Slowly, quietly, Predators winger Nick Spaling has developed into a key member of Nashville’s forward corps.
In tonight’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators, Spaling skated on the wing along with David Legwand and Craig Smith as he has done for the past several games. A “mix-and-match” line that brings a unique blend of youth and veteran presence, along with the Predators staple of defensive focus and offensive ability.
Playing on a line with Legwand and Smith says a lot about head coach Barry Trotz’s trust of Spaling, now playing in his fifth season (all with Nashville).
But for Spaling it also represents another night he plays as a member of the Predators top six: a position of prominence he’s earned over the years.
“One thing you tend to forget is Nick was a skinny guy when he came here,” Trotz said. “He had good hockey sense, ability–all those things–and we wanted to move him along, move him along. But it’s just taken him a while to grow into his own physically. He’s found a way to be a really sustainable player, I want to move him off that line sometimes so he can fix other lines, but that line has just been going so good; I don’t want to mess a good thing up.”
The line of Spaling, Legwand and Smith has seen opponent’s top guns game after game, something they did again tonight when they took on Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur.
“We’re fortunate to have a pretty deep team, we’ve got guys that can play anywhere,” Spaling said. “And playing with Leggy and Smitty has been good. They’re two pretty easy guys to play with. Leggy’s a really smart hockey player and can make a lot of plays by seeing the ice well. Smitty has got a lot of speed and he pushes guys back. He forces opponent’s to respect his team and creates room.”
Drafted in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Spaling has seen his game develop from a one-dimensional fourth line grinder to penalty kill specialist, power play net presence and winger that averages upward of 16 minutes of ice time per game.
“Spaling is a really good compliment guy,” Trotz explained. “Every year there’s been a guy that’s fixed a line: a Joel Ward or Gabriel Bourque in the past. This is Nick’s year to be that.”
Trotz’s belief in Spaling to be the “medicine” in a lot of different situations has been apparent, as the Preds bench boss has even started putting the forward on the power play.
“It’s been good being on power play,” Spaling said. “I’ve been trying to create some traffic in front of the net. It’s a different element of the game that I’ve added.”
Spaling’s game works so well in Nashville because of his attention to detail and the many facets of his game. Whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, the Palmerston, Ontario, native often finds himself on the ice.
“Legwand has been known for being responsible for a lot of years and playing against other team’s top lines,” Spaling said. “That frees me up to try and contribute offensively, with of course, still working to shutdown the other team’s line.”
The rare visit from an Eastern Conference Canadian team to Nashville tonight does hold significance for Spaling who grew up about a five-hour drive from Canada’s capital.
“Yeah growing up in Ontario, obviously hockey is big there so I followed the Senators some. I was more of a Leafs fan, being closer to Toronto all. But I still did watch [the Senators] growing up and now a days, we know they’re good. They’ve got a lot of skilled players. We’ve got to be prepared for that and just play our game.”
Nashville held Ottawa’s skilled foward group to one goal through 65 minutes tonight–but in the end–could not claim the second point in the shootout.
The Predators will be back on the ice in less than 24 hours when they take on their new divisional rival the Minnesota Wild (and Ryan Suter makes another return journey to Nashville of course).
Puck drop is at 6:08 pm CST.