For Nick Spaling
, it’s all in the details.
The 22-year-old Predators forward has made his mark in Nashville as one of the team’s strongest penalty killers since being recalled from Milwaukee on October 18, 2010. His presence on the ice helped the Preds claim the seventh-best penalty kill in the National Hockey League.
This comes to no surprise to the Predators’ front office, though. Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton was there when the Preds drafted Nick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in the second round at 58th overall.
“When we drafted him, we saw him as a third line center or wing. The nice thing with Nick is that he’s versatile enough to play both,” Fenton said.
Spaling has entrenched himself in a two-way forward role with the Predators, but Fenton says there is one thing most people don’t know about Nick.
“The thing that people don’t know is that Nick was a great scorer at the Junior level. He had 25 goals in 25 games until he came down with mononucleosis his second year of Juniors.”
In his time with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, Spaling accumulated 202 points (89g-85a) in 218 games including the playoffs.
His stats changed when he moved into the American Hockey League, but his role did, too. With the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate Milwaukee Admirals; he gathered 55 points in 138 games while battling the AHL’s top players.
Fenton watched his progression against top lines and saw it as a positive for Nick.
“In Milwaukee, his role was to play against the teams’ best lines, so he’s been well-schooled with our development process” Fenton said. “The handoff has been seamless for him to fit the same role here as he had for us in Milwaukee.
“We saw a guy that was so attentive to detail. We knew that if he didn’t produce offensively, he was going to be able to be one of our most dependable guys in a checking situation.”
Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz echoed this sentiment.
“We saw him filling in more of a penalty killing, third or fourth line. He’s done a terrific job filling different roles on the defensive side.”
Like his teammate Cal O’Reilly, Spaling has seen multiple stints in Nashville and Milwaukee before becoming a mainstay in Nashville. Coach Trotz says that’s all a part of the plan.
“When you move up and down, your game becomes a little more refined,” Trotz said. “You feel more comfortable [in Nashville]. It’s the same thing with Cal O’Reilly. He’s been up and down several times, and now he’s made the jump. I see the same thing with Nick.”
Since Spaling was recalled in mid-October, he has shined in his defensive roles. The Predators’ penalty killing unit set franchise records for consecutive successful penalty kills (37) and consecutive games without allowing a power-play goal. The nine-game streak ran from Nov. 16 at Montreal to Dec. 4 vs. Carolina, while the 37 successful kills go back one game to Nov. 15, while concluding Dec. 6 at Atlanta.
He has been a key factor in this production.
When asked why Spaling was so effective on the penalty kill, Trotz and Fenton had the same answer: his attention to details.
“He’s been very good on draws, and he’s very good in tight. He might not look really big, but he gets down low and battles for pucks everywhere,” Fenton said. “He gets in the correct lanes and takes away passing and shooting opportunities. His details are as good as anyone that we have.”
Spaling currently averages 56.4 percent per game at the face-off dot including an outstanding 54.8 percent average when on the penalty kill.
Coach Trotz also noted Spaling’s tenacity.
“He’s got tenacity which good penalty killers have,” he said. “He has good awareness, and he understands the power play. He knows what the options are based on where the defensive pressure points are, and some guys don’t have any feel for that. He’s very detailed.”
Spaling credits the Predators’ penalty kill scheme for his success.
“I think we have a pretty good system that is pretty easy for us to follow,” Spaling said. “It’s a lot easier when everyone just knows what they’re doing, and everyone does their job. I think [Coach Trotz] makes it easier that way.”
Nick’s ability and work ethic did not start in Milwaukee or Nashville, though. He was part of a dominant Kitchener Rangers team that won the Ontario Hockey League Championship in 2008 and was a large part of their success. Spaling notched 30 points in 20 playoff games including the game-winning goal in Game Seven of the OHL Finals.
Spaling credits his head coach in Kitchener, Peter DeBoer (now the head coach of the Florida Panthers), as one of the reasons for his skills.
“He’s a real hard-nosed coach, and he demanded a lot of his players in Juniors,” Spaling commented. “He taught a lot of work ethic. He demanded so much that you brought your game and played hard every night.”
This coaching style and his hard work translated well in his path to the NHL.
“You just have to be ready for every game in the NHL because the competition is so high.”
“Every time you come up [from Milwaukee], you feel more comfortable. You feel you can play at this level, and you feel you have more staying power with the group,” Trotz said. “We see Nick as a really strong two-way player – a guy you can really count on.”
The Predators rely on the penalty kill to be effective night-in and night-out and Spaling is one of the anchors of its success.
“This year, he’s been excellent as a penalty killer,” Fenton said.
Spaling averages 3:01 in shorthanded time on ice per game and has only seen two power play goals scored while he’s on the ice. When he is in the lineup, the Preds have converted 63-of-69 (91.3 percent) shorthanded situations. This stands in stark contrast to the 70.0 PK percentage when Spaling has not been in the Preds’ lineup.
“I’ve always been playing defensively responsible, and that’s a big part of my game,” Spaling said. “I want to start contributing more offensively as well.”
For Spaling to continue his progression in the NHL, all he needs to take a look at are the details. It is what got him here in the first place.