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Depth A Strength As Preds Eye Playoff Run

by Doug Brumley / Nashville Predators
Unlike seasons past, one essential that the Nashville Predators have as they head into the playoffs this time around is depth. As of Monday, the team’s roster size was up to 28 players, while only 20 are allowed to dress for a game. The team can put five legitimate NHL-caliber lines on the ice, even though just four are needed. The team has four defensive pairs, though only three are typically used.

“It’s nice to be able to go into the playoffs feeling good,” Nick Spaling said Monday. “I think for the most part everyone is healthy. It’s nice now that we have a lot of options. Different players that we can put in.”

The large number of personnel has made for some crowded practices, but it has also afforded Predators head coach Barry Trotz and his staff the luxury of mixing and matching parts until he found combinations that worked best.

Take, for example, the line of Spaling, Gabriel Bourque and Patric Hornqvist. That trio seemed to be put together as a function of trade deadline acquisitions being inserted elsewhere in the lineup, but it has turned out to be a highly effective line that has remained together.

“They are two easy guys to play with,” Spaling said. “I know what to expect from them. Bourque’s got a lot of speed and he’s got a lot of work ethic. Hornqvist is the same way. It’s a thing of just funneling pucks to the net. You know [Hornqvist] is going to shoot and he’s going to be there. It’s easy to read off them.”

On the so-called second line, dynamic winger—and late-season returnee from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League—Alexander Radulov has been drawing much of the attention. But in Monday’s Detroit Free Press, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock focused on another member of that line as a similarly dangerous threat: Andrei Kostitsyn.

“He brings a lot of size and strength,” Kostitsyn’s teammate Mike Fisher said. “He’s been around for a while. He can be really effective when he gets in some of those scoring areas and make some good plays. He’s got such a great shot. He can really be a key guy for us for sure.”

And then there’s the first scoring line of Mike Fisher, Andrei’s younger brother Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat, which has essentially been untouchable down the stretch thanks to its production. Erat finished first in team scoring for the regular season, Fisher third.

It demonstrates that with such a wide array of threats—10 Nashville players have scored 10 goals or more—opposing coaches do not have an enviable task when deciding whom to target with their top talent.

Then there’s the Predators’ fourth line, which despite having a constant center in face-off specialist Paul Gaustad, has been a bit more fluid under Trotz’s control. “You’ve got to determine what your fourth line is going to be,” Trotz said. “What identity you want. Is it going to be a grind line, or is it going to be a line that has the multiple pieces of a power play guy, a penalty killing guy, and maybe a face-off guy if you use [Gaustad] as an example?”

Even there, Trotz has a couple of identities from which to choose.

“With us it’s consistency,” Gaustad said, “and we have a deep team, so [it’s] using that strength as a deep team and just continually wave after wave attacking with four lines.”

Playoff hockey brings about a certain amount of attrition. Trotz’s goal in recent games has been determining a pecking order of sorts for the players. The final regular season game in Colorado was a perfect example, with Trotz conveniently able to rest a few veterans for the largely inconsequential game while inserting some of the on-the-borderline players for a 60-minute trial. The Predators won 6-1. Afterward, Trotz said some players really made a case for themselves and may have changed their standing in his mind. For Trotz, it’s a nice problem to have.

“I think what I’ve been looking for in the last couple weeks is trying to get the ranking of the players,” Trotz said. “Because someone’s probably going to get nicked up or [play poorly], and who’s the right guy to go in next? That’s really what we’re sort of getting a real clear ranking of … just getting an idea of who would fit that next slot, and that role. In my mind right now I have that in order and I’ll use that as a template going forward. Their play will dictate what we need. And obviously games will dictate what we need.”

Around the locker room, each player seems proud of the team depth and the fact that solid team chemistry remains despite the swelling roster size. There have been standard issues of integrating new players into the group—similar to what anyone would experience as a new student or new co-worker—but all has gone well according to the team’s leadership group.

“It obviously takes some time but we feel like guys are starting to feel a little bit more a part of it,” alternate captain Fisher said. “We’re trying to make everyone feel a part of it. We’re going to need so many guys. We like where our depth is at right now.”

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