Saturday night’s 2-1 Nashville Predators victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at the Bridgestone Arena was all about the kids. The Preds’ stable of youngsters were trying to make one last effort to start the season in the NHL, and it paid big dividends for the team.
Craig Smith’s clutch goal with 10.3 seconds in overtime was the game winner and made the team’s decision to have him start the season in Nashville a no-brainer.
Smith said, “I really was relieved, I’ve had a lot of good chances playing with good players so it was about time I popped one in.”
The Predators’ defense was probably one of the youngest groups to ever suit up for a game at Bridgestone Arena. With Shea Weber and and Ryan Suter taking the night off after the team’s 2:30 a.m. return from Winnipeg, Kevin Klein and Jonathan Blum provided the team’s first defensive pairing.
When Barry Trotz was asked if it was the youngest lineup that he had ever played on defense he said, “It would be right up there. We’re the second youngest team in the league right now. That was pretty young, a lot of early 20′s, a lot of acne out there.”
At 26 years of age, Klein, has grown into a dependable anchor to the Predators’ second line, often shadowing the opponents top scoring line. Over parts of six seasons he has played 243 games with the Preds.
Klein enjoyed being the leader of young defensive corp. “It was fun. I got to wear (the “A”) a couple of times on the road which is pretty neat. We had a good team effort and played a solid sixty minutes.”
“All of our young guys have done great throughout camp and to go 7-1 in the preseason just shows that the young guys are bringing it every night. They’re confident and they know that spots are open so they have come to play every night.
Klein’s partner Blum played 23 games with the Predators last season after being called up on February 22nd. He established himself in the playoffs where he played all 12 games and looked more like a veteran. Under league rules, he is still considered a rookie this season.
As young as Blum is, he is still a mentor to the others. “Those are the guys that I’ve been hanging out with – Ekholm, Ellis and Josi. We went to dinner a lot and obviously they have been asking questions, but it’s a little different because I’m only a year older.”
“I’ve just told them to be themselves play the game that they usually play. That’s the reason they were drafted and the reason they are successful.”
The other four D-men that suited on Saturday will all see time in Nashville this season. Only Jack Hillen has seen much NHL duty, playing 175 games with the Islanders over the past four season.
Teemu Laakso played one game with the Preds last season after logging seven games the year before. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have never played an NHL regular season game.
That will change as the season progresses as all the youngsters will see time in Nashville regardless of whether they make the opening roster.
Barry Trotz summed up the need for plenty of players, “We’re just looking for the right mix and combination that will help us win. I guarantee you that there’s probably 27 guys, actually all the guys that went to Winnipeg, and a couple that were injured and stayed here, all of those guys will be a big part of us having success this year.”
“It’s the way the league is right now. It’s really hard and if you don’t have the depth you’re not going to make the playoffs.”