Typically, it is goal scorers and their highlight-reel moves that receive all the attention – especially in the “new NHL” with its emphasis on speed and skill. But, four lines compose a team’s forward contingent and typically only half of those units focus primarily on offense. Lines three and four look to create energy and shut down the opposition while pitching in goals when they can. Known as “grinders,” these unsung heroes can often go unnoticed by the casual observer.
So what exactly is a grinder?
“I think a grinder is a guy you know what you are going to get from him game in and game out,” Predators forward Scott Nichol said. “He is very consistent and keeps the game simple. He gets the puck in, bangs bodies and puts the puck on net. If I were a coach and there are two minutes left, I am going to put that guy out there because you know he is going to do everything he can to get the puck out. He is exactly the same – a very reliable player.”
Becoming player like this usually involves an evolving process from a scorer in the lower ranks. Without some sort of skill set, forwards don’t make it to the National Hockey League, and therefore when they are surrounded by lesser talent, like in junior hockey, they are relied on for offense. But, playing on the bottom two lines is as much about creating momentum and stopping the other team as it is about scoring.
Nichol, a self-proclaimed grinder, scored 40 goals and 93 points in just 65 games his final season in juniors with the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League, but immediately began to hone his defensive game when he turned pro with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League in 1994.
“We have all scored goals growing up – we wouldn’t be in this situation if we didn’t know how to finish – but you have to adapt to what got you here,” he said. “As the years go on, players get more skilled, so if it is playing with passion, grit, energy or a never-say-die attitude that got you here, you stick to it.”
Jerred Smithson, another defensive forward, seconded his teammate’s thoughts, saying consistency is the most important quality for a player like himself. He said that every shift has to contain the same level of energy or a grinder won’t stick in “the show.”
“A grinder comes every day to work hard – they love to get into the corners and muck,” Smithson said. “They don’t necessarily put up big numbers and get on the score sheet every night, but they are making a difference in the lineup, trying to win one-on-one battles.”
The hard work can pay off on the score sheet, as it did for Smithson in back-to-back games in late October. Against Atlanta on Oct. 25 and Florida on Oct. 27, the 6-3, 194-pound centerman scored consecutive game-winning goals for the Preds simply taking the punishment doled out by opposing defenders and driving to the net. It was the first time in his five-year NHL career that he had been rewarded with goals in two straight contests.
“For a grinder, it is hard, but rewarding,” he said. “I feel good when I get in on the forecheck, get a good check, and force a turnover. It is a hard job, and is a lot of work, but it is definitely rewarding.”
Usually, third and fourth liners bring another element to the table beyond their energy and work ethic. For Smithson, it is his ability to aggressively forecheck and play defense and that has put him among the league leaders in takeaways all season. As for Nichol, he was the team leader in face-off percentage a year ago and paces the squad again this season.
“My first priority is winning the face-off – that is why I have stayed in the NHL because I am good in the face-off circle,” Nichol said. “As a fourth-line guy, if you start out with the puck it is sure a lot easier than chasing it around for 30 seconds. I always remind my wingers to battle for the puck and get it, then get a forecheck, and it all starts from there.”
Even from the franchise’s beginnings in 1998, head coach Barry Trotz has welcomed any blue-collar forward who packs a lunch and brings his hard hat night in and night out, and quite often guys like Nichol and Smithson thrive in his system.
Scott Walker, who scored 10 total goals in his first three NHL seasons with Vancouver, used his grinder mentality to blossom into a 25-goal scorer for the Preds. Same is the case for Vladimir Orszagh (from 2001-04) and Vernon Fiddler (since 2002), whose styles have led to production.
“I think the game has changed a lot, the fourth line has to contribute and be relied on,” Nichol said. “You are going to be in situations where you have to chip in a goal here or there, or draw a penalty. Nowadays, all guys can skate and a lot of team don’t have a so-called enforcer and roll all four lines.”