It was an exciting season, full of ups and downs, big wins (Ravens) and bad losses (Colts...), triumph and disappointment.
But it doesn't have to be all bad for Nashville sports fans. There's another professional sports team just across the river from LP Field that's in the middle of an exciting season of its own: the Nashville Predators!
Don't know about the team, you say? Well we here at On The Forecheck are here for you. We've got everything you need to get up to speed on the season at hand, so you can jump right in!
Follow after the jump for everything you need to know about the Nashville Predators this season!
Offseason brings major changes
The Nashville Predators enjoyed their best season in franchise history in 2010-2011. The team advanced to the second round of the playoffs and put up their best attendance numbers since before the lockout of 2004-2005. Needless to say, there was a buzz around the team heading into the offseason.
The biggest issue the Predators faced this summer was the signing of their captain - defenseman Shea Weber. Weber became the face of the franchise in 2010-2011. He served as team captain, won a gold medal playing for Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics, and finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy, given to the league's best defenseman.
|2011 - Shea Weber||35||8||21||29||14||24||5||1||1||106||7.5|
Long story short, Weber was a restricted free agent (meaning the Predators had the right to negotiate with Weber before other teams did) and ultimately ended up in salary arbitration with the team. A third-party agreed on a set amount for Weber for a one-year deal, and Weber will once again be a restricted free agent at the end of 2011-2012. (You can read more about that here.)
Weber's defensive partner, Ryan Suter, - who some argue may be as good as Weber - is due to be an unrestricted free agent at this season. Because Weber only got a one-year deal last summer, Nashville could theoretically see both of its elite defensemen leave this July.
The other big story of the offseason was the Predators letting go of a few veterans in favor of a youth movement. Gone were long-time Predator staples like J.P. Dumont and Steve Sullivan, being replaced instead by young forwards from the team's minor league affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals like Blake Geoffrion, and Craig Smith, who made the jump from college hockey to the NHL.
So now that you know the major stories of the offseason, let's get to the on-ice action so far.
Craig Smith bursts onto the scene
The Predators got off to a hot start in 2011, thanks in large part to their rookie sensation Craig Smith. Smith - who had originally intended to return for his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, but instead opted to turn pro - made the team right out of training camp and didn't disappoint.
In his first nine games, he scored three goals and put up five assists, providing a scoring touch up front that has long been lacking from the Predators, a team that usually relies on solid defense and goaltending.
Smith has since cooled down from his hot start, but is still showing playmaking ability that should keep him in Nashville for a long time.
|2011 - Craig Smith||39||8||17||25||-4||22||4||0||0||106||7.5|
Pekka gets paid
While Shea Weber gets the majority of the publicity on the national scene for the Predators, it would be hard to argue that the team's MVP isn't the man in net. Rinne finished second in the voting for the Vezina Trophy (given to the league's top goaltender) last year and is widely regarded as a top goaltender in the NHL.
His contract was up at the end of this year, though. But General Manager David Poile didn't want to see Rinne leave town, so Poile gave him the biggest contract in team history, for 7 years and $49 million.
And, unlike a certain other Nashville star who finally got paid (do I even have to say his name?), Rinne has kept up his stellar play despite some injury trouble in front of him.
|2011 - Pekka Rinne||35||1969||19||10||4||85||2.59||1042||957||.918||3|
Injuries to the defense throw young guns right into the fire
As we talked about earlier, the Predators are a team typically known for winning games with tight defense and all-world goaltending. So it was disconcerting when two of the team's top three defenseman went down with injuries.
Remember Shea Weber? Team captain, face of the franchise, top defenseman, etc...? Weber was taking part in the team's morning skate on December 26th, ahead of a game against the division-rival Detroit Red Wings, when he suddenly left the ice early for no apparent reason.
It ended up that Weber had sustained the dreaded concussion in the team's game against the Dallas Stars three nights earlier. Add that to the fact that the Predators' number three defenseman, Kevin Klein, had already missed a couple of games due to flu-like symptoms, and the team was in trouble on defense.
However, the Predators are an organization that puts an emphasis on drafting and developing players (especially defensemen) and were able to call up a few rookies from Milwaukee who have performed admirably in limited action. The team is 3-1 without its captain in the lineup, and Klein was able to return to action on Monday night and notched a goal and an assist in his first game back.
As for Weber, he did take part in the team's practice yesterday, but there is still no timetable for his return.
Where does the team stand now?
The Predators currently sit at seventh place in the Western Conference (the top eight teams make the playoffs), but only six points separate them from the first place team and only five points from the 12th place team.
With the standings as tight as they are, every game - especially those against Western Conference teams - is important as the playoff run begins to heat up in February and March.
As the season moves on, here are a few more story lines to watch for:
- When will Shea Weber return? Obviously, the team is worried about one of its best players being out of the lineup, but the rest of the defensemen have played well in his place.
- Will the team be able to sign Weber and Suter to long-term deals? There are 29 other NHL teams who would give an arm and a leg to have just one of these two blueline studs, and if Nashville wants to keep both, it will have to demonstrate a commitment to winning a Stanley Cup. Which brings us to our final point....
- Will management make a big splash via trade to bring in some more goal-scoring ability? With its current crop of defensemen and goaltending, Nashville holds an edge over most teams in the Western Conference, but the forward ranks remain an issue. It is generally agreed that the team will need to add one or two more pieces up front - ideally guys who can score a lot of goals - if it wants to a) make a run for a Cup and b) sign Weber and Suter to long-term deals. The NHL Trade Deadline comes up on February 27, and unlike the NFL, there are typically dozens of deals that go down as teams load up for the playoffs, or cash in their chips and acquire picks & prospects for next year.
Obviously this is just the basic rundown of what's happening with Nashville right now. If you want to know, check back with OtF as we have all the information you need to keep up with the Predators!
Even though you're a football fan, you're more than welcome to join On The Forecheck, and dive into the vibrant community of Preds fans we have here (the live game threads are always fun) who would love to help you on your journey into NHL fandom.
In fact, if you have anything else you'd like to know about the Preds, drop a comment below!