Optimism seems to be running high in Predators country these days. A well-regarded free agent's arrival, the departure of an inconsistent veteran, two "no risk" additions with offensive upside, young players with ample potential, and the unexpected success of the 2009-10 team are each reasons for the high hopes of Preds Nation.
At the same time, there are plenty of question marks as training camp nears. After the jump, see the five reasons to support those in both the "half-full" and "half-empty" portions of the Preds' cup.
Six Reasons To Be Optimistic
1. It's reasonable to expect more production from the young guys
Colin Wilson played in 35 games in 2009-10, produced 15 points (8 G, 7 A), and brings a big, skilled body to the first two lines. Cody Franson produced 21 points in 61 games and was a +15. These two players will play more significant roles in 2010-11 and, with a full season in which to participate it's reasonable to expect bumps in their numbers. The same could be said for Kevin Klein as he steps into a more prominent role, but his offensive upside is debatable.
2. A new focus (approach?) on the power play
The team's dismal statistical performance on the power play (16.4%, 24th in league in 2009-10) doesn't truly reflect how bad it was. Barry Trotz stated at the end of the season that it was the team's top priority to fix and said he would take an active role in doing so. There's reason to believe that new blood on the first unit (Lombardi, Wilson, Kostitsyn, et al) will be beneficial to the unit's movement, creativity, ability to get to rebounds and overall danger level - even within a similar system. Jason Arnott's perimeter-only approach was a detriment to the power play as the 2009-10 season progressed and the slap shot goals dried up.
3. Matt Lombardi fits a promising profile
Steve Sullivan was 29 when he was acquired by the Predators in 2004, coming off a consistent stretch of point-producing seasons with Chicago. In his first 93 games with the Predators - and thrust into a key offensive role with a playoff contender - the speedster tallied 98 points, the most productive stretch of his career. Lombardi has displayed similar, although not as impressive, offensive consistency in recent years, peaking last year with 53 points in a full season with Phoenix. Placed in a more prominent role - ironically, potentially replacing Sullivan on the top line - he could be entering his prime years. Additionally and like Sullivan he can kill penalties, although it remains to be seen if he is used in that role.
4. Balanced lines, untapped potential and the ability to survive injuries
The Preds finished 2009-10 No. 12 in the league in 5-on-5 goals for/against (1.05), and while it isn't an overwhelming statistic, it does indicate its importance when the futility of the team's power play and penalty kill are considered. With the acquisition of Lombardi, increasing role of Wilson, potential of Hornqvist, and known quantities of Ward, Erat, Sullivan, Legwand, Goc and possibly Dumont, the team can roll three solid offensive lines that aren't defensive liabilities. The team's ability to survive injuries to Arnott, Erat and Ward in particular last year also served it well, and that depth appears improved in 2010-11 with names like Kostitsyn, Andersson, O'Reilly, Lundmark, Halischuk, Geoffrion, Thuresson and Klasen as breakout or role players, fill-ins or potential Milwaukee call-ups, respectively.
5. The Central Division Appears Weaker Overall
Chicago will be a different team with less overall depth, but is still a Cup contender. The Wings are a similar team, as always, but got even older with the addition of Mike Modano as the third-line center (we'll see if he makes them better). Regardless, both of these teams will challenge for the division title. St. Louis is a maddening team of untapped potential and disappointing results, but has to be better next year with the addition of Halak and the promise of several young players entering their second, third and fourth years iof NHL play. It's difficult to see how Columbus improved during the offseason, unless Ethan Moreau reverts to his days of 40+ goals with Niagara Falls of the OHL.
6. Confidence and a new captain
There's little doubt that the Game 5 loss in Chicago will not soon be forgotten by fans, but after the dust settled and the ‘Hawks lifted the cup in June, the Predators had to feel at least some bit of solace. After all, no team challenged the champs like the Preds did, and their division rival are now a completely different (and weaker) team. Additionally, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber officially became big-time defensemen in the eyes of the NHL world last year and the confidence they gained in the Olympics is difficult to quantify, but it can certainly continue to yield benefits for the hometown team. Can Legwand and Erat carry their good play over to the new season? How big will the chip on Weber's shoulder be, and how will he wield it as captain? Will he elevate everyone's play like Arnott was unable to do?
Honorable mention: Weber and Suter are still young, improving and weapons on both ends of the ice.
Six Reasons To Be Worried
1. On paper, special teams are relatively unchanged
As much as Coach Trotz might believe he can change the power play, thee are still plenty of question marks surround the system deployed and the coaches calling the shots. Possibly more troubling, however, was the team's plunge to 28th in the league in penalty kill percentage (77.1%). While the team took only 258 penalties (29th), resting the hopes of an improved PK on the backs on Nick Spaling and Matt Lombardi might be asking too much. After all, Dan Hamhuis is gone and it's unclear if Klein or Bouillon can consistently fill that role.
2. Potential of the Wiffle Ball defense
Despite some memorable giveaways and occasional poor positioning, Dan Hamhuis was a solid and versatile defense player for the Predators. With his departure, Kevin Klein and/or Francis Bouillon will assume more prominent roles. Klein wasn't exactly Scott Stevens in 2009-10 and Bouillon has always been a 4-6 spot defender for a reason. Behind them, there are even more unproven entities; Franson shows promise, but Sulzer, Laakso, Blum and others have little to no NHL experience. None of the bottom two would be considered a physical presence, either, a consistent problem within the organization that was further exposed in the playoffs when Chicago seemingly scored at will on rebounds and muscle plays in front of the net. One could say the defensive situation is full of holes on paper; Suter and Weber are staring plenty of 30-minute nights, and that could negatively impact other areas of the game
3. Lack of proven faceoff aces
The 2009-10 numbers are ugly: 49.2% win percentage (20th) and no player in the top 25 in the league in individual win percentage, and only one player over 48.8% (Goc, 52.1%). Lombardi doesn't bring a history of success, either: he was only 49.7% last year. For those who argue that this is only worth possibly three games per year, like it has been on this site before, think back to the Chicago series: while on faceoffs in the Predators zone, the ‘Hawks cleanly won draws, fired quick shots on net, gathered rebounds and put them in the back of the Preds' net on multiple occasions. There is no clear solution to this issue at this point in time.
4. Veterans trending in the wrong direction
JP Dumont is the most glaring example here, dropping from a three-year average of 67 points to 45 in 2009-10. Couple that with some less-than-encouraging comments from Trotz and a decline in ice time and it's difficult to expect Dumont's numbers to climb. Sullivan's fall (51 points in 82 games) was slightly less precipitous, but equally troubling from a typical point-per-game producer. Legwand, despite only being 29 years old and playing 82 games for the first time since 2003-04, had only 11 goals and 38 points. Fans must hope for a more defined offensive role for Legwand - and perhaps a continuation from his playoff performance -- to see an increase in his numbers.
That's the reality of the Preds' playoff history. Until this team actually wins a series, it won't matter if they're the No. 1 or No. 8 seed, the questions will be there. Blame usually falls on the coach, and this will be a stigma on Trotz and his staff until (or if) it happens.
6. Proven goaltending, or lack thereof
This is the elephant in the room. There is no proven back-up to Pekka Rinne, who was somewhat inconsistent in 2009-10 to begin with. With potential defensive issues looming, as addressed above, the team needs excellence in net. Finally, throw in the Preds' recent history with goaltenders and declining performance and it's reasonable to question how it will all shake out in 2010-11.
Honorable mention: It could be difficult for Hornqvist to score 30 goals and/or stay healthy for an entire season with the beating he takes on a nightly basis.