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VOL. 41 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 03, 2017

NHL or juniors: Girard’s strange dilemma

By John Glennon

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Charter planes vs. all-night bus rides: The traveling comfort of Predators rookie Samuel Girard will depend on whether the club decides he’s ready for the NHL or needs another year of junior play.

-- John Russell/Nhli Via Getty Images

It was at a Predators team dinner prior to the start of this season that Nashville coach Peter Laviolette focused the spotlight on his 19-year-old rookie. Having heard Samuel Girard might have singing talent, Laviolette decided to have some fun with the youngster, calling on him for an impromptu performance in front of teammates.

The soft-spoken Girard responded in surprisingly classic style, delivering an operatic version of composer Franz Schubert’s 19th-century classic, “Ave Maria,” that stunned the veterans.

“It was pretty incredible,” Predators center Ryan Johansen recalls. “Very impressive and unexpected. Shocking, I guess you could say.”

Adds defenseman Roman Josi: “He sounded just like an opera singer. Amazing.”

In his first few weeks on the NHL level, Girard has seemingly passed every new challenge just as smoothly, whether on or off the ice.

He produced an assist in his very first game, a goal in his second game and displayed some slick puck-handling skills through his first four games. Despite his age and his small frame – 5-foot-10, 165 pounds – he hasn’t looked out of place in the early stages of the NHL season.

“Samuel came into camp and has been one of the better players on a consistent basis ever since,” Preds general manager David Poile says. “It started right from the rookie camp to the main camp and in the games he’s played.”

All of which is leading up to a difficult hockey decision for the Predators.

Under league rules, a young player like Girard can still be sent back to his junior team at any point before he plays his 10th game – without his contract kicking in.

But as soon as he plays that 10th game on the NHL level, he burns a year off his first contract and moves a year closer to free agency.

The Predators on Sunday night traded Girardi, Vladislav Kamenev and a 2018 second-round pick, picking up center Kyle Turris from Ottowa.

After the deals were completed, Turris signed a $36 million, six-year extension with Nashville that keeps him under contract through 2023-24. Nashville, which went to the Stanley Cup Final last season, lost winger James Neal to Vegas in the expansion draft but could afford to sign Turris because of that cap space.

Predators GM David Poile called Turris, 28, one of the best two-way centers in the NHL.

"He should be a great fit in our locker room and will bolster our lineup and give us the depth that's necessary during the regular season and the playoffs," Poile said. "He is someone who can play in all situations and will help us tremendously on both ends of the ice. He will give our coaching staff a number of options in terms of offensive production and defensive responsibilities."

-- Associated Press

So, the Preds have to figure out – based on how much they think Girard might contribute over the course of an entire season – whether it’s best to keep him in the NHL this year or return him to juniors for another season of development.

Expect that call to be made sooner rather than later.

“He’s only 19 years old, so he would be getting more ice time, more time to develop, to grow in strength and maturity on ice and off the ice (in juniors),” Poile points out.

“On the other hand, we don’t want to discriminate against talent, skill and ability here, no matter how old he is … So, it is a little bit of a conundrum of what to do.”

Will Ferrell’s singing influence

Even before he became a big-time hockey prospect, Girard discovered he had a gift for opera-style singing.

He comes from a vocally talented family, as both his father and one of his brothers have sung often in front of small crowds, as well as for extended family and friends while sitting around the fire on cold Quebec nights.

“My father was not like a superstar or anything, but when he was younger he was singing a little bit of Johnny Cash or Elvis,” Girard remembers.

Nashville’s Samuel Girard holds the puck from his first career NHL goal, scored October 12 against Dallas. The Preds must decide soon whether to keep the 19-year-old on the roster or send him back to junior hockey.

-- John Russell/Nhli Via Getty Images

“We like that kind of music, so we might put it on. We like to have fun, all of us, and that’s the way we have fun.”

Girard, however, is the only family member who’s discovered a talent in opera-style singing.

He first gave it a shot when he was only about 12 or 13 years old, after watching “Step Brothers,” starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. In that movie, Ferrell actually belted out the Italian song, “Por Ti Volare,” inspiring the young Girard to see if he could do something similar.

“I was in front of my TV watching this movie, so I tried it, and I was like, `Hey, that’s good,’” Girard says. “So sometimes just for fun I’ll do it with the players.”

Girard didn’t know he was going to perform for his Predators teammates before this season, so when Laviolette beckoned, Girard asked for a glass of water to ready his voice. Some impatient teammates vetoed the request, wanting Girard to sing right away.

“So, I just started singing (Ave Maria),” Girard explains, “and everyone was like `Whoa. What happened?’

“I don’t know if I’ll do it again. Maybe. We’ll see.”

“I like the life here”

On the ice, Girard, a second-round pick of the Predators in 2016, grew into a dominant player on the junior hockey level over the last two years.

He was named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s defenseman of the year for the 2015-16 season, and he followed that performance with 75 points in 59 games last season for the Shawinigan Cataractes.

So, it’s clear Girard has little left to prove on the junior-hockey level.

In a perfect world, the Predators might assign him to Milwaukee, the team’s affiliate in the American Hockey League. But because of complicated rules, he’s not yet age-eligible for the AHL.

So, the only two options this year for him are either juniors or the NHL.

In the meantime, Girard is doing his best not to think about the pending decision, soaking up his time on hockey’s highest level. He’s played in four of the Predators’ first 11 games heading into this week, meaning he could play up to five more before the contract kicks in.

One of the biggest differences between juniors and the NHL, of course, is the travel.

While playing for Shawinigan in juniors, Girard and his teammates made lengthy bus trips – up to 17 hours in one direction – for road games. Veteran players on the team were fortunate enough to have two seats on the bus, while less experienced players were forced to cram themselves next to one another for that length of time.

“It’s kind of tough, mentally and physically,” Girard adds. “You get home from some of those trips and you are so tired.”

In the NHL, teams fly on charter planes for all but the shortest trips, so Girard has been appreciative of a whole new style of living.

“When I first sat on the plane, I was kind of like, `Hey, I’m here now,’”

“When you’re in juniors, the bus stops at a restaurant on the road and everyone goes in to eat. Now they are bringing you food on the plane, so that’s cool. I like the life here.”

Girard and his girlfriend have been living in a local Homewood Suites hotel until he learns whether he’ll remain on the NHL level for the rest of the season.

He spends the bulk of most days at the rink – practicing, playing, conditioning or just soaking in the wisdom of his more seasoned peers.

“I think every day here is a good day for Sam,” Laviolette explains. “He’s learning something – learning how to practice like a pro, how to play in games as a pro, how to train like a pro, learning the travel, the rinks, the teams.

“Everything is a positive on a day-by-day basis.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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