Coming off of a 2009-10 season that saw the Nashville Predators surprise many in the hockey world by not only qualifying for the playoffs, but stretching the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to six games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series, the Predators are not only looking to return to postseason play in 2010-11, they are looking to advance past the first round for the first time in franchise history.
Here is the lowdown on this year’s version of the Predators.
Last season, Pekka Rinne posted a regular season record of 32-16-5 in 58 games played and was 2-4-0 in the six playoff games against Chicago. Rinne and Dan Ellis went back and forth as the team’s top netminder through a lot of last season before Rinne finally won the job outright following the Olympic break.
Ellis has moved on to Tampa Bay, and to this point, the Predators have decided to not bring in a veteran backup for Rinne. This is an enormous gamble, as the Predators have a grand total of zero NHL games played in the four others who are battling for a spot on the NHL roster. Mark Dekanich, Chet Pickard, Jeremy Smith, and Anders Lindback are all being given the opportunity to serve as Rinne’s backup. Should none of the contenders prove worthy, General Manager David Poile may have to scramble to land a veteran capable of sharing the crease with the tall Finn.
Should Rinne suffer an injury or struggle with a bout of inconsistency, the Predators high hopes for this season could be dashed.
Despite relative youth on the Nashville blue line, the Predators boast one of the best defensive corps in the NHL. Led by newly named captain Shea Weber, the Nashville defense boasts a bevy of homegrown talent that has the rest of the league wondering what the Predators secret of drafting and developing defensemen is.
Seven of the defensemen in Nashville’s camp are signed to one-way contracts. Weber and Ryan Suter are again likely to be the team’s top defensive duo, while Francis Bouillon, Kevin Klein, Cody Franson, Ryan Parent, and Alexander Sulzer comprise the others on one-way deals. In addition to those players, the pipeline is filled with others trying to make the big club. Roman Josi, Jon Blum, Teemu Laakso, and Ryan Ellis will all be given looks in camp.
Last season, Weber’s point production fell ten points from the 53 (23 goals and 30 assists) he posted in 2008-09. An early season injury was a factor in the new captain’s lower numbers, but following a dominating performance for Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in his hometown of Vancouver, Weber solidified his place as one of the league’s best defensemen. He will not have the pressure of making the Olympic team in the back of his head, and barring injury, the gold medalist will have a chance at winning his first Norris Trophy this season.
Beyond Weber and Suter, the questions start. The team re-signed Francis Bouillon to a two-year deal in the offseason. The diminutive but fierce Bouillon played most of last season on the team’s third pairing, but saw some time on the second unit when the coaching staff finally started splitting up the pairing of Klein and Dan Hamhuis. Hamhuis is now in Vancouver, and Klein will be looking to rebound from what can only be considered a dreadful season.
Franson will be an interesting case study. The numbers from his rookie season look very strong. He had six goals and 15 assists in 61 games played. He also boasted a robust plus/minus rating of +15. The numbers, especially the plus/minus, need to be taken with a grain of salt though. Franson was seldom put in a situation to fail and will be asked to do more this season with the departure of Hamhuis. Going against opponent’s top offensive lines will be the challenge presented to Franson who averaged 14:11 of ice time last season.
Goal scoring has always been an issue for the Predators, and they go into this season with the basic question of who is going to score the goals hanging over the team once again.
Former captain and first line center Jason Arnott was traded to New Jersey in the offseason. His departure may be addition by subtraction for the Predators, as his penchant for injury and lack of inspired play appeared to be holding the team down. His former linemates Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont will look to improve on the 17 goals they each scored last season.
In his sophomore season in 2009-10, Patric Hornqvist surprised many with his 30-goal explosion. That performance earned the Swede a new three-year $9.25 million contract. It goes without saying that the team could certainly use another big performance from Hornqvist, whose fearless nature and willingness to take a beating in front of the opponent’s net reflected in his goal total.
Martin Erat continues to be Nashville’s riddle wrapped up in an enigma. He has all the tools to be a 30+ goal scorer, but for one reason or another he always falls short. After establishing a franchise high with his ten goal performance in the month of December, Erat virtually disappeared the rest of the season. He had a strong playoff series offensively against Chicago with four goals and an assist, but also had the horrendous turnover late in Game 5 that led the Blackhawks shorthanded game-tying goal in the waning seconds of a game that the Predators appeared to have well in hand.
Like Erat, David Legwand’s regular season left a lot to be desired, but was a force against Chicago in the playoffs, scoring twice and adding five assists in addition to the stellar two-way play that Legwand is known for. If he is able to transfer his playoff performance of last season into a strong 2010-11 regular season, the team will be in a much better position to succeed.
Second-year man Colin Wilson will look to build on a good first year and free agent signee Matthew Lombardi will use his impressive speed to help create time and space for others.
The potential line combinations are anyone’s guess. And with Trotz’ tendency to make frequent alterations to his lines, there is no telling who will be playing with whom from one shift to the next. So if you are charting line combinations during a Nashville game, just make sure you do it in pencil.
Looking at the numbers for both the power play and the penalty kill from 2009-10, it is fairly amazing that the Predators had the amount of success they did.
On the power play, Nashville was 24th in the league with a 16.4% success rate. That looks strong compared to their playoff total of just one power-play goal in 27 opportunities against Chicago. That’s good for (bad for?) 3.7%. Of course, if you factor in that shorthanded goal against in Game 5, it does the impossible and makes a power play percentage of 3.7% look even worse.
Save for the Paul Kariya years, the Predators have never been known as a strong team on the power play, and things are not looking likely to improve much this season. But last season’s dreadful penalty killing was a complete shock for a team that has always been known as strong in that category.
Nashville finished 28th in the NHL in penalty killing last season at 77.1%. Only the woeful New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs were worse. Associate coach Brent Peterson will be looking for his penalty killers to rebound back into familiar territory of the top third of the league in penalty killing this season.
The Predators will find the goals somewhere, have strong defense and goaltending, and do just enough on special teams to make it a good season. They finish second in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
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