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Predators add skill, grit with four new forwards

by John Manasso

Without breaking the bank, the Nashville Predators turned over one-third of their forwards Friday, adding offense with Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen and grit with Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom.

Coming off the second season in the past nine in which they did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Predators management clearly was unsatisfied and sought to revert to what it considers its traditional core -- "Predator hockey" -- to be.

Injuries, along with underperformance from several players, some of whom the team has let go (most notably left wing Sergei Kostitsyn, who scored three goals last season after leading the team in 2010-11) caused Nashville to finish with the NHL's fourth-worst record. (Predators general manager David Poile said Friday that Kostitsyn's contract was terminated after he passed through waivers and the player has signed in the Kontinental Hockey League.)

"We all feel we lost a little bit of the -- not hard work -- but hardness," Poile said. "We lost a little bit along the way. We got it back today."

Three of the four players the Predators signed are at least 30 years old, a signal the team is hoping to make some noise in the short term. Those four players signed contracts for a total of 14 years and $36.4 million, an average of $2.6 million per player per season.

The three North American-based players who participated on a conference call Friday said the Predators' style suits them. With Poile and coach Barry Trotz having been in their positions since the team entered the NHL in 1998, Nashville has as much, if not more, organizational continuity as any team in the League.

Cullen, who came from the Minnesota Wild, said he spoke often about the Predators with former teammate Ryan Suter, who left Nashville for Minnesota last summer via free agency. (Suter was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2012-13.)

"I liked the way that they play the game," Cullen said. "I always have. … [Ryan] said a lot of good things and I always thought that. I like how they play."

Hendricks, who left the Washington Capitals, said, "I love the defensive style that they play. … I find myself able to thrive in that type of atmosphere, that kind of system of hockey."

Nystrom, a former Dallas Stars player, echoed those comments, saying Friday's moves will make the Predators tougher by way of adding grit and character.

"I think I fit the most there," he said. "They play an honest, hard-working game. Anyone I know who played for Barry Trotz has the highest regard for him as a coach. I knew I could fit in really well."

The biggest deal of the day went to Stalberg, a right wing whom Nashville signed from the Chicago Blackhawks to replace longtime Predators forward Martin Erat, whom the team dealt at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline to the Capitals.

Stalberg, 27, received $12 million over four years. In 2011-12, he scored 22 goals and mostly played a third-line role for Chicago over the past few seasons but likely will see greatly expanded minutes in a first-line role.

The Predators see Stalberg, a Swede, being able to flourish in Nashville with more ice time.

"Our special teams have proven we can get to a high level," Trotz said. "We were No. 1 two years ago. We have to get some of those pieces back. Viktor can back you off with speed and that allows the second wave to enter the zone."

Trotz also praised the offensive abilities of Cullen, who could become the Predators' No. 1 center. In the most-recent 82-game season (2011-12), Cullen totaled 164 shots.

"That's a lot more than Sergei Kostitsyn (who had 97 that season)," Trotz said. "Sergei is a good player, but we recognize the value of the center-ice position. We know we have to get better at the center-ice position."

The Predators have a bit of a logjam at center with Cullen, Mike Fisher, restricted free agent Nick Spaling (who may move to the wing), David Legwand and Paul Gaustad. Poile said he thinks the Predators are as good as they have ever been at center. He also said Friday was the most active the organization has been on the first day of free agency.

Cullen, who will be 37 in November, won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and has 39 points in 68 career playoff games. Like Fisher, Cullen is a two-way player who can kill penalties and who has scored 20 goals twice in his career. His two-year deal is worth $7 million.

Cullen said he thought last season was his best since he scored a career-high 25 goals in 2005-06. He said physically he feels fine and that he wanted to play for an organization he sees as competitive. The Predators advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011 and 2012.

Among the most intriguing signings was Hendricks, 32, a Predators draft pick in 2000 (No. 131) who never played for the team. He spent the past three seasons with the Capitals and led them in penalty minutes last season. He also is one of the League's most efficient shootout players: He converted five of six attempts (83 percent) in 2011-12, more goals than much higher-scoring teammates Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin.

Hendricks, who is strong on faceoffs, can play either center or wing and will earn $7.4 million over the next four seasons.

Eric Nystrom
Eric Nystrom
Left Wing - NSH
Goals: 7 | Assists: 4 | Pts: 11
Shots: 49 | +/-: -3

Nystrom's deal also is for four years ($10 million). Like Hendricks, Nystrom, 30, brings grit. He has scored more than 10 goals in his seven-year career twice. Nystrom has 46 goals and 37 assists in 408 career games over seven seasons. His best season came in 2011-12 with the Dallas Stars, when he scored 16 goals in 74 games.

Poile praised the character of Hendricks and Nystrom and said they were "very necessary components" to add to the roster. The Predators could have several rookies on the team next season, including defenseman Seth Jones, their 2013 first-round pick, and forward Filip Forsberg, a 2012 first-round pick by Washington whom Nashville received in the Erat trade. Poile said he wants Hendricks and Nystrom around to serve as an example to the younger players.

Trotz said he thought opposing teams should have to pay an "entertainment tax" for playing at Bridgestone Arena. He said they did not pay that tax last year, but will in 2013-14.

"I'm going to be an energy guy," Hendricks said. "I'm going to bring energy to the rink every day, at games and at practices, being that sandpaper, gritty guy.

"The more players you have like that in the lineup, it just becomes a little easier for everyone else. It doesn't matter if a team's being physical because that's we want. We want to be the physical team."

Nashville also signed Carter Hutton to be its backup goalie to Pekka Rinne on a one-year, two-way contract worth $550,000. Hutton has played one game in the NHL; last season in the American Hockey League he went 26-22-1 with Rockford, posting a 2.72 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and two shutouts.

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