Steve Sullivan has come to the conclusion that two years worth of rehabilitation to overcome a back injury were well worth it.
“I’ve learned that I’m a hockey player,” he said. “It was just instilled in me that that’s who I am and who I want to be, and there was nothing that was going to stop me from coming back.”
Soon it will be up to the Nashville Predators to decide what the 34-year-old forward is worth and whether or not they can afford to bring him back next season and beyond.
The injury caused Sullivan to sit out for virtually half of the four-year contract he signed prior to the 2005-06 season, the NHL’s first following the lockout.
“As time went on, I certainly didn’t think he was going to come back,” general manager David Poile said. “We saw no improvement. It seemed like he was stuck at the same point for months and months.”
Now, not only is he back in the lineup, he is the final season of that deal. His $3.2 million salary is seventh-highest among the current players, who are led by David Legwand’s $5.5 million, but his level of play — particularly in recent weeks — reinforces how important he is to the franchise when he is on the ice.
Sullivan appeared in 36 games this season (35 in a row) prior to the weekend back-to-back against Chicago (Friday) and Columbus (Saturday). With Sullivan, Nashville was 20-11-5 entering the weekend. When he did not play, the team’s record was 18-20-3.
Since he was acquired in a trade with Chicago in February 2004, Nashville has averaged 1.24 points per game with him in the lineup and 1.15 without him. Over the course of a season, that difference translates to nearly eight points in the standings.
His 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) prior to the weekend gave him 185 in 186 all-time appearances for the Predators and made him eighth on the team this season. Of the seven teammates who had scored more, each had played at least 25 more games.
His presence consistently has meant increased offense for the Predators. In 2003-04, they averaged 2.43 goals per game in 58 contests before they dealt for him and 3.13 in the 24 games after they got him. In 2005-06, Nashville averaged 3.20 goals with him and 2.92 in the 13 games he missed with injury.
Even this season, when he had just five assists in his first 16 games, the team’s average goals per game is up slightly with him (2.69) over the 41 without him (2.43), and that difference has grown recently.
“I think the first 10 or 15 games it took me a while to get my legs under me, but since then there’s been just a gradual progression in my play and hopefully it can continue,” Sullivan said. “I’m the type of player who tries to make a contribution every single night. It’s not like I’m going to go out, crash and bang and make a physical presence. My job is to be an offensive player, and I have to try to be an offensive threat.
“Are you going to get points every night? No. But as long as I’m an offensive threat and I’m creating stuff and helping our club with the energy level and on the score sheet as much as I can, then I’m doing my job. “
Both Poile and Sullivan said that they have had no discussions on a new deal, and Sullivan’s history with the team shows he is patient when it comes to business affairs. He has signed two contracts with Nashville, a one-year deal in 2004 and the current four-year pact, both of which were finalized in August.
The sides both indicated they plan to talk sometime after the season.
“We’ve got enough on our plate right now, and I have enough on my mind with trying to help this hockey club get to the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “The chips will fall where they may once the season’s over. I’m sure we’ll have some meetings and I’ll have discussions with my family and see what our plans are.”
For the first time in a long time, though, he is planning to play hockey.
“Do I think I’ll play next year? Yeah, without a doubt,” he said. “I can’t see why my career wouldn’t continue. There’s no reason for it not to. It’s a great feeling to know I’ll be able to keep doing it, hopefully for quite a while.”