The Nashville Predators forward does it all for the NHL’s first-place club: killing penalties, shutting down the opposition’s top line and even mixing the team’s pregame music. A multifaceted role is one that the Syosset, New York, native has been naturally drawn to during his 10 years in the League; plus, it gives him a chance to take creative liberties - at least when it comes to the music.
Nystrom will turn 32 years old on Valentine’s Day, and the winger said he’s considering changing up the tunes played throughout Bridgestone Arena during the team’s warm-up skate. After all, it would help to ease some of the “pain” that having a holiday birthday has caused him his whole life.
“I’ve gotten a lot of red underwear, that’s for sure,” Nystrom said, chuckling. “Every year since I was a kid, my mom has gotten me something like heart underwear. I tell her every year I don’t want any more, but she still seems to get me a pair. It’s a unique holiday to have a birthday on, but everybody remembers it.”
A unique birthday isn’t the only thing that defines the forward, however. Nystrom’s position on Nashville’s shutdown line has helped the club eliminate offensive opportunities, a key factor in the Predators success as evidenced by their 22-3-1 record at home. When Head Coach Peter Laviolette has the ability to match Nystrom, Paul Gaustad and Taylor Beck against some of the game’s best scorers while at Bridgestone Arena, the team has claimed 22 wins in 26 games in their own barn.
“That’s a key in this League; if you shut down an opponent’s top line, then you have a chance to win every night,” Preds forward Mike Ribeiro said. “Our fourth line is a big part of that. They’ve been shutting down some big lines.”
Recently, Toronto’s Phil Kessel and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos joined a list of top scorers that have been held pointless by Nystrom and his linemates. On the special teams front, the Predators penalty kill is humming too - killing off 27 of the 28 penalties faced since Jan. 27.
“After the All-Star Break, our PK has been in the upper 90 [percent], and Nystrom and those guys have been doing a great job for us,” said Ribeiro. “He’s a good skater and has some good skills...He’s a guy that works hard, finishes his checks and is a big part of our PK. He can score some big goals for us too.”
But Nystrom and his line’s biggest contribution to a Preds team that has an NHL-best 36 wins might not be easily measured on the score sheet. Thanks to the club’s fourth line taking on the toughest defensive assignments, players like Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg and James Neal are freed up to focus on creating goals and often benefit from increased offensive zone starts.
“We take a lot pride in playing against other team’s top players and facing them with a lot of defensive zone faceoffs,” Nystrom said. “Goose (Paul Gaustad) is amazing at [winning draws], so that makes it a lot easier. But that’s something we take a lot of pride in, and that’s our job on the team - to keep those guys in check.
“At the same time, it helps our top forwards with more offensive zone faceoffs and they don’t have to spend their time containing someone like a [Steven] Stamkos. They can instead spend time in the offensive zone and sustain pressure. We’d rather have our top guys playing in the other end of the ice.”
The competitive advantage bestowed to Laviolette with his fourth line’s defensive prowess has been “a huge part” of the team’s effectiveness this season, according to the coach.
“Lavy puts a lot of trust in us, sending us out against [an opponent’s] top line,” Beck said. “I think we’ve done a great job of it too, especially in the last month or so. Whether it’s Stamkos or Ovechkin, Goose is so good down low that me and Nye can chip pucks out. Plus, we’ve done a good job of playing down in their end. They can’t score if they’re on their own side of the ice.”
Playing tough minutes, blocking shots and completing the tasks on the ice that may be easy to overlook has been the role prescribed to Nystrom, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, Nystrom, Ribeiro and Beck all mention each teammate’s commitment to their defined responsibilities as one of the top reasons not only for a four-point lead on the Central Division, but a “never give up” attitude present in the squad’s dressing room.
“I think that’s why we’ve been successful,” Nystrom said. “Everybody is playing their role the best they can. Guys that are relied on to score goals have been, and guys that are supposed to check and defend have done a great job of that as well. That’s a big part of a successful team, guys knowing what they bring to the table and excelling in that role.”
And for the man with the easy-to-remember birthday, sometimes your role also includes picking between Calvin Harris or Tiesto for a pump up session prior to puck drop.
“I’m thinking about switching it up some more,” Nystrom said. “The one we’ve got right now has been working pretty well, but maybe I’ll make another one since [Saturday] is a special day.”
Either way, it sounds like he’ll have at least one satisfied fan.
“I always love his music, I sit beside him on the plane now and he’s always mixing it,” Beck said of Nystrom. “He gets really excited about it. It always gets the guys going before the game, he plays it in the dressing room too, and recently in warm-ups, so it’s good stuff.”