this occurred in the span of an hour or so, a frenetic pace for anyone trying to keep up with the Canadiens moves as well as the rest of the NHL action via Twitter.

Word that Gorges, one of the most respected players in the locker room and by management, was potentially on the move broke on Saturday and left many, including the blue-liner himself, shocked. And while there was a mutual interest in Gionta returning, speculation grew that he could move on, especially with greater term than the Canadiens might offer likely available on the market.

“Gio and Josh are great people. They’ve been great for the Montreal Canadiens,” Bergevin said on Tuesday after he was done for the day. “We have to make tough decisions. It’s part of my job. Sometimes you make decisions that aren’t popular, but I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to make decisions.

“We felt by doing that we changed the look of our team a bit but it’s time for the young people to take a bigger role. There’s always a rotation and that’s the crossroads we’re at now. We have two young defensemen who are left shots that at some point need a place to play. That’s just the way the business is.”

The Canadiens’ run to the Eastern Conference Final sent a message to the GM that not only are rearguards Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn pushing but also his team’s young leaders were ready to take the next step. It’s a group that includes the likes of P.K. Subban, Carey Price, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, among others. He acknowledged the core at his post-mortem following their elimination and again on this first day of free agency.

“I think our young core gained a lot of experience in the playoffs. At some point, you have to give these players a chance to take on a more important role within the organization,” Bergevin noted.

“We’re trying to move forward; we’re trying to get better. That’s my job – to make the Montreal Canadiens better,” he added. “It’s not only adding players. We’re looking two, three years down the road.”

Gilbert, puck-mover, and Weaver are both right-handed shots. With Subban, that gives Montreal three righties and allows Alexei Emelin to return to the left side, balancing out the back end.

The moves also provided the Canadiens with some flexibility under the cap. Weaver and Gilbert will combine for just $650,000 more on the cap next season than Gorges’ $3.9 million, a deal with still four seasons remaining. Malhotra will earn $850,000 on his one-year deal. That leaves Bergevin with more than $15 million in cap space at his disposal for the upcoming campaign. More than half of that will be earmarked for P.K. Subban, with still enough room for Lars Eller and potentially one other lower cost signing, if he feels a need for one.

There is room among Montreal’s top-nine forwards but the Canadiens’ GM isn’t too concerned about who fills the spot.

“I feel comfortable if we don’t get anybody else that one of [our AHL] kids will be able to move in that spot,” he said.

One vacancy that will be discussed at length is the captaincy. Bergevin said it’s too early to think about the decision and stayed mum on whether the players or management will ultimately decide when the time comes.

Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing

By Jim Diamond

As the NHL’s free agency period kicked off at 11:00 CT Tuesday, the signings from across the league came fairly fast and furious with teams announcing signings just about as quickly as one could refresh their Internet browser.

Noticeably absent from the teams announcing signings was the Nashville Predators. And although it sent fans into panic mode all over Twitter today, it really is okay that general manager David Poile did not sign anyone new on free agency’s first day.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a recurring bit in which he describes an awkward situation he entered into and recites what he said at the time. He follows it up with, “What I should have said was nothing.”

The Predators doing nothing isn’t necessary a bad thing.

Entering Tuesday, Poile stated his desire to get a number one center. His big problem was that there was exactly one number one center on the market – Colorado’s Paul Stastny. Before the clock struck 11:00, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Stastny was going to sign with the St. Louis Blues and, unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happened.

This came on the heels of the news that then-Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza refused to waive his no-trade clause to come to Nashville and join the Predators.

Given the fact that almost exactly one year ago, July 5 to be exact, Poile went on a drunken sailor-esque spending spree on free agency’s first day inking five free agents - four of which were on pretty hefty deals that one could make a pretty good argument that the Predators paid them more than market value to sign – some restraint was in order.

Nashville may regard itself as the “It City,” but it is not to the point where free agents or players with other options are falling over themselves to come here to play, hence the need to overpay to get them to come to Smashville. Two straight seasons of finishing outside of the playoffs isn’t sending the message that this is the place to be for players who want to win a Stanley Cup in the near future, either.

