These wings won't fly without some help

Yesterday over at the Hockey News Adam Proteau wondered out loud whether anyone can reasonably expect St. Louis to make the playoffs this season, and while I agree that there's not much reason to get excited about their chances in 2008-9, the same question might well be asked of the Nashville Predators.

In light of the Alexander Radulov defection and the Marek Zidlicky trade, how do the Predators playoff hopes look at this point?

To be honest, they look pretty grim to me. Despite the fact that the core of this team is young and improving, they've lost two difference-making players from a squad that barely made it into the playoffs in 2008, and the assets that have been brought in (primarily 1st-round draft pick Colin Wilson and Ryan Jones in the Zidlicky deal) can't be relied upon to produce for the club this upcoming season. GM David Poile has built a reputation for patience, for sure, but there's no question that at some point major-league talent that can produce today needs to be obtained.

I'm not so much concerned about the defence, as there seems to be enough depth and variety there to make that portion of the team a strength compared to the rest of the NHL. In goal, the team is banking on Dan Ellis continuing his stellar play from the end of last season, although to be honest, at the bargain prices they're paying, if the Predators get merely average NHL goaltending from Ellis and Pekka Rinne this year, they should be quite happy. Up front is where the trouble lies. Take a look at the list of forwards set up for this fall:

Centers: Jason Arnott, David Legwand, Radek Bonk, Scott Nichol, Colin Wilson.
Wingers: J.P. Dumont, Martin Erat, Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, Vern Fiddler, Jed Ortmeyer, Triston Grant, Josh Gratton, Patric Hornqvist, Antii Pihlstrom, Ryan Jones.

Up the middle, Arnott and Legwand make a fine 1-2 punch, and Nichol does a steady job in a largely defensive role. I've been quite vocal about Bonk's line being the weak spot last season, but with him under contract for one more season, I don't see any shakeup there. As for Wilson, I would expect that at his age, and with four centers
already under contract (with the potential for Rich Peverley to see
time there as well), he'll probably head back to college for one more
season. Overall, that's an above-average lineup of NHL centers.

On the wing, notice that I'm not counting on Steve Sullivan. If he's actually able to return and play productively, that's a huge bonus, but one certainly can't expect that's going to happen. Jones will likely start the season in Milwaukee, if he even makes the Nashville squad at all this year, as the Preds front office has consistently sent young players there first to help them learn the ropes of professional hockey. Clearly there is hope for Hornqvist to step into an offensive role in Nashville, but if he snags 20 goals that would probably exceed expectations. Among the wingers, after Dumont and Erat there's nobody on that list that jumps out as a reliable offensive contributor for the 2008-9 season. It's one thing to get caught up in best-case scenarios like seeing Tootoo pot 20 goals, but realistically, there's not a whole lot to get excited about there.

Basically, the Predators are going to have trouble filling out two scoring lines and two power plays, let alone fielding a competitive third line. I'm not worried about the 4th, so-called "energy" line; Nichol, combined with Smithson and Tootoo or Fiddler should fill that role very well.

What the Preds need is a legitimate goal-scorer, particularly to boost that woeful power play. With the young guns rising through the ranks, they really only need a short term solution, perhaps for one or two seasons. What I'd hope for is that Poile takes a run at signing either one of two veteran, right-handed goal scorers that are apparently available on the market: Glen Murray, who is in the process of being bought out of his contract by the Boston Bruins, and Mike Knuble, whose time with Philadelphia may be at an end since they are currently over the salary cap.

Short-term fixes don't generally mesh with Poile's patient, build-through-the-draft mentality, but in this case, the Radulov situation has created an unforseeable mess that needs to be dealt with, and a one- or two-year deal with either Murray or Knuble may be what the Predators need to keep ahead of the rising Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Divison. Like Proteau, I don't see the Blues posing that much of a threat, not yet anyway.


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