There was a time — not too long ago, in fact — when it was hard enough for Nick Spaling to score even a single goal in the National Hockey League.
It was in his 50th NHL appearance — and thanks to the efforts of teammates who worked to get him the puck during a power play late in a December 2010 contest that was well in hand — that the Nashville Predators forward finally found the back of the net.
“I tried not to think of it, but it obviously was a huge relief to get it,” Spaling said. “After that, you feel the pressure [ease] a little bit. Now I want to keep building every year.”
The 22-year-old is going to get more opportunities to score this year, and it will not be because his teammates see to it. Management already has taken care of that with offseason moves designed to transfer more of the offensive burden to some of the team’s younger players.
When the Predators open training camp this week — off-ice testing takes place Friday, and the first on-ice training session is Saturday — Spaling, Colin Wilson (also 22) and even Jordin Tootoo (28) will be among the most watched and discussed players.
Each is expected to expand his role with the team this season after four veteran forwards — Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont, Marcel Goc and Joel Ward — moved on in free agency or simply were cut loose by Nashville. General Manager David Poile equates this year’s transition up front to the one a couple years ago when he made room on the roster for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, now one of the top blue line pairings in the NHL.
“These players are going to be put in positions where they are going to be given every opportunity to play at a much higher level,” Poile said. “… So it’s their ice time to earn if they play well.
“If we’re going to improve as a team, if we’re going to improve offensively, it’s going to be players like Spaling and Wilson who are going to have to produce. They’re going to be put in positions where they’re going to have that opportunity.”
It is no secret that offense rarely has been the Predators’ forte. They finished in the bottom third of the NHL last season with 213 goals, which was just slightly off their all-time average (215.4) through their first 11 seasons.
At first glance, therefore, a player such as Spaling, who needed more than half a season to get his first goal, hardly seems like an obvious solution.
However, Spaling averaged 25.5 goals in his final two years of junior hockey and scored 12 in his first American Hockey League campaign (2008-09). Once he got the first one out of the way in the NHL, he added seven more before the end of the regular season, including a pair of multi-goal games (both against Minnesota). Spaling also scored twice in the series-clinching Game 6 victory over Anaheim in the playoffs.
“We really feel strongly about Nick and his future,” Poile said. “He was a very good scorer in junior. Our coaches have loved him since [he was 18]. The reason they have loved him is because he paid terrific attention to detail. So the defensive part of the game he has down pat. The coaches use him in checking line situations and use him in penalty killing.
“But we want more, and he has more.”
More goals, to be exact.
Ward scored as many as 17 in a season with Nashville, but his production declined steadily over a three-year period. Sullivan is one of only four players ever to score 30 or more in a season for the Predators, but health issues in recent years drastically limited his contributions. Prior to last season, Dumont scored more than 15 goals in four straight.
“That’s obviously something I want to make part of my game — contributing on a regular basis, and try to help out offensively,” Spaling said. “I’m really excited, for sure. I’m looking for more myself as well. Obviously, I want to be a bigger part of the team this year and to contribute more frequently.”
Much more frequently than once in 50 games.