After a four-year run of playoff appearances, the 2008-9 Nashville Predators fell to 10th in the Western Conference, due to a rash of injuries late in the season combined with a dearth of secondary scoring. After a summer of relative quiet on the free agent front, and a failed attempt to trade for Phil Kessel, is there reason to believe things will turn for the better in 2009-10?
Follow after the jump for your Nashville Predators season preview...
GM David Poile brought in a collection of depth forwards via free agency in Ben Eaves, Marcel Goc, Ben Guite and Peter Olvecky. Eaves will likely act as a playmaker in Milwaukee with the Predators' AHL affiliate, while Goc, Guite and Olvecky will round out the checking lines in Nashville. On defense, Francis Bouillon should add experience on the 2nd or 3rd pairing.
There are also a few younger players stepping up onto the NHL stage this season. On defense, Alexander Sulzer should see regular duty, while a 7th roster spot might remain open for either Cody Franson or Teemu Laakso. Up front, Mike Santorelli (a point-per-game player in the AHL last season) gets the early nod as the 2nd-line winger on the Legwand/Erat line, while Cal O'Reilly and Colin Wilson will likely split time as the 3rd-line center. Ryan Jones, with his new one-way contract, should enjoy his first full NHL campaign. It will be interesting to see how much his crease-crashing abilities are used on the Nashville power play.
The top five of Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont up front, with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber on defense, compares favorably to just about any team in the NHL. If the Preds can get into the third period with the game on the line, they have the talent and experience necessary to pull out their share of victories. Nashville's goaltending has also typically been excellent, despite annual turnover in the #1 spot.
The coaching staff is often lauded for maximizing the performance of the talent they're given, but perhaps Barry Trotz's greatest achievement is how he maintains team unity and persistent effort during times of crisis, both within an individual game and over the course of a season. Down by a score of 5-0 after the first period in Calgary last November, the Preds fought back to make it a 7-6 game, and were firing pucks at the Flames' net in the final seconds in a bid to tie it up. Down 3-0 at home against Pittsburgh in January, the Preds rallied for a pivotal 5-3 win. Later in the season, as the team lingered on the brink of playoff elimination and had to skate without three key forwards (Jason Arnott, David Legwand, and Martin Erat) due to injury, the Preds still gave a strong account of themselves down the stretch.
The Preds may not always triumph, but they can be counted on to fight hard and fight as a group, and that deliberate attitude starts with the coaching staff.
In case you have heard, scoring depth is a bit of an issue with this team. The dropoff after the Big Five is precipitous, as the 2nd line anchored by David Legwand and Martin Erat has struggled to provide consistent offense in the past. The hope this year is that Mike Santorelli's move from center to left wing will give them some help, but it remains to be seen how much of his AHL success will translate to the NHL level.
Experience on defense could also be a concern, if Francis Bouillon proves unable to play due to his slow recovery from injury. Surely Nashville would want to avoid dressing two rookies back there on a nightly basis.
(updated based on the Sep. 29 cuts)
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Steve Sullivan||Jason Arnott||J.P. Dumont|
|Mike Santorelli||David Legwand||Martin Erat|
|Joel Ward||Marcel Goc||Ryan Jones|
|Jerred Smithson||Ben Guite||Jordin Tootoo|
|Peter Olvecky||Colin Wilson||Wade Belak|
|Nick Spaling||Cal O'Reilly||Patric Hornqvist|
|Ryan Suter||Shea Weber|
|Dan Hamhuis||Kevin Klein|
|Teemu Laakso||Francis Bouillon|
|Alexander Sulzer||Cody Franson|
Most observers fail to appreciate the impact that Steve Sullivan's return should have on the top line and the power play, and there's good reason to believe the 3rd line should be improved as well. The turnover from players like Radek Bonk, Vernon Fiddler and Scott Nichol to Mike Santorelli, Cal O'Reilly, Ryan Jones and (as seems likely at some point) Colin Wilson marks the first time since 2006-7 that the Predators have offered much offensive threat outside of the Arnott & Legwand lines.
Similarly on defense, the expanded role for Kevin Klein in place of Greg Zanon, and the addition of Alexander Sulzer for Greg de Vries, offers similar hope for improved two-way play rather than the "block a shot and chip the puck out" seen all too often last season.
The goaltending should be a source of strength, especially in a division where the two favorites (Chicago and Detroit) have perhaps the shakiest situations in net. The Central should be a fascinating dogfight this season, particularly when you consider the experience and quality of the coaches involved - Barry Trotz, Mike Babcock, Joel Quenville, Andy Murray and Ken Hitchcock are all savvy and experienced bench bosses.
In the end, I expect the Preds to return to the playoffs with the #8 seed, as last year's Goals For/Against figures of 207/228 balance more closely around 235/230. Given the way the race has gone down to the wire the last few seasons, earning points in the standings will be critical right from Game #1 all the way through Game #82, and it promises to be a white-knuckle ride the whole way.
But then, the fans in Nashville just wouldn't have it any other way: