BY TERRY BRIDGE, LISTOWEL BANNER SPORTS
NASHVILLE, TN – Year two as a full-time NHL player for Nick Spaling is in the books.
Spaling played in 77 regular-season games for the Nashville Predators this season – the second year in a row he’s suited up in 70-plus games for the club – totaling 10 goals and 22 points. The offensive production was a career high in both regards, but the 23-year-old from Drayton wants to keep setting the bar higher.
“I wanted to get more points, but at the same time it was a good year in other ways,” Spaling said over the phone from Nashville last Thursday. “I feel good about the role I played. Next year I’m definitely focused on getting more points and building off of that.”
David Poile, Nashville’s general manager and president of hockey operations, said Spaling’s on-ice responsibilities continue to increase.
“He had the most goals and points in his career. He’s playing in a position where he’s getting more responsibility: he’s killing penalties, he’s counted on to be one of our key face-off guys,” Poile said over the phone on Monday. “I think the future’s very bright for Nick.”
A year ago Spaling scored two goals in Game 6 of the Predator’s first-round playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks, including the game winner, to eliminate the Ducks and launch Nashville to the second round for the first time in franchise history. It was a feel-good story for the city and its fans as the upstart Predators experienced round two, eventually falling to the Vancouver Canucks.
This spring Nashville, No. 4 in the Western Conference, quickly disposed of the Detroit Red Wings in just five games in round one. The Wings are a perennial contender and had eliminated Nashville on two previous occasions, 2004 and ’08.
“They’re a great team and a great franchise. It’s nice to be able to compete with them and beat them, so that felt good,” Spaling noted. “I think against Detroit we got a lot of bounces and things went our way. We created a lot of bounces ourselves, we had a lot of pressure, sustained pressure throughout the series, and it was a real back-and-forth series. Things just went a little more our way.”
Once again the Predators found themselves in the Western Conference semifinals, but this time they fell quickly to the Phoenix Coyotes in five games.
“I don’t think we really put together a full game. They just capitalized on all their chances, we didn’t do that,” Spaling explained the series defeat. “When we made mistakes, they made us pay for them; that’s the way it goes. In the playoffs you’ve got to be able to bury your chances.”
It was a similar playoff run in length, but the positive, franchise-first feeling from 2011 soured into a disappointing end to 2012 as the team felt they could get past the Coyotes. Phoenix, No. 3 in the West, had home ice in the series, but Nashville (48-26-8) had a better regular-season record.
“It was a different feel, yeah,” Spaling said. “Every year’s going to be different for you, but this year I think the guys felt it was a little more disappointing in the fact that we made the second round last year, and this year obviously we wanted to build on that and we didn’t, so it’s just we’ve got to look back and think about the things that went wrong. We’re going to have to turn around next year and go further.”
Head coach Barry Trotz and his staff often deployed Spaling, a left-handed shooter, at centre this year after seeing more time at wing the previous campaign.
“It gives you some flexibility too because he can play up or down the lineup, not only can he play centre but he can play the wing,” noted Poile, 63, a native of Toronto. “I think the fact he can play both positions gives us the flexibility based on what other players we have in the organization.”
“Either one doesn’t matter, really. Last year I played more on the wing, but this year was more at centre,” Spaling said. “I’m comfortable playing both.”
His on-ice role remained fairly similar: win faceoffs, be a responsible forward defensively and try to capitalize on scoring chances when they present themselves.
“We went through a lot of different things on our team with guys being in and out. My role didn’t change a ton, but just relied on for faceoffs at times and play responsible defensively, but also they were looking for some production and a little offensive contribution,” he said.
Poile said going forward he still wants Spaling to concentrate on the defensive side of things, but hopes his offence continues to evolve.
“I think he’s a defensive role first, but as a young player you’re hoping that there’s more of an upside on the offensive part of it,” Poile said. “I mean his last year in junior he was one of the leading scorers in the league. Again, I think we’re real happy with where he is in his progress, but you just don’t know, you’re hoping that there’s more offensive upside. I think probably who he plays with, where he plays, might have a lot to do with it.”
He’s been playing professional hockey since 2008-09, but the first two years were mostly with the American Hockey League affiliate Milwaukee Admirals: 138 regular-season and playoff games played in the AHL, 34 in the NHL.
After his breakout 2010-11 season as far as being an NHL regular is concerned – eight goals and six assists in 74 games – it was a bit easier for him once year two of full-time duty got underway.
“I felt good, obviously a lot more confident and got a little bit more comfortable in the situation playing,” Spaling said. “It felt good to come in with that confidence under your belt, so to say. The year went well as a whole.”
Although he was a mainstay with the team, the forwards he lined up alongside were constantly in flux.
“We changed that a lot,” Poile chuckled. “That’s another thing he and everybody else has to be prepared for, we haven’t had that many set lines. As far as next year, I wouldn’t know how to predict that at the moment.”
“It was a lot of change, we had all sorts of different combinations,” Spaling recalled. “It really switched a lot especially from the beginning [of the season] to the end. Even at the end switching still, so we had a lot of different options and it kind of kept changing. I think we were lucky to have a deep team so we could use the different options and be able to put different guys in the lineup every night.”
Spaling, jersey No. 13 and a former Listowel Cyclone, has one season remaining on the two-year contract he signed last summer, worth a total of $2.1 million. Being already signed for 2012-13 puts him in the minority on this club, which has about two-thirds of its roster either restricted or unrestricted free agents as of July 1.
That high number brings the potential for a high turnover rate and creates a lot of work for Poile and his management group, but just three days after a stinging post-season elimination it was hard for Spaling to be concerned about that.
“It’s a long off-season, they’ve got a lot of time still. I don’t think that’s really on too many people’s minds right now,” he said.
Last Thursday he had his exit meeting with the hockey operations department, an annual tradition following a long season that begins all the way back in September with training camp.
“At the exit meeting we talked about consistency, if you will, being able to do a little bit more offensively and also to be a little bit better in the faceoffs,” Poile said. “In terms of a young player and where he’s fit into our team, he’s been excellent.”
“Obviously the staff’s disappointed in the turnout of the year,” Spaling recapped the meeting, “but they just focused on next year and taking this summer to do whatever it is you need to do and whatever I need to do to get better and continue to become a better player. I think that’s the steps you want to take.”
He’s returning home to Ontario for the summer, splitting his time between training in Kitchener and living in the Drayton area until its time to head back to Nashville in late August.
“I know he’ll work hard in the summer to be as good as he can at training camp and looking for even a better season in ‘12-13,” Poile said.
The Predators have only been around since 1998, but the team and the sport’s popularity continue to grow. This season they set a franchise record with 25 regular-season sellouts and five more in the post-season at Bridgestone Arena, a rink with a capacity for 17,113 people.
“I think they broke the record that was set last year. They’ve just continued to grow our team down here. They’ve been doing a good job,” Spaling commended. “It’s been great down here, the whole time I’ve been here it’s been great. I think the fan base has been awesome, it’s been a lot of fun for me, a lot of great support.”