Just after the conclusion of the season, Poile fired Barry Trotz, to that point the only coach the franchise had ever known. Players and their agents are smart enough to know that if the coaching change isn’t enough to turn the team around, the general manager could be next.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done to turn the Predators back into contenders, and while a top centerman will help, it is not the magic bullet many think it is.

Tuesday, the Senators traded Spezza to the Dallas Stars, one of the teams not on his no-trade list. Spezza is a year away from unrestricted free agency. Barring the signing of an extension with Dallas in the next 365 days, he will hit the free agent market a year from now. The Stars are a team on the upswing with a good deal of offensive talent already on the roster. A good season with the Stars and the likelihood of putting up strong offensive numbers are all resume builders for Spezza as he potentially heads into next year’s silly season looking to get paid.

Yes, the Predators should be better next year. As they like to point out, they were just three points out of eighth place last season and a healthy Pekka Rinne may have made up that difference between finishing tenth and in a playoff spot.

And yes, anything can happen once a team makes the playoffs, but were and are the Predators good enough to run the Western Conference gauntlet that includes teams like Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, et. al.? No, not right now they aren’t, and it will take more than a center to make that happen.

Free agency is less than 24 hours old, and there are still options on the market. Mikhail Grabovski is out there, but he was available last year when the Toronto Maple Leafs put him on waivers for the purpose of buying out his contract and the Predators elected not to claim him. He is reportedly asking for a five-year contract at around $5 million per. If he will take that to play with the Predators, offering it wouldn’t be a bad idea. That is assuming Poile and company are able to overlook the fact that he is Belarusian, and well, you all know what happened the last time they traveled down that road.

The Flyers would love to unload Vincent Lecavalier and his ridiculous contract on someone. He could be had in trade for a song, but is 34 and under contract for four more seasons, and ages 34-38 are rarely highly productive years for players.

In reality, the Predators need to look within. Poile is high on young players like Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok. Now may be the time to take the reins off of these kids and see what they can do with some ice time on the team’s top two lines. Yes, there will be some growing pains along the way, but in order for these players to gain some experience, they need to play.

Since hiring Peter Laviolette as the team’s new coach, the Predators have touted the fact that he plays an uptempo brand of hockey. Let the young players have a chance to grow in this system and get the team back into being perennial playoff contenders. It will be amazing to watch how attractive a city and team Nashville will become when that happens.

A look at what the Predators draft table may have been like this weekend

By Jim Diamond

As all of the management and scouting staffs of the Nashville Predators were gathered around their draft table at the Wells Fargo Center for the 2014 NHL Draft this weekend, this is how we imagine things went.

After arriving at the table and the draft begins, general manager David Poile finishes a conversation with Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. He comes back to the table to let them know he has completed a trade for James Neal.

Predators chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty: “You did not trade away another first round pick did you David? We were so close…”

Poile: “No, just our second- and fifth-highest goal scorers among our forwards last season.”

Kealty: “Whew, that’s a relief. We are going with the Swiss guy still, right?”

Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton: “I like the Swiss guy. Everyone like the Swiss guy?”

They all nod their heads in approval. Swedish scout Lucas Bergman smiles and thinks to himself, ‘Yes he’s Swiss, but he plays in Sweden. Skål’

PR guru Kevin Wilson checks Kevin Fiala’s Twitter page, sees nothing controversial, and announces, “Yeah, I love the Swiss guy.”

Poile: “Are we sure about this? The Swiss guy is a forward. Isn’t there a defenseman from the Western League we can draft?”

All: “NO!”

Walking up to the stage, Poile gives Kealty a quick elbow, “Hey Jeff, watch this. I am pretty sure these Philly fans are still pissed off about that Weber offer sheet matching deal. I am going to make Paul go and announce this pick.”

Kealty: “You’re smart. Let Paul take the heat. They booed Santa Claus, they are definitely going to boo us when we get up there.”

Poile to Fenton: “Hey Paul, since you run all of the scouting operations, I want you to go ahead and announce our pick. Just don’t forget to congratulate the Kings on winning the Stanley Cup, thank the wonderful fans of Philadelphia for their hospitality, and say hello to the best fans in the world watching at our draft viewing party.”

