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Grinding it out

Tuesday, 11.13.2007 / 1:53 PM CT / Features
By Kevin Wilson  - Nashville Predators
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Grinding it out
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Typically, it is goal scorers and their highlight-reel moves that receive all the attention – especially in the “new NHL” with its emphasis on speed and skill. But, four lines compose a team’s forward contingent and typically only half of those units focus primarily on offense. Lines three and four look to create energy and shut down the opposition while pitching in goals when they can. Known as “grinders,” these unsung heroes can often go unnoticed by the casual observer.

So what exactly is a grinder?
Predators Video
Scott Nichol 

Jerred Smithson 

“I think a grinder is a guy you know what you are going to get from him game in and game out,” Predators forward Scott Nichol said. “He is very consistent and keeps the game simple. He gets the puck in, bangs bodies and puts the puck on net. If I were a coach and there are two minutes left, I am going to put that guy out there because you know he is going to do everything he can to get the puck out. He is exactly the same – a very reliable player.”

Becoming player like this usually involves an evolving process from a scorer in the lower ranks. Without some sort of skill set, forwards don’t make it to the National Hockey League, and therefore when they are surrounded by lesser talent, like in junior hockey, they are relied on for offense. But, playing on the bottom two lines is as much about creating momentum and stopping the other team as it is about scoring.
Nichol

Nichol, a self-proclaimed grinder, scored 40 goals and 93 points in just 65 games his final season in juniors with the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League, but immediately began to hone his defensive game when he turned pro with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League in 1994.

“We have all scored goals growing up – we wouldn’t be in this situation if we didn’t know how to finish – but you have to adapt to what got you here,” he said. “As the years go on, players get more skilled, so if it is playing with passion, grit, energy or a never-say-die attitude that got you here, you stick to it.”

Jerred Smithson, another defensive forward, seconded his teammate’s thoughts, saying consistency is the most important quality for a player like himself. He said that every shift has to contain the same level of energy or a grinder won’t stick in “the show.”

“A grinder comes every day to work hard – they love to get into the corners and muck,” Smithson said. “They don’t necessarily put up big numbers and get on the score sheet every night, but they are making a difference in the lineup, trying to win one-on-one battles.”

The hard work can pay off on the score sheet, as it did for Smithson in back-to-back games in late October. Against Atlanta on Oct. 25 and Florida on Oct. 27, the 6-3, 194-pound centerman scored consecutive game-winning goals for the Preds simply taking the punishment doled out by opposing defenders and driving to the net. It was the first time in his five-year NHL career that he had been rewarded with goals in two straight contests.

“For a grinder, it is hard, but rewarding,” he said. “I feel good when I get in on the forecheck, get a good check, and force a turnover. It is a hard job, and is a lot of work, but it is definitely rewarding.”

Usually, third and fourth liners bring another element to the table beyond their energy and work ethic. For Smithson, it is his ability to aggressively forecheck and play defense and that has put him among the league leaders in takeaways all season. As for Nichol, he was the team leader in face-off percentage a year ago and paces the squad again this season.
Smithson

“My first priority is winning the face-off – that is why I have stayed in the NHL because I am good in the face-off circle,” Nichol said. “As a fourth-line guy, if you start out with the puck it is sure a lot easier than chasing it around for 30 seconds. I always remind my wingers to battle for the puck and get it, then get a forecheck, and it all starts from there.”

Even from the franchise’s beginnings in 1998, head coach Barry Trotz has welcomed any blue-collar forward who packs a lunch and brings his hard hat night in and night out, and quite often guys like Nichol and Smithson thrive in his system.

Scott Walker, who scored 10 total goals in his first three NHL seasons with Vancouver, used his grinder mentality to blossom into a 25-goal scorer for the Preds. Same is the case for Vladimir Orszagh (from 2001-04) and Vernon Fiddler (since 2002), whose styles have led to production.
 
“I think the game has changed a lot, the fourth line has to contribute and be relied on,” Nichol said. “You are going to be in situations where you have to chip in a goal here or there, or draw a penalty. Nowadays, all guys can skate and a lot of team don’t have a so-called enforcer and roll all four lines.”

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STANDINGS
 

WESTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 z - ANA 82 51 24 7 228 221 109
2 y - STL 82 51 24 7 239 197 109
3 x - NSH 82 47 25 10 226 202 104
4 x - CHI 82 48 28 6 220 186 102
5 x - VAN 82 48 29 5 236 220 101
6 x - MIN 82 46 28 8 227 198 100
7 x - WPG 82 43 26 13 223 204 99
8 x - CGY 82 45 30 7 237 213 97
9 LAK 82 40 27 15 218 197 95
10 DAL 82 41 31 10 257 257 92
11 COL 82 39 31 12 209 223 90
12 SJS 82 40 33 9 224 226 89
13 EDM 82 24 44 14 193 276 62
14 ARI 82 24 50 8 165 267 56

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
F. Forsberg 82 26 37 15 63
M. Ribeiro 82 15 47 11 62
R. Josi 81 15 40 15 55
S. Weber 78 15 30 15 45
C. Smith 82 23 21 11 44
C. Wilson 77 20 22 19 42
M. Fisher 59 19 20 4 39
J. Neal 67 23 14 12 37
R. Ellis 58 9 18 8 27
S. Jones 82 8 19 3 27
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
P. Rinne 41 17 6 .923 2.18
C. Hutton 6 7 4 .902 2.61