It was last year and training camp had just ended.
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz called forward Nick Spaling
into his office.
“I told him, ‘You can play for us right now, no question, ” Trotz recalled. “I said, ‘I think you had a good training camp. But I need you to find that offensive part of your game.’ ”
Spaling did get a taste of the NHL the season before in 2009-10. He was recalled twice to fill holes when injuries struck, but he wasn’t a full-time NHL player at that point. So when Trotz told him at the end of camp last season that he would start the year in Milwaukee, Spaling decided to look at it positively.
He didn’t sulk, didn’t slink away and hang his head. He went to Milwaukee to get to work, but he was barely there before being called up to Nashville due to more injury issues with the Predators’ roster. And this time, he stuck. He would go on to play 74 games, including 12 in the playoffs when he scored two goals and had four assists.
“I think there was some pressure I put on myself, but in a good way,” Spaling said. “I wanted to be here and make the step as quick as possible. I wanted to come here and produce and be part of the team.”
Now Spaling is a key part of Nashville’s present and future. His versatility is arguably his greatest strength, and the former second round pick in 2007 has been rewarded by being put on a scoring line to start the 2011-12 season.
“The first thing you noticed about Nick Spaling
was he has really good hockey sense,” Trotz said. “What is that? He can connect the dots of what’s happening around him. He really has a good mind for taking out the clutter and defining what’s really happening. When we saw him, we said he’s a real detailed guy and he’s going to have a quick learning curve. And that’s where he is.”
Spaling has been a staple on the penalty kill and has become a mini Mr. Fix-it with the departures of Marcel Goc and Joel Ward. He is able to play the wing or center and has been relied on late in games when defensive shutdowns are needed.
“I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable out there,” said Spaling, who has an assist in Nashville’s first two regular season games. “As every year goes on and as every game goes on, I try to become more confident in the things I’m doing.”
The confidence began on Dec. 13 of last year against the New York Islanders. He broke through with a goal after going goal-less in the first 49 games of his NHL career.
“Finally he scored that first goal,” Trotz said. “The guys were so happy for him. We put him on a 5-on-3 power play and he scored another goal. He started to feel like he belonged when he got that first one under his belt.”
Last season, Spaling played mostly on a checking line with Jerred Smithson and Jordin Tootoo
. But as he began to grow his offensive game on the NHL level, the coaching staff took notice.
In Friday’s season opener, he played on a scoring line with Martin Erat
and Sergei Kostitsyn
. On Saturday, after Erat suffered an upper-body injury, Spaling played on a line with Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist
. The bump up the lines will likely produce more points for Spaling, but he believes his output will increase this year regardless of where he’s playing.
“It’s not bad playing with anyone here,” Spaling said. “I think everybody is pretty comfortable. It’s nice playing with those guys (Erat, Kostitsyn, Hornqvist). They make it easy out there, too. It just seems like any line, you feel comfortable. Hopefully we can keep that going.”