NASHVILLE, TN - APRIL 26; Predators fans holding signs saying "We Believe" surround Shea Weber #6 of the Nashville Predators as he warms up prior to a game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on April 26, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
It was the final day of February, and Nashville Predators defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter had just wrapped up their portion of the Winter Olympics. Weber, just 25, had won gold with Team Canada and been named to the tournament's All-Star team. His achievements in Vancouver opened the eyes of the hockey world, but for those of us in Nashville, it was business as usual for the Predators' captain in waiting.
Suter, also 25, was perhaps more impressive than Weber. He led a young Team USA in ice time and assists, and probably should have been named to the all-tournament team ahead of defense partner Brian Rafalski. When the going got tough, US coach Ron Wilson called on Suter, who responded with some of the most composed hockey you'll probably ever see.
It was a coming of age of sorts for the Predators' cornerstones. Both took on the best in the world, and both excelled. We knew they had the capability, having seen it time and time again - but this was a confirmation, and what I believe to be a turning point for the franchise. This is Shea Weber and Ryan Suter's team. The letters on the jerseys are mere formalities.
Tomorrow night, the Nashville Predators turn over a new leaf.
The reasons for optimism abound. Gone are the days of Jason Arnott apparently taking a shift off and the whiffing on a one-timer in the slot, or Dan Hamhuis losing Jonathan Toews on a breakaway. In comes speedster Matthew Lombardi and a glut of blue chip defensive prospects, namely Ryan Ellis, Jonathan Blum, Roman Josi, and Charles Olivier-Roussel.
Gone, too, are those pesky ownership worries. With Boots Del Biaggo's shares back in the fold, Nashville may soon be able to operate on a full budget. Barry Trotz and David Poile have consistently molded a winning team (in the regular season) on a shoestring budget, and are one of five squads to win 40 or more games 5 years in a row. If the Predators are able to find a buyer for those shares, the rest of the NHL would do well to take notice.
Besides the seemingly mistake-free Suter and the powerful Weber, the Predators boast significant offensive talent on the roster and on the farm. There's the Predators' first potential elite homegrown center in Colin Wilson; 30 goal scorer Patric Hornqvist, the prospect of sniper Alexander Radulov returning from Russia in 11-12, free agent acquisitions Matthew Lombardi and Jonas Andersson, super-prospect Taylor Beck, and old stalwarts Martin Erat and Steve Sullivan.
Pekka Rinne provides the franchise's first legitimate number one goaltender since the days of Tomas Vokoun. Time will tell if he's up to the task, but early returns are encouraging - 14 shutouts in two years, and several stretches where he has willed the team to victory.
Is the situation perfect? No, absolutely not. We lack a true goal scorer, our power play is terrible, and there's not much reason to believe we can finally escape the first round of the playoffs. But it is an amazing time to be a fan. This new era is not led by over-the-hill players, and none of the owners are bankrupt. It's progressive; not stagnant. We're moving forward.
Tomorrow night, Bridgestone Arena opens its doors for hockey again. Weber and Suter might not play, but it doesn't matter. Hockey's back, y'all.