To hear Milwaukee coach Lane Lambert
dissect rookie center Nick Spaling
, you'd think there was a major gaffe in his designation.
Surely, Spaling can't be a first-year AHLer. The word "mature" permeates Lambert's scouting report like snow spraying over a goalie's mask.
"He's very responsible at both ends of the rink," Lambert said. "You think he's in his second or third year pro. You forget he just came out of juniors because his game is so mature."
Yeah, a lot of coaches talk that way about their prospects. You want evidence that Spaling knows what this pro game stuff is all about? Look at the standings.
In the game of musical first-place chairs playing out in the combative West Division, the Admirals are in hot pursuit of the top spot. The biggest reason for that is a defense that ranks among the stingiest in the league.
It's a team concept, for sure, but Spaling, a talented scorer coming out of juniors, is a surprise contributor in his own zone. Along with Triston Grant
(plus-8) and Andreas Thuresson
(plus-14), Spaling (plus-4) is the hub of the trio that Lambert throws out there to blanket opponents' top lines.
"It's something I've always had to be aware of in my game. It's a bigger part here," said Spaling, 20. "I like the challenge every night. I try to be reliable, do my job in helping to keep them off the scoreboard. If we can do that, it's a big help to our team."
Spaling, a second-round pick by Nashville in 2007, breezed out of Kitchener of the OHL with the type of offensive numbers that would make a coach happy if he leaned only that way. Last season, he contributed 38 goals and 34 assists in just 56 games. He helped the Rangers take the OHL championship and ranked third in the league playoffs in goals (14) and fifth in points (30).
Through his first 26 games with the Admirals, he motored along with a helpful 6 goals and 9 assists.
"I'd like to continue and contribute more offensively. I'm not going to be like a leading scorer, I don't think," he said. "I'm still capable of getting points. Right now, they seem (to be) more grinder goals, goals that are going in off the side of the net."
Spaling has the precise type of mind that lends itself to attacking the challenge of becoming a pro from all angles. Try and find another AHL player who lists of "Of Mice and Men" as his favorite book. Teammate Ryan Jones
lent him Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy's book "Quiet Strength" for a road trip last week.
"I told him to check it out, see if it's his style," Jones said. "We'll see if he likes it."
Spaling is the son of a carpenter and has dabbled in projects ranging from shingling a roof to minor construction chores. That comes in handy when he and Jones are trying to fix up their place.
"When I moved in, we went and got some TV stands together, a little bonding time," Jones said. "It was Wal-Mart furniture, so it wasn't rocket science (to assemble)."
"He's very responsible at both ends of the rink. You think he's in his second or third year pro. You forget he just came out of juniors because his game is so mature."
-- Admirals coach Lane Lambert
Neither is figuring out the complexities of defensive principles in pro hockey, but many an otherwise promising talent has made it look that way. Not Spaling. Besides tossing him out to the even-strength wolves, Lambert also calls his number for 5-on-4 and 5-on-3 penalty kills. Overall, the coach guessed Spaling logs about 20-plus minutes per game.
Spaling said he made sure to arrive in Milwaukee prepared to handle whatever responsibilities he earned.
"I didn't have too many surprises. I got an idea what I was getting into with conditioning camp with Nashville," he said. "I had pretty high expectations. It (the adjustment) is pretty much what I expected it to be."
Lambert said the 6-foot-1 Spaling's balance and strength on the puck make him so reliable in controlling it around offensive and defensive hot spots.
"He has a real sense for danger areas, how to get out of danger areas," Lambert said. "He has a willingness to compete and battle. All of that makes him hard to compete against."
That sort of effort is contagious, and Grant credits his teammate with being the right kind of carrier.
"He's an intelligent player. I guess it's really encouraging when you see a young guy like Nick come in and do a good job (defensively)," Grant said. "It challenges some of the other guys to do a good job."
That's all part of the m-word. But here's the thing about maturity - when you start showing enough of it, usually you get invited to work or play with others who have a more advanced skill set. Lambert's been around long enough to foresee where Spaling's eventual peer group will be.
"You can look at rookie scoring, whatever you want. His overall game is what I like best about him and leads me to believe he'll be an NHL player," Lambert said. "And it won't be too long."