The Nashville Predators made a big splash on Friday afternoon, signing more players in a single day than any other free agency period in franchise history.
After a less-than-hopeful outcome to the 2012-13 season, President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile set out to re-tool and improve the Preds roster heading into the 2013-14 season.
“In a little over two months, we have had numerous meetings with the players, coaches and within the hockey operation department,” Poile said. “We were not happy with the 2012-13 season, and we knew we needed to change and improve. I think today is the culmination of all those meetings."
Those changes began to take shape at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft last Sunday in Newark, N.J., as Nashville selected the consensus top-rated North American skater, defenseman Seth Jones. He provides Nashville with a young, puck-moving defenseman and fills a high-priority offseason need. Compared to the defensive talent in the free agent pool, Jones comes at a reasonable cap hit – the maximum entry level deal is $3.225 million.
In the wake of the Jones selection, the Preds cut ties with several players, including Hal Gill, Jonathon Blum and Matt Halischuk. While many fans may not agree with some of the decisions made, it freed up nearly $8 million in cap space for next season, which allowed ownership more flexibility and set this historic day of transactions into motion.
The first move came early on Friday, as Poile locked up winger Viktor Stalberg to a four year, $12 million deal. Stalberg, 27, made a name for himself with his excellent skating ability and scoring touch that went relatively unnoticed in the high-powered Chicago offense. In Nashville, Stalberg will fit into the top six and will help provide the scoring touch the Preds are looking for heading into next season and beyond.
“Stalberg never really got the opportunity in Chicago,” Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “He was on the third and fourth lines, which wasn’t really his role. I think he is going to be very productive in our system. He would have been our third leading scorer last year and he was playing in a different role in Chicago. We like his speed, he’s a big guy and we have a lot of faith in his offensive abilities.”
The Gothenburg, Sweden native began his NHL career in 2009-10 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, posting 14 points (9g-5a) in 40 games. The 6-3, 210-pound forward joined Chicago in 2010-11, compiling 90 points (43g-47a) in 203 regular-season games. He added six points (1g-5a) in 32 career playoff games for the Blackhawks, including three assists en route to the 2013 Stanley Cup.
The Preds filled the back-up goaltender need by signing Carter Hutton to a one-year, two-way contract. Hutton, 27, has been a solid AHL goaltender, most recently with Chicago’s primary affiliate, the Rockford Icehogs, but has had trouble breaking into the NHL because of veterans on the depth chart. The undrafted netminder began his career in San Jose behind Antti Niemi and Tomas Greiss, before he moved to Chicago in 2010-11 and found himself behind Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. The 27-year-old was also recalled to the Blackhawks in 2011-12, and backed up Niemi on multiple occasions in 2010-11.
“We needed a back-up goaltender and we believe Carter Hutton is ready for that role,” Trotz said. “He has been in the minors and he’s had great success. In watching Mitch Korn really break down a goalie, I really trust his judgment and he believes this player has the right tools to be successful at the NHL level.”
Hutton took the ice in 51 games for Rockford last season, posting a 26-22-1 record with a 2.72 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and two shutouts. In 2011-12, the 6-1, 195-pound netminder was named Rockford’s most valuable player after tying a team record with .917 save percentage and setting a club mark with a 2.35 goals-against average.
The Thunder Bay, Ont., native made his NHL debut on April 27, 2013, in Chicago’s final regular-season game in 2012-13 – a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Poile then concentrated on adding grit to the line-up by signing Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom.
“In Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom we got very experienced players,” Poile said. “These are leadership guys, guys that play hard and guys that know how to win. They are very necessary components as we move forward, especially with the younger players on our team.”
Henricks, who was originally drafted by Nashville in the fifth round (131st overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, signed a four-year, $7.4 million contract on Friday afternoon. The Blaine, Minn., native amassed eight points (5g-3a) in 48 games with Washington in 2012-13, while leading the team in penalty minutes (73), and ranking third on the team in both face-off efficiency (56.8 percent) and hits (93). Since making his NHL debut with Colorado in 2008-09, the 6-0, 211-pound forward has compiled 58 points (27g-31a) and 365 penalty minutes in 263 games.
“I was drafted by Nashville 13 years ago and I never got an opportunity to work with the organization,” Hendricks said. “Things just didn’t work out between Nashville and I; I moved on and they moved on. But I couldn’t be happier to get a chance to come back to play for the Preds and live in a great city like Nashville.”
Nystrom signed a four-year, $10 million deal after spending the last two seasons with the Dallas Stars. In 2012-13, he posted 11 points (7g-4a), 61 penalty minutes and ranked among the League leaders in hits (122), a season prior he recorded 21 points (16g-5a) in 74 games. Since his rookie season with Calgary in 2005-06, the 6-1, 193-pound left wing has 83 points (46g-37a) and 306 penalty minutes in 408 NHL games.
“Obviously, grit, character and work ethic are really important to having a successful team,” Nystrom said. “I think we have targeted some really good guys. I’ve played with Matt Cullen and he works so hard. I know Hendricks from Washington and he is a really gritty guy and he’s determined. And Stalberg just won the Cup and he knows what it takes to be successful. Adding guys like the Preds did today will only make them better.”
With their final move during the free agent frenzy, Nashville replaced some of the departed experience by signing veteran center Matt Cullen to a two-year, $7 million deal. The 37-year-old, who spent the past three seasons with Minnesota, becomes the Predators most veteran skater, having played in 1,073 regular season games, amassing 562 points (202g-360a), including 27 points (7g-20a) in 2012-13. The faceoff specialist won 54.7 percent of his draws last season, 53.2 percent in 11-12 and 56.1 percent in 10-11.
The 6-1, 194-pound center also has a Stanley Cup ring, after posting 18 points (4g-14a) in 25 games during Carolina's run to the title in 2006. In 68 career postseason games, Cullen has 39 points (11g-28a).
“I’m really excited to join the Predators,” Cullen said. “I have a lot of respect for the way they play the game, and a lot of respect for those in the front office and those on the coaching staff. I am really excited about this new chapter.”
While this is just the first day of free agency, David Poile has already addressed several key areas by adding size, scoring and grit to the Predators’ lineup.