Days after they cleared the way for some of their young defensemen, the Nashville Predators addressed their forward prospects – with roadblocks.
Active and aggressive Friday, the first day of the NHL’s current free agent signing period, the Predators added four veteran forwards led by left wing Viktor Stalberg, who signed a four-year, $12 million deal. Nashville also brought on board center Matt Cullen (two years, $7 million), and wings Eric Nystrom (four years, $10 million) and Matt Hendricks (four years, $7.4 million).
It was not exactly a vote of confidence for the group of young forwards that got an extended NHL audition late last season.
“Our players better be hungry or they won’t be here or they’ll be in the minors,” general manager David Poile said. “If they’re good enough to play, we’ll find a way. We’re not trying to retard anyone’s development. We’re trying to enhance it.”
Perhaps it’s a question of perspective.
If development is considered solely time spent in the minor leagues, then Friday’s moves do figure to enhance the development of Austin Watson, Taylor Beck, Filip Forsberg, Kevin Henderson and Daniel Bang because most, if not all of them now seem certain to start the 2013-14 season at Milwaukee.
Even with the release of Sergei Kostitsyn, who will play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and the decision not to re-sign Matt Halischuk, Nashville now has 13 veteran forwards under contract for the coming season. That typically is the maximum number the team likes to carry. Six of them are 30 or older.
In order for any of those players to go to Milwaukee they must be placed on waivers and, therefore, put at risk to be claimed by another franchise. That is not the case for the younger players.
Thus, barring injury or any other unforeseen developments all of the decisions regarding roster spots for forwards effectively have been made two months before the first official workout of that camp.
“Some of the young guys, they’re going to push some of the old guys to be on the team and when they’re ready we’ll be able to put them on the team,” coach Barry Trotz said. “… As long as you’re playing you’re not going to get stunted. When you’re not playing is when you get stunted. If they’re good prospects and they’re good enough to play on our team they’ll play.”
Beck got the longest look last season and had seven points (three goals, four assists) in 16 games. Watson, Nashville’s first-round pick (18th overall), in 2010 and Forsberg, the 11th overall pick by Washington in 2011, presumably are highly regarded prospects. Each had one point – Watson had a goal in six appearances and Forsberg had an assist in five games – in their brief auditions. Bang had two assists in eight games, and Henderson had one goal in four contests.
All of those numbers apparently paled in comparison, though, to the fact that the Predators finished 2-10-3 when some or all of those guys played in place of injured veterans.
“Last year was a good example,” Trotz said. “We went into the end of the season and some of our younger guys got some great experience last year, but you saw we didn’t win a whole lot of games. Guys were showing that they could play in the league but couldn’t produce quite yet.
“You need those veteran guys. We’ve got people of character. … The players that we added – in those areas – are tremendous. With the core that we already have – we’re very proud of our core – I think going forward we’re in great shape.”
Yet there’s no doubt that the young forwards are going back … to the American Hockey Leagu. The same is not true of defense prospects such as Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and this year’s first-round draft choice, Seth Jones, will have every opportunity to make the roster and remain a part of it throughout the season after recent roster decisions related to them.
“We want players to be as hungry as possible coming into camp and we want some competition, we want some depth,” Poile said. “The cream always seems to rise to the top. … I feel that we’re so much better off in terms of our depth and the competition.”