There has hardly been a press conference or media session with a member of the Predators organization over the past few months that has gone by without some sort of the phrase "tougher team to play against" being used.
Players, coaches, management - they all say the Preds have begun to stray away from that reputation of being one of the hardest-working teams in the NHL in recent seasons.
From the moment Nashville's 2019-20 season came to an end in August, an emphasis was put forth to become one of those clubs that wasn't going to give any opponents an easy pass to the net. That mantra has continued throughout Predators Training Camp presented by Vanderbilt Health, and over the last eight days, the Preds have made sure to embrace the grind and reshape their identity ahead of the 2021 campaign.
But what exactly does the phrase "tougher to play against" mean? What does it look like? Pose that question to any member of the Predators, and they may offer some slight variations, but all of the options will be key if the group is to make life miserable for the opposition in the months to come.
"Being tough on the puck, getting pucks in and not turning them over, not being one and done and just wearing teams down," Preds forward Erik Haula offered. "Being tough to play against also means that you'd have to have four lines, every single guy invested and going every single night, because there can't be one line and then you have a bunch of passengers. I honestly think it's consistency and just being very clear on what the identity of the team needs to be."
"Each guy brings something different to the table," Nashville defenseman Matt Benning said. "I think for some, playing physical is obvious. It's going and finishing checks, but for others, it's being tenacious on the puck and competing and never giving up. For me, I kind of want to bring both of those things. Throughout my career, I've been able to provide some hits in the open ice, and even in the corners, and then I'm a competitive guy in the corner. I like to battle and that sort of thing, so I definitely won't shy away from the physical side of the game. But at the same time, you can't go out there just looking for hits, you've got to play the game."
The Predators are scheduled to play in 56 of those games starting on Thursday night when the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town for the first two outings of the season, and there is a belief and a sense around the League that with a shortened, compact schedule, every night is going to have a playoff-feel.
That was evident in Nashville's scrimmage on Sunday night as well, a contest that Preds forward Matt Duchene said felt more like a regular-season tilt than an exhibition against his own teammates. But that's good news for the Predators as they continue to work toward becoming that gritty team once more.
So, how does Duchene believe his team will be viewed as tough to face?
"At the end of the day, it's about buying into the structure of the team, whether it be the actual structure in terms of the X's and O's, or like, 'OK, what is our identity? What are we trying to accomplish here?'" Duchene said. "That's something that we lacked at times last year - identity of what kind of team we were. And it was obviously a strange year, and COVID just kind of topped it off last year. But, coming in this year, it's about buying into those concepts, and I think if we do that as a group and everyone's on the same page, it's hard to play against.
"[Everyone has] to be insanely competitive every time you touch the ice, whether it's practice, whether it's games; I mean, you've just got to look at whoever you're going against and that 1-on-1 battle…or whoever it is. You want to win that battle every night, and I think if we bring that kind of level of competitiveness to a man, that's hard to play against."
The Predators are just three days away from their first chance to show they've learned some new tactics over the offseason, but perhaps winger Rocco Grimaldi summed it up best - all of these discussions won't mean anything if the Preds don't back it up when two points are on the line.
"Talk is cheap, and we've got to show that on the ice," Grimaldi said. "We can do as much video as we want, and we can be as competitive in practices and intrasquad games, but what really matters is the games, and not only that, but just the ebbs and flows of the season. Sometimes, we're going to go on a win streak or be really high; how are we going to handle that? Are we going to be too confident? Are we going to rest on our laurels? Or, is there going to be a time we go through a losing streak and all of a sudden, we get down on each other? That's the biggest thing. We can talk all we want right now about how everything's going to be great and we fixed this and that, but in reality, life happens, a season happens, a lot of things happen. That's when we're really going to be put to the test."