Fenton: “Wow thanks David, that’s quite an honor. Doesn’t everyone hate when you congratulate the Stanley Cup champions and thank the host city though?”

Poile: “Of course they do, but it is tradition.”

Fenton: “Can I say anything about the fact that we have so many good defensemen and goaltenders in the organization, we are going to pick a forward for a change?”

Poile: “No.”

They all look over at Janne Kekalainen as he chuckles to himself and favorites a tweet while walking up the steps.

Poile: “One of Diamond’s tweets?”

Kekalainen: “Yes.”

Poile: “Is it about Martin Erat? I love his Martin Erat tweets.”

Kekalainen: “No.”

Smiles, handshakes, and pictures are taken. Everyone is happy and the rest of the night goes unremarkably.

They all arrive Saturday morning and discuss that since things go so quickly in rounds two through seven, they need to be ready with all of their picks. Holding picks 42 and 46 in the second round, they will be up soon.

Bergman and Kekalainen have a heated argument over whether there will be more Swedes or Finns drafted this day.

As the pick approaches, Kealty leans over to Fenton: “Do you want to bring it up or should I?”

Fenton: “He made me go to the microphone and face the Philly fans booing us worse than Bettman. You do it.”

Kealty: “David, we like this 6-foot-2, 203-pound forward. We think he is going to be really good. I’m surprised no one has picked him yet.”

Poile: “Where is he from?”

Kealty: “Central Scouting says ‘He handles the puck very well and makes several great passes through traffic.’”

Poile: “Where is he from?”

Kealty: “I really think this guy is going to help us.”

Kekalainen sees this is going to take a while and favorites another tweet.

Poile: “Jeff, I get the feeling there is something you aren’t telling me.”

Kealty: “OK David, he’s Russian and plays in the KHL.”

Poile starts sweating profusely.

Poile: “Can someone get me some water? And a towel.”

Fenton: “We think he wants to play in the NHL soon. Maybe we can get him over to the CHL where he can learn English and the North American game.”

Poile: “I’ve heard that before, Paul. You saw where that got me.”

Kekalainen favorites another tweet.

The picks tick away and the Predators are up.

Kealty: “David, we have another pick soon and we really like this right-handed, college-bound, American defenseman at that pick.”

Poile’s eyes light up: “That’s like hitting for the cycle with me.”

Kealty to Fenton: “QUICK PAUL, he’s distracted. Announce the Russian.”

“The Nashville Predators are proud to select Vladislav Kamenev from Magnitogorsk of the KHL.”

Poile: “Did I hear what I thought I just heard?”

Kamenev comes down to the table, dons his Predators gold jersey and shakes Poile’s hand.

Kamenev: “Spaciba.”

Poile looks to Kealty: “Wait, what did he say?”

Kealty changing subject quickly: “Hey David, we need to get ready for that next pick.”

Fenton to Wilson: “Kevin, get this kid back to the interview area now.”

Poile’s head is still spinning when his phone rings.

Poile: “It is San Jose. They want our 46th pick in exchange for the 51st pick and a fourth round pick next year. Should I do it?”

Kealty: “Yes, more picks. We love picks.”

Bergman thinks to himself: ‘More picks means more Swedes. And this soon after Midsummer too. Skål’

Poile: “Do you think we can get that *eyes light up* right-handed, college-bound, American defenseman at 51?”

Fenton: “We think so. Go ahead and make the trade.”

As the 51st pick approaches, Poile leans over to Kealty: “Jeff, which college is that guy going to? Is it Northeastern? You know I would love to draft another guy going to my alma mater.”

Kealty: “Umm… not exactly. He is a Midwestern guy. He’s from Minnesota.”

Poile: “Oh, so he is going to be a Golden Gopher, eh? What a great program they have. I am really looking forward to this.”

Kealty: “No David, he isn’t going there.”

Poile: “Oh, one of the other Minnesota schools? St. Cloud or Duluth?”

Kealty: “Well, he is actually going to the University of Wisconsin, David.”

In-arena announcer: “Nashville is up next.”

Kealty: “Quick Paul.”

“The Nashville Predators select Jack Dougherty from the US Developmental Program.”

