Last night's "Skate of the Union" session with the Nashville Predators provided a feel-good evening for the organization and the die-hard fans, which is always a good idea in late July. For a video of the event, head over to Preds on the Glass. After the jump, I'll note (in part) what each member of the Predators leadership had to say, and what it truly means for the Nashville Predators' faithful...
Perhaps the most unexpectedly rousing moment of the evening came when Freeman was asked a question about how much more he could spend on salary. In trying to set a realistic financial tone, he started his answer with "look, this isn't New York...", which drew an ovation from the fans who prefer Middle Tennessee just fine, thank you.
When asked about the new 3rd jerseys, the word is that we should see them sometime in September, and that the team is looking at establishing a Saturday tradition, "Hockey Night in Nashville" which would feature the new uni's. They are expected to have a very Original Six feel to the, very classic. My hope would be that they do reflect something of the culture of the city, you'd think tapping into the creative folks at Hatch Show Print might be a good idea.
On the financial front, Freeman doesn't pull any punches; he appreciates the fans and what they've done, but the goal is to sell out the building every night, and there's a long way to go there. He spoke often of "the Predator Way", which starts with front office stability (Poile & Trotz) and continues down through the coaching and development staff, and the mindset of drafting and developing the talent needed to contend for a Stanley Cup. In today's salary cap era, I think that's a wise choice for a small market team, and Nashville is one of the few places which follows through on that model.
When asked about ticket sales, Lang noted that they are tracking at a similar pace to last season, and that the team has added sales staff to assist with that effort. The big sales push begins now, since the schedule has recently come out, and game dates for the mini-season packages have been set. There will continue to be a fresh effort on the promotions front, where Military Mondays will continue, as well as several other endeavors.
Perhaps the most amusing moment of the evening came when Lang talked about the schedule. After noting that due to the Olympic break, the Preds will play 17 games in the month of March, Steve Sullivan (whose mike was open), turned to David Poile and said "really?" He seemed genuinely surprised at that, and Poile later warned Sully and J.P. Dumont to rest up over the summer.
The GM recounted the offseason developments, and made a few points that are worth touching on. First, he really talked up the development of the defensemen, and said that it's likely that we'll see an entire defense corps in Nashville that's been drafted and developed in-house, which assuredly hasn't happened in the NHL a long, long time.
Personally, I can't fathom the notion that the Predators will start the season without bringing in a veteran presence. After the top three of Suter/Weber/Hamhuis, which I agree stacks up favorably with just about any team in the league, you have Kevin Klein with 81 games of experience, and then an assortment of rookies. Those young guys like Alexander Sulzer, Cody Franson, and Teemu Laakso may indeed pan out, but to throw them all into the mix at the same time would appear to be reckless. Time will tell, here...
Secondly, Poile made the best pitch yet as to why Predators fans should embrace the selection of Ryan Ellis in the 1st round of this year's draft (so many were disappointed that he didn't pick a forward). He basically said that Ellis was like Steve Sullivan on defense, the kind of dynamic playmaker that can change the entire flow of a game. I was fine with the pick, and like the comparison.
Sully spoke most eloquently about how the 2009-10 Nashville Predators are expected to be any better than last year's version. He emphasized how the core of the team, from Pekka Rinne in goal to the Big 3 on defense, on up to forwards like David Legwand and Martin Erat, were in the prime years of their career and improving their ability to give consistent performances night in, night out.
In particular, Sully talked up Cal O'Reilly as a playmaker with a great deal of potential. He certainly appears to be the People's Choice to center the third line...
When asked how to improve the Nashville power play, his simple answer was to point to Sully, and he's probably right. Having Sullivan available right from the start of training camp should make a tremendous difference, and offer genuine hope there.
Another fine moment came when he talked about the fanbase in Nashville, especially the infamous 3rd-period TV timeouts, during which the fans often give a standing ovation to motivate the guys. He said something to the effect of, "guys on other teams ask us about it, saying Do they know this isn't on TV?" but that it does give every guy on the team a charge.
All in all, the evening went much as expected; the organization got a chance to provide an update to the fans and have a bit of back & forth on various issues, and getting a few hundred hockey fans together on a summer night is like a welcome oasis during the offseason.
As to the competitive situation that the Predators face in the Central division and the Western Conference, however, serious concerns are out there. Will a full season of Steve Sullivan make enough of a difference? Can Joel Ward build on his breakout performance of last year? Will any of the younger players step forward this season, unlike last year when Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Jones made multiple trips between Nashville and Milwaukee? Can Pekka Rinne assume the #1 role in a way that Chris Mason and Dan Ellis did not?
It's too bad that training camp is still nearly two months away, because this promises to be one of the most wide-open situations in recent memory, judging from how many jobs (on the 3rd- and 4th-lines up front, and on the 3rd pair defensively) remain open.