Bryan Thiel writes today that Nashville's defense continues to develop from within, and looks at free agency's impact on the group this summer. It's a nice review of the various components that made up the blueline corps last season, and outlines a projection for the next year or two.
I come to somewhat different conclusions as to how things should proceed than Bryan does, however, so let's take a look in detail after the jump...
We both agree that the trio of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis should be the mainstays for next season, no surprise there. We also see that after a disappointing season following a trip to salary arbitration last summer, Ville Koistinen will likely look for work elsewhere.
As far as Greg de Vries goes, Bryan writes: "De Vries would be an excellent veteran presence to have around to continue to teach the younger players as a sixth or seventh defenseman, but the $2.5 million he made last year may be a little tough to swallow if he’s eying that kind of scratch again this offseason."
Salary expectations are going to be key here, and actually I'd expect that de Vries' will see a significantly reduced salary next season regardless of where he plays. Therein might lie an opportunity to stick with the Predators, and I would think that with so many young defenders coming up through the system, Barry Trotz wants to have one experienced hand back there that he can rely upon when needed. de Vries also did a tremendous job on the penalty kill last season, so there's present-day performance that's valuable to retain, as well.
Kevin Klein had a decent year in a limited role, pushing past Koistinen to earn a regular spot in the lineup, but is he ready to take the next step and join the 2nd pair? The thing I worry about here is that Klein likes (and is able to) dangle the puck to beat opposing forwards and jump into the offense. It's a high-risk play, however, which he'll need to use sparingly at this level. He has a decent shot when he sets up at the point, but I don't see him as much of a puck-mover, which is what the Preds really need to better support the forwards.
One fresh face that we're sure to see more of next season will be Alexander Sulzer, based on his new contract that pays him the same salary whether at the NHL or AHL level. Even if he's watching most games from the press box, working with the Predators on a daily basis will certainly help his development.
Cody Franson will an intriguing case - he was widely expected to challenge for a roster spot last season, but was sent back to Milwaukee in training camp, and while having an excellent season for the Admirals, he didn't even get called up to Nashville for a single game. Will he be prepared to push for an NHL job this fall?
As to 2007 1st-round pick Jonathan Blum, he racked up honors and awards for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, but all indications so far say that he's still at least a year away from seeing duty in Nashville. Ultimately, a top quartet of Weber, Suter, Franson and Blum is what gets Bryan excited about the Predators blueline of the future.
There are a couple bones of contention I have with his analysis, though...
Bryan writes that he "should be the Preds’ top priority on the back end," and that "Zanon could easily be a guy who develops into a very good shut-down defenseman if he can continue to learn and grow against opponents like Rick Nash, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and anyone else the Central may want to throw at him."
In my estimation, however, Zanon is a severely one-dimensional player, so much so that it undermines his overall performance, while inflating some of those defensive stats. In other words, part of the reason Zanon blocks so many shots is that he spends much of the game trapped in his own end of the ice. As General Patton might have said (were he a hockey coach), "you don't win by diving to the ice to bail out your goalie, you win by making the other poor guy bail out his."
Some other team will surely look at those Hit and Blocked Shot (237, 3rd in the NHL) totals and offer Zanon a hefty raise, but David Poile would be wise not to follow their lead.
As to acquiring NHL-ready talent to bolster the current ranks, Bryan doesn't see an urgent need there:
Free-agent wise, the Predators don’t need to target the big guns, so they could really concentrate on filling out with smaller, quality depth pieces if they didn’t want to fill from within.
Paul Mara is the kind of defenseman who isn’t afraid to lay the body and shouldn’t be in line for too high of a raise. Aaron Johnson is another low-risk kind of player who could be had on the cheap as well if Chicago lets him walk. Both guys have the ability and experience to handle fluctuating minutes, adding stable depth to an established defense.
Actually, what I'd argue is that one of the reasons the Nashville offense struggled so mightily last season was the departure of Marek Zidlicky, and the failure of Koistinen to assume his role; while Zid's occasional gaffes induced heart attacks throughout the fanbase, he did bring an aggressive aspect to the Nashville breakout and was one of the few bright spots on the Predators' power play unit.
That 2nd-pair, PP quarterback role is still wide open, and I don't see an internally-developed solution to that problem coming along for at least another year. Given the number of teams struggling with salary cap issues, it will be interesting to see if David Poile can find either a motivated seller on the trade market, or a bargain-bin option in free agency, to plug that gap until Blum or Franson proves capable of stepping in.