For Viktor Stalberg and Carter Hutton, signing contracts with the Nashville Predators brought different expectations.
One was set to bring scoring to a team that sorely needed it. The other was there to provide backup goaltending to a starter who rarely takes a break. Those were the expectations. What happened, at least at the start of this season, was nowhere near that for either of them.
Stalberg and Hutton are settled into their roles with the Predators now; Stalberg’s finding a spot on the team’s top line after a tough start while Hutton is, well, the team’s starter. Be it recovering from a tough beginning or just adjusting to a beginning not originally envisioned, it’s been a busy first month plus for both, and now they’re preparing for seeing their former organization, the Blackhawks, on Saturday.
For Stalberg, Nashville was a fresh start after a successful Stanley Cup run, but an individually tough ending, with the Blackhawks. He signed a four-year, $12-million contract this offseason as an unrestricted free agent and looked forward to providing a more offensive presence with his new team. But his indoctrination was a painful one, as he suffered a shoulder injury during training camp. Compound that with adjusting to a new team and a new system, and it was a tough couple of weeks.
“No question about it,” said Stalberg in a telephone interview on Thursday. “Coming in here, the way they play here is a lot different than I’ve been used to the last couple of years. There’s a lot more structure in certain areas. It did set me back quite a bit, more than I expected and it was tough to catch up.”
When Stalberg did return, he struggled out of the gate. He was also being moved all around the lineup, then was scratched twice. But Stalberg’s put that all behind him and is focusing on getting his game going and taking advantage of the scoring opportunities he said he’s been getting.
“I’m getting back to playing my type of hockey and that’s what it’s all about,” said Stalberg, who’s got two points in 12 games. “But (the start) was tough. When I got injured I came back a little too early, I think. Sometimes that happens. But I’ve been playing a lot better. I’ve been getting a lot of chances. Hopefully the puck starts bouncing my way.”
Hutton signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Predators and, upon arrival, looked forward to learning from the team’s strong starter Pekka Rinne. But that plan went awry, as Rinne, who had arthroscopic hip surgery in May, suffered a bacterial infection in that hip and has been out since late October. And just like that, Hutton, who had just one prior NHL start in his career, became the Predators’ starter.
“Yeah, it wasn’t what I expected,” said Hutton, who has a 3.53 goals-against average in nine games this season. “When you play behind a guy like Pekka who plays a lot of games, I thought it’d be a long time (before I played), a lot of time for practicing and developing my game. Turned out I played a lot more early on. But it’s great, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed.”
Indeed, Hutton is enjoying the trial-by-fire indoctrination.
“Obviously it was something no one was prepared for, but I’m trying to take it slow,” he said. “Being a goalie there’s always going to be pressure. At the same time, there’s more on me now with Pekka out. But it’s just the same thing: just try to get better so, no matter who’s there, I can play well. It’s just about becoming a better goalie day in and day out.”
Both Stalberg and Hutton are looking forward to the Blackhawks coming to Nashville this weekend. Hutton didn’t log a lot of time with the Blackhawks. But since the current team is made up of half of his Rockford IceHogs teammates, it’ll be a reunion for him, too. And he knows their every on-ice move, right?
“I don’t know if you know every move, but definitely going to be exciting to play familiar faces that I have strong friendships with,” he said. “There are a lot of guys I spent a lot of time with and they’re really close friends. When you’re on the ice it’s just hockey and we’ll be battling to win as hard as they are. After the game, we’ll still be friends.”
For Stalberg, he won a Cup with these guys and admits he sometimes talks like he still lives in Chicago. There are great memories here for him and with his old teammates.
“It’ll certainly be great,” he said. “Obviously we had some success over the years. It’s a new chapter here, but it’ll be strange seeing them for the first time (since the Cup run).”
As for that tough ending, when he was a postseason scratch in a few games, Stalberg has put that all behind him.
“Whatever happened happened. I’m not putting any more thought into that,” he said. “There’s a new chapter here and I’m looking forward. That’s all I can really do is look forward and move forward.”