Poile: “American? US Developmental Program? From the mountains to the prairies white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.”

Of course this is all in jest. In all reality this looks like the best draft the Predators have had since 2003.

Quick Analysis: Predators land Neal in trade with Pittsburgh

By Jim Diamond

Leading up to this weekend’s NHL Draft, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile made no secret of his desire to land a top-six forward. He gave the impression that he was looking to acquire that player in exchange for the 11th pick.

Poile definitely acquired the top six forward he was looking for when he made a trade for Penguins winger James Neal Friday night. To get a forward of Neal’s caliber, the price was high. But the 11th pick did not go to Pittsburgh. Instead, it was forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Neal has the scoring punch that the Predators desperately need. He had 27 goals in 59 regular season games played last season and posted his career-high 40 goals in 2011-12.

The 26-year-old Neal has four years left on his contract at $5 million per season. He plays with a big deal of snarl to his game, both approaching and going over the edge at times.

During Neal’s time in Pittsburgh, he played a lot of games against new Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, whose most recent job was as the bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh’s cross-state rival.

The big problem here is that he will not be playing on Evgeni Malkin’s wing in Nashville. Instead of playing with one of the most talented centers in the world, Neal will have the likes of Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, or Calle Jarnkrok getting him the puck.

Laviolette plans to play a much more up-tempo offensive game than was the norm in Nashville under previous head coach Barry Trotz. Of Hornqvist’s many talents, he is not blessed with great skating speed.

However, he is fearless and just about all of his time in the offensive zone is spent with his heels planted just outside of the crease with his backside in front of the opposing goaltender. In addition to numerous slashes at his legs and gloves to the face, he puts himself in harms way setting up screens and looking for deflections on slap shots from Shea Weber.

Like Neal, Hornqvist has four years remaining on his contract with a $4.25 million cap hit per season.

Hornqvist was popular with the Nashville fans and served as a mentor to young Swedish players like Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg when they came to the team.

Spaling was a serviceable player who spent most of his time on the third and fourth lines. As a second round pick, 58th overall, in 2007, Spaling put up solid numbers in junior, but never scored much in his time with the Predators. He posted a career-high 13 goals this past season.

Seen as a Trotz type player and as a pending restricted free agent, Spaling was expendable on a team with a fair amount of third and fourth line types.

With coaching and player changes, it is no secret that Poile has been looking to reverse the fortunes of the Predators. All in all, this looks like a good deal for the Predators, but Neal is going to need some help in succeeding. He is not just going to appear on the scene and get back to being a 40-goal scorer without his teammates getting him the puck and creating some room for him.

Evaluating prospective draft picks goes way beyond hockey skills

By Jim Diamond

Heading into this weekend’s NHL Draft, there are large volumes of data and statistics available on the potential draftees. Teams know how many goals and assists the skaters have accumulated and how many wins and losses the goaltenders have posted in the years leading up to the draft. Scouts from the respective teams have watched countless games and know what the players can do on the ice aside from what the statistics can tell them – how hard a forward gets back in transition or how a defenseman’s first pass out of the zone looks.

Drafts are the lifeblood for many NHL teams. Keeping a steady stream of top-notch prospects available in the pipeline usually means the difference between organizational success and failure. But knowing how many points a guy had last season only tells part of the story of the kids teams are looking at making a significant investment in beginning this weekend.

A majority of the players who will hear their names called at the draft in Philadelphia are just 17 or 18-years-old. Projecting where these kids will be hockey-wise when they are NHL ready is difficult enough, but prognosticating their emotional development is a completely different story.

“I think it is the hardest thing in sports,” Nashville Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton said.

Who among us did not have some degree of knuckleheadedness when we were 18?

So in addition to seeing what players can do on the ice, the scouts talk to coaches, teachers, or anyone else who may have some information that could prove valuable to the team in their research.

“It’s tough,” Predators Swedish scout Lucas Bergman said. “As an 18-year-old, some guys have maturity right away and some guys don’t. I think that’s our job; talking to coaches, talking to all the contacts that we know, and putting in effort to meet the kid and try to find out those things.”

