Stalberg earned his way onto playoffs ice

Viktor Stalberg had a rough road back to the Predators and the playoffs. Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty Images

There are worse places to be than Milwaukee in the American Hockey League.

Viktor Stalberg’s problem wasn’t with the city of Milwaukee, but being in the AHL. He signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Nashville Predators and expected to be in the NHL.

But after suffering an assortment of injuries and not finding a place in the Predators’ lineup midway through this season, Stalberg and the Predators agreed the best plan was to send him to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, where he could get his confidence and game back. Stalberg, a six-year NHL forward, cleared waivers and began calling Milwaukee home in January.

Stalberg used the phrase “frustrating as hell” when describing what it was like being in Milwaukee earlier this season. His feelings haven’t changed since his return to the Predators’ lineup in their first-round playoff series against Chicago Blackhawks. But he has come to appreciate how it benefited him this season.

“Time in Milwaukee is nothing you want to do, but it was good for my confidence going there,” Stalberg, 29, said recently. “Play some games and putting up some points and all that stuff and getting quality minutes, I think that was a big thing for me.”

Stalberg hadn’t experienced individual success for some time before that. He had played for the Blackhawks for three seasons and was part of their 2013 Stanley Cup championship team when he entered the free-agent market. The Predators envisioned his speed and offensive ability bolstering their lineup and signed him prior to the 2013-14 season.

Stalberg didn’t live up to the hype in his first season in Nashville. He scored eight goals and added 10 assists in 70 regular-season games. He fell out of favor with former Predators coach Barry Trotz late in the season and had six games of less than 10 minutes of ice time in the final two months.

Stalberg was optimistic the start of this season would be different under new Predators coach Peter Laviolette. It might have been, too, if Stalberg hadn't sustained a lower-body injury in October, which triggered a negative domino effect. He was assigned to the Admirals for a conditioning assignment in late October, suffered a knee injury in his fourth game there and didn’t play again until late December.

As Stalberg was working his way back from the knee injury, the Predators were soaring. It didn’t make sense to squeeze Stalberg into a lineup that was constantly winning.

“Tough injuries, especially the second knee one,” Stalberg said of the experience. “Getting ice time at that point was tough, too. We were doing great. The team was playing so well that it was tough to get in and get any quality minutes when I was in the lineup. It was tough.”

The Predators and Admirals coach Dean Evason weren’t so sure how Stalberg’s AHL tale would unfold when he was assigned to Milwaukee. It takes the right mindset and work ethic for a veteran NHL player to make such a situation work. They don’t all become success stories.

“We were a little bit concerned when he first got sent down,” Evason said by phone on Friday. “He clearly didn’t want to be there. He would rather have been in Nashville. But his attitude from Day 1 that he got sent down was tremendous. His work ethic in practice, his attentiveness in meetings and his professionalism around everything about the game was absolutely perfect.

“He came in with the right attitude to immediately have success with us. Clearly his skill level is NHL skills, but I think combined with his attitude the way he was coming to us really allowed him to have success down the road and continue [with the Predators.]”

Stalberg had to fight himself to stay that positive. As much as he hated not being in the NHL, he realized his fate was in his own hands. He was being given a chance to prove himself again, and it was up to him to take advantage of it. That’s what he did. He recorded a hat trick for Milwaukee on Feb. 7 and added another one on March 6. He had nine goals and two assists in a 14-game span when the Predators came calling for him on March 9.

Over the last month and a half, Stalberg has found a role in the Predators’ lineup. Stalberg still prides himself on his offensive game, but he’s also willing to do whatever the team needs. He’s shown that throughout the Blackhawks’ series as he’s thrown his body around, too. He leads the Predators with 25 hits in the series. He also has a goal and two assists.

Laviolette appreciates Stalberg’s journey this season.

“I think it’s been an up-and-down year,” Laviolette said of Stalberg. “Coming back now and having a big part and having a big role on our team, you got to give Viktor a lot of credit.

“I think there’s always roads you can go down in life when things don’t go your way whether it was right or wrong. He certainly maintained a confidence in his belief and ability to play the game. I think he’s showing that right now that he’s a big contributing part to our team. He’s been fast. He’s been physical. He’s been drawing penalties. He’s done a good job of doing what we’ve asked him to do.”

Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and Stalberg, who are both Swedish, created a friendship in Chicago and it’s continued over the years. Hjalmarsson knows what Stalberg has gone through this season. On the one hand, Hjalmarsson is pleased to see his friend doing well. On the other, he’d prefer if it wasn’t against the Blackhawks.

“He’s a great friend of mine, and I know he’s been in and out of the lineup and in Milwaukee for a little bit and stuff like that,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s obviously good to see him play good hockey, but I’ll probably say it would be better if it were against a different team. It’s fun to see him do well, but at the same time, it’s a tough challenge to shut him down. He has a lot of speed, and he’s got his confidence back. I think he’s been one of their most dangerous players. He’s definitely one guy to look out after.”

Stalberg’s time in Chicago also had some highs and lows, but he focuses on the positive memories. He said he keeps his Stanley Cup ring in a safety deposit box in Sweden.

Playing the Blackhawks in the playoffs has been a bit strange for Stalberg. He’s tried to separate the friendship and competition aspects.

“I think it’s fun playing against them,” Stalberg said. “I’m sure we’ll be friends after the series again. At this point, I try to stay away from them.”