Bust for Your Buck: Evaluating Nashville’s Free Agency After 29 Games

Nashville spent its summer rounding out its lineup through unrestricted free agency, splitting upwards of 11 million between four bottom six forwards – Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, and Matt Hendricks.  While these moves did add depth to a forward group that leaned heavily on Milwaukee call-ups last spring, they haven’t fixed all of the Predators’ woes.  The offense is still only good for 25th in the league, and only Gabriel Bourque is the only player on the entire team with positive possession stats.  Offensive impotency coupled with Pekka Rinne’s hip infection has kept Nashville hovering around .500, too good to get excited about the lottery, but still seven points out of a playoff spot in the stupidly competitive West.

Here’s how these new signings have stacked up to the organization’s expectations.

Matt Cullen

The Expectation: A cagey vet who could center the third line, not be terrible defensively, and chip in roughly 40 points.

The Reality: Pretty much a slightly worse version of that.  Nashville’s abysmal goaltending post-Rinne injury hasn’t helped matters, but the guy has been on the ice for too many goals against, especially considering he’s playing the cushiest role on the team.  Cullen is also on pace to score only 37 points this season, cooling off from 27 in 42 only a year ago.  Then again nobody scores in Nashville, so that figure is still good enough for fifth on the team.  It’s been a that kind of year for Preds fans, even if the team is hovering around .500.

Viktor Stalberg

Viktor Stalberg Blackhawks
Viktor Stalberg, not nearly as dreamy as this picture

The Expectation: A top six/nine forward with speed, who can chip in 35-40 points and do well as far as all the #fancystats go.

The Reality: He’s really fast, and that’s about it.  The ex-Blackhawk looks a lot worse offensively without the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and has even spent time as a healthy scratch under Barry Trotz.  A hip injury at the start of the season hasn’t helped things, but Poile and Trotz signed on for more than 7 points in 23 games, especially with those points coming with a bit of an attitude.  There’s no defensive saving grace here either, Stalberg’s been on the ice for 3 goals against for every hour of icetime.

Eric Nystrom

The Expectation: A Brandon Prust/Matt Cooke type of high-impact third liner.  Someone who can really tie a (dressing) room together.

The Reality: For better or worse, he’s the Barry Trotz standard bearer most expected.  Nystrom leads the team in hits and has been a rotation forward on the league’s 10th best PK.  He also gets to play up and down the lineup, because Trotz loves his effort guys.  Nystrom’s jam has brought some much needed excitement to Predators games, but the problems on this team just go beyond his skill level. The former Star and Flame will end up with around 10 goals on the year, but doesn’t have the talent to make the players around him better.  There’s a reason only Paul Gaustad, Matt Hendricks, and Rich Clune have been on the ice for fewer goals for.

Matt Hendricks

The Expectation: Do to the fourth line what Hendricks did on the third.  Score in the shootout.

Matt Hendricks Capitals
(Tom Turks / THW)

The Reality: He makes roughly double what he should, for twice as long.  Despite playing 12 minutes a game on the most expensive fourth line in the league, Hendricks has scored all of one point this season, and is O-fer in the skills competition.  That’s John Scott territory, and at least the big guy can make up for his offensive shortcomings by being the scariest guy on the ice.  Hendricks just fights middleweights to unexciting draws.  Hendricks is high in the rotation on a surprisingly successful penalty kill, but that’s just not enough to offset the fact that he’s been where Nashville possession goes to die.

As I predicted over the summer, Trotz and Poile just aren’t getting the value they hoped for from this UFA class.  Cullen is old and his defense is creaky, Stalberg lacks hockey IQ, and Hendricks and Nystrom don’t bring enough of anything offensively to mend Nashville’s scoring woes.  Ideally, the brain trust will learn from this error in 2014 and focus on one or two specific pieces before turning to the bargain bin – rather than trying to fill out their roster with the shiniest and most expensive role players.  Poile can start mending his ways this deadline as teams look to stock up on intangibles, and should spend this winter working the phones.