The Opening Night roster is set, the players are ready, and the 2011-2012 NHL Regular Season kicks off today. The Nashville Predators don't hit the ice until tomorrow night in Columbus, but to tide you over until then, we've got your season preview right here...
There are plenty of fresh young faces on this edition of the Preds, including (click their name to go their Player Page, which includes a Scouting Report, career stats, and related stories)...
#18 / Right Wing / Nashville Predators
Mar 07, 1987
Once traded for Ilya Kovalchuk
Swiped off the free agent market for the bargain sum of $575,000, hopes run high that he'll be this year's Sergei Kostitsyn, taking a leading offensive role and fulfilling the talent which led him to a 1st-round draft pick. He could also turn out to be this year's Marek Svatos, however, and end up watching from the press box more often than not.
#42 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
May 24, 1990
Twitter handle: @MatEkh14
The rangy rookie made the team out of training camp, but hasn't exactly locked up a regular job quite yet. The tricky part here is that if the Preds want to send him to Milwaukee, he can exercise a clause in his contract and head back to Sweden for the year, instead. He's got the physical tools to really make an impact on the Nashville power play, sort of like a more-mobile and left-handed Cody Franson.
He wasn't quite rescued from the Island of Misfit Toys, but the New York Islanders are close enough. A smooth-skating, opportunistic defenseman, Hillen provides the veteran hand that Barry Trotz can call upon when all the kids' growing pains start giving him heartburn.
Yes, he passed up two final years of college eligibility to jump to the pros, but at 22 years of age, he's physically mature enough to bang with the big boys of the NHL. There will be an adjustment to the schedule of pro hockey (in college, they practice all week and play on Friday & Saturday), but the upside here is tremendous, and he's already proved his mettle somewhat with a stellar performance the World Championships last spring.
Zack came off a season that saw him split time between the NHL and AHL, and came to Nashville's camp committed to doing whatever it took to earn a roster spot with the Preds. If he can continue proving to be an absolute pain the butt to play against, Trotz will find a way to give him a few minutes a night.
Joel Ward - the defensive mainstay and playoff performer will be sorely missed. Is there another winger who will earn the coaches' trust to take on the toughs?
Steve Sullivan - a popular spark plug up front, but in the twilight of his career, he found a perfect fit with Pittsburgh.
J.P. Dumont - it's hard to feel bad for a guy getting paid millions not to play, but after his summer buyout, we haven't heard a peep about him.
Marcel Goc - it'll be OK, JR. It'll be OK...
Shane O`Brien - it's still a bit of a head-scratcher as to why he's gone, when he landed with Colorado for a reasonable price. He played a major role on the penalty kill.
Matthew Lombardi & Cody Franson - David Poile made a move to avoid the risk of carrying Lombardi's salary without getting any performance out of it, but to our surprise, Lombardi is playing on Opening Night while Mike Fisher is not. Franson, meanwhile, seems mystified to have landed in the press box for Ron Wilson.
Story Lines To Follow
Contracts For The Big 3
Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the biggest stars on the team, and all need new contracts next summer. Rinne and Suter will be unrestricted, while Weber is still restricted for one more year. Will any or all of them sign extensions during the season? Will the media in pretty much every city the Preds travel to write about this issue? Count on it...
Willy's Big Year
Another guy skating for a new contract is Colin Wilson, who appears primed to suit up on a top scoring line and lead the way up front. Will he seize the opportunity and secure his place here, or find himself shipped out of town?
The Baby Blueline
We saw glimpses of potential from three stellar prospects during Training Camp - Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. To what extent will these three crack the Preds lineup and provide some extra zip from the back end?
Nick Spaling earned himself a full-time checking and PK job last season, but does he have more to offer?
Jordin Tootoo looked like a changed man, and hockey player, after returning from his time away from the team last season to battle personal issues. Is he now ready to deliver a full, productive season as more than just an agitator?
Lane Lambert Living Large
There's a fresh face behind the bench as former Milwaukee head coach Lane Lambert joins the Preds as an assistant, while Brent Peterson plays "Eye in the Sky" from one of the boxes high above the ice. Meanwhile, Kirk Muller takes over as Admirals boss, and I'm sure we'll hear about rumors of him being in the mix for an NHL head coaching job soon.
The Predators have assembled some All-World talent in the Big 3, and the nice thing is, those are the three players who will spend the most time on the ice. That trio holds an edge over any other team in the West, and provides a foundation around which the rest of the team operates. They'll need Mike Fisher to recover soon from his shoulder surgery in order to boast the depth at center that they'd like, and there will be many, many nights when fans will wonder where the goals will come from, but this should prove to be another playoff-worthy squad.
The wild card is what happens with the team's budget, and whether they can add some scoring punch during the season. Assuming that the fan support continues to grow like it has in recent years (and there's every reason to believe that will happen), will the Predators be positioned to make a splashy pickup that gives them the complete package for a playoff drive? Stay tuned...
In a jam-packed Central Division, the Preds place 3rd behind Chicago & Detroit, edging out St. Louis and Columbus for one of the final playoff spots in the West (I'll pick 7th). The Central should be very, very competitive this year, and while I can't pick Nashville as the favorite to win, they have a chance - and it's a worthy goal to aspire to. With the Preds kicking off their 13th NHL season, it's time to start hanging some banners from the rafters.
And in those playoffs? Well, we'll save that prediction for April...
And as promised, here are my projections for the main offensive contributors this season, as first laid out in my fantasy hockey ebook:
|Patric Hornqvist||R||80||28||27||55||9||6||10||50||280||Will more support up front lead to a rebound season?|
|Martin Erat||R||70||18||37||55||7||11||10||40||125||We'd love to see him get off to a strong start.|
|Sergei Kostitsyn||L||82||18||35||53||5||12||0||30||120||The goals last year were a fluke, but he's a solid complementary performer.|
|Colin Wilson||L||82||24||26||50||6||7||0||30||160||The stage is set for a breakout campaign.|
|Shea Weber||D||82||14||31||45||5||11||5||70||240||He's looking to build upon that $7.5 million salary with another huge season.|
|David Legwand||C||75||18||27||45||1||3||0||30||160||The foundation upon which the rest of the gang up front do their work.|
|Ryan Suter||D||82||5||37||42||1||17||10||60||130||With unrestricted free agency coming up, he must've been giddy after seeing Kristian Ehrhoff's deal.|
|Mike Fisher||C||75||17||23||40||5||9||-5||70||170||Will his surgically-repaired shoulder prove to be an issue all year?|
|Jonathon Blum||D||82||9||24||33||5||8||-5||50||110||A few growing pains are to be expected, but we'll be interested to see his PP work.|
|Cal O'Reilly||C||65||9||24||33||2||7||0||10||70||The future is now, and Cal needs to prove that last season's hot start was for real.|
|Niclas Bergfors||R||82||17||14||31||3||3||0||8||160||Can the shootist earn the trust of the coaching staff?|