Then there are the parents. The apples usually don’t fall too far from the trees, so getting to know the parents is another tool teams use in evaluating a player, but that takes some interpretation as well.

“How many hockey dads and hockey moms have you seen that you would classify as crazy?” Fenton added. “We’re probably all one of them, including myself at some point with my kids playing. We have to decipher through all of that and see where the kid may come out.”

Teams also interview the players, and quite frequently, those interviews can turn very intense. They want to see how the player acts under pressure. If there are any skeletons in the player’s metaphorical closet, the team probably knows about them and will grill him in the pre-draft talks.

“The information that you find out sometimes is not exactly what you want to find out, and you have to weigh is it worth taking a chance on a kid,” Fenton said.

Sounding part hockey scout and part philosopher, Predators Finnish scout Janne Kekalainen admits that part of the profession involves some degree of guessing.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and actually when you kind of get to know more, you realize how much you don’t know also,” he said. “With some kids, you get that feeling that this is the guy and when it’s strong, then you know, ‘I go for this.’ Then there are players who are tough to figure out because they haven’t even figured out themselves what they are going to be yet.”

When draft day comes around, a decision needs to be made, and when it comes down to it, teams usually just have to trust their instincts.

“In my philosophy, kids with strong passion and strong minds, they make their way through,” Kekalainen added. “When you find that, then a lot of times things go as you project them to. Still, science hasn’t come up with measurements guaranteed to evaluate human minds. And we’re only scouts, so it’s not easy.”

Poile to ask Predators to kick smokeless tobacco habit

By Jim Diamond

A day after former baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn passed away as a result of an oral cancer he believed to have developed from years of using smokeless tobacco, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was asked about use among the players on his team.

Unlike baseball players mostly of years past, hockey players don’t ply their trade with a gigantic wad of tobacco stuffed into one of their cheeks, as would a squirrel gathering nuts and seeds in preparation for a long cold winter.

For many of the NHL’s players, the first thing they do after coming off of the ice following practice or a game is to grab for a small round tin of chewing tobacco sitting on the shelf in their locker stall and throw a pinch between their lip and gum.

“We talk about it, absolutely,” Poile said. “I’ve actually got that down where we ask every year for guys not to do that. I don’t get it since I don’t do it, but not good, not good.”

The reality is that most players who use smokeless tobacco developed the habit or addiction long before they reached the game’s highest level, so getting them to stop after years of use is not easy.

Some use it to satiate a nicotine addiction developed from smoking cigarettes. Players today are smart enough to realize that being seen smoking would not reflect very well on them, but the same stigma is not attached to the use of smokeless tobacco. Well, not yet anyway.

Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press did an extensive feature on the subject in late December of 2013. His piece detailing use among players in Manitoba illustrated the fact that a lot of them started using in their early to mid teens. It also pointed to the facts that coaches and administrators of leagues differed on exactly when use among players begins.

No matter the age that the players began using smokeless tobacco, their reasons for starting mirror those given for any other adolescent who picks up bad habits: boredom, peer pressure, and trying to fit in with an older crowd.

Turner quoted Mike Gordichuk, head coach and GM of the MMJHL’s Transcona Railer Express, as saying:

“When they see an NHL player do it and it’s accepted by the NHL, they’re going to do it. If you could clean it up at the NHL level it would filter down. There’s such a high respect from these kids, that’s what they’re aspiring to be, and they see guys like (Winnipeg Jets defenseman) Dustin Byfuglien do it, to them that’s OK.”

Gwynn’s public battle with cancer should speak volumes to those who may think that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking. The American Cancer Society outlines the number of cancers and oral diseases that can result from smokeless tobacco use.

The number of players who do it would probably surprise most fans, but there is not a whole lot NHL teams can do about it. The league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA mentions tobacco just twice.

Article 25.1 states: “No Player shall be involved in any endorsement or sponsorship of alcoholic beverages (excluding malt-based beverages such as beer) and/or tobacco products.”

Exhibit 14 states: “The use of tobacco products while in the presence of fans in any arena or while attending any team function is prohibited.”

All Poile can do is make the request of his players, and that is exactly what he plans to do.

“Am I going to ask our players to not do it?” Poile said. “Yes. Absolutely.”