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Can the Nashville Predators do more to protect their teammates?

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As debate around the NHL continues to rage over dangerous hits, the Nashville Predators have recently been subjected to a few instances themselves. Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals boarded Marcel Goc, resulting in a separated shoulder, while Cory Sarich of the Calgary Flames injured Ryan Suter and also went after Cody Franson with a high elbow.

The question is, can anything be done to prevent further damage? A fight after the fact does little to shore up a Nashville lineup which continues to bring in fresh faces to replace the wounded. With the rough-and-tumble St. Louis Blues coming to town Thursday, followed a trip Saturday to face the Detroit Red Wings and infamous headhunter Niklas Kronwall, it's a topic worth investigating further...

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While some teams take runs at important players more often than others, the truth is these things happen every game. For Nashville, regardless of the Goc and Suter injuries, this is typically manifested in Patric Hornqvist taking an absolute beating in front of the opponent's goaltender. Why? Not necessarily because Hornqvist is endangering the goalie, but because he's so successful at his job. I've seen Hornqvist punched in the face, cross checked, and completely dumped onto the ice, simply for screening the netminder. As you might imagine, this will eventually injure the guy.

Patric Hornqvist is merely an example of something that occurs consistently in the NHL - important players get physically abused in order to take them out of the game. There are two problems with this. One, that a key cog risks getting injured, and two, that opposing teams get the idea they can push Nashville around en route to a victory. With that in mind, lets take a look at some ways this tactic can be slowed or completely stopped:

  • One choice, of course, is to insert Wade Belak into the lineup on nights when things could get out of hand, such as against the Calgary Flames, or the Blues. While there's little argument that Belak is an elite fighter, the fact is that his presence means Nashville would, for all intents and purposes, be playing with 11 forwards. Besides the negligible scoreboard contributions, Belak does not seem to have much of an influence before players get targeted. He's good for taking on another team's heavyweight enforcer, and responding to a challenge - but intimidation isn't really his calling card.
  • Another option is to loosen the "leash" on Shane O`Brien, and to a lesser extent, Jordin Tootoo. O'Brien brings a particular snarl to the team that only Shea Weber consistently displays. As good a fighter as Nashville's captain is, the idea of him sitting in the penalty box for 5 minutes, or worse yet, injured, is not a good one. O'Brien provides the ability to play hockey (unlike Belak), and is a good reminder to the other team that shenanigans will not be tolerated.
  • A final idea, and perhaps the best one, is for policing the game to be a team effort. It may be a simple shove, a forceful word or two, or even a fight. Remember Scott Nichol taking on Joe Thornton? Jason Arnott vs. Alex Burrows? Or more recently, Steve Sullivan against Wojtek Wolski, or Colin Wilson and Roman Polak? These tilts do more than keep someone from getting pushed around - they bring the team together.

At any rate, it appears the Predators are one step ahead of me. In the video and story below, Kevin Klein does the right thing by taking exception to a nasty hit from Evgeni Malkin on Jordin Tootoo. Malkin doesn't answer the bell, unfortunately, but the message was well sent.

Here's Jim Diamond of the Examiner, reporting on the instance:

Klein held his own in the fight, but probably came up on the losing end of the decision. It didn't matter. He came to the defense of a teammate. That's something none of the Predators did in Tuesday night's overtime loss to Calgary. In that game, Calgary's Cory Sarich delivered hard hits to Ryan Suter and Francis Bouillon and an elbow to the chin of Cody Franson that all went unaddressed by anyone in blue Tuesday.

Thursday was a different story.

"We are a tight-knit group," Franson said. "We don't have a lot of those ‘tough guys' that are there just to stand up for guys. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. That is not something we go looking to do, but we are a close group in here, and if we have to, we will do it."

Franson's words, frankly, are music to my ears. Nashville has always iced some tough players, but no one besides Weber or Tootoo consistently wants to mix it up. As the team's success increases, so will the need for physicality with a healthy side of discipline. It's good to hear they have each other's backs.

So what do you think should be done to prevent further injuries? Should Wade Belak play more often, Shane O'Brien step up physically, or should this be a team-wide mentality? Perhaps things are fine as they stand? Whatever the case may be, let us know your thoughts in the poll and comments below.