See how high Craig Smith's ceiling is
After an awful 2013 season which had many questioning his NHL future, Craig Smith jumped to the forefront this season, leading the team with 24 goals and providing the most consistent offensive presence up front. His speed is a game-changer, capable of putting opposing defensemen back on their heels, and besides persistently driving pucks to the net Smith also demonstrated increased awareness of his teammates in the offensive zone.
While here in Nashville we're used to throwing a parade for anyone topping the 20 goal mark, the Predators need more out of their top forwards, and the first available option is to explore Smith's potential to grow into a top-line role. With one year left on his contract (at $2 million) before Restricted Free Agency in 2015, the Preds need to see if the Honey Badger is ready to lead the way. With the right linemates and ice time, might he hit 30 or 40 goals in 2014-15?
Unleash Viktor Stalberg
Nashville's splashiest free agent acquisition last summer had perhaps the most disappointing season, as Stalberg dealt with an injury coming out of training camp and never established himself as a regular scoring line presence. As a result he put up the worst numbers (8 goals, 11 assists) of his career and left fans wondering whether the team had an expensive dud on their hands.
The thing is, what we saw out of Stalberg wasn't anything new - he's always been known as a speedy, inconsistent winger who isn't the guy you want battling along the boards all night long. Can a new head coach put him in position to use his considerable skills to the best advantage, and wring more value out of that 4-year, $12 million contract? We had better hope so.
Get the most out of Shea Weber
I know this will come as a shock to those (mostly employed by the team) who tout Shea Weber as the obvious choice for the Norris Trophy, but he has seen a dropoff in defensive zone performance ever since Ryan Suter left town, and it's important for the new bench boss to figure out a way to restore the impact that Weber & Suter used to have on the team. Once upon a time, they tipped the ice in favor of Nashville for a good chunk of the game, leaving their teammates the task of merely playing break-even hockey to help the Preds come out ahead.
Let's look at how Weber's most significant teammates (those who played 200 or more minutes of 5-on-5, close-game hockey with him this season) fared in puck possession both with and without Weber, using zone-adjusted data from HockeyAnalysis.com:
|TOI||CF/20||CA/20||CF %||TOI||CF/20||CA/20||CF%||CF% Diff|
What that tells us is for each of these guys, the number of shot attempts against per 20 minutes (CA/20) was higher when they played with Weber as opposed to when they played without him, and the overall balance of shot attempts for and against (CF%) turned for the worse as well (compare those results to those of Norris favorite Duncan Keith). These players also boast tough Quality of Competition measures as well, so it's not like they're only playing alongside Weber when the toughest of tough opponents are on the ice.
There can be all sorts of explanatory factors at work here, for example trying to do too much in the defensive zone (and getting pulled out of position) due to the relative inexperience of his fellow blueliners, but no matter the specific cause, this is an issue which demands attention. Weber's offensive prowess is a prized weapon, and the Predators can't afford to have it undermined by lesser play at the other end of the rink.
Find room for the kids
Do players like Calle Jarnkrok, Filip Forsberg, Taylor Beck, Austin Watson and other Milwaukee Admirals represent the future of the Nashville Predators? That's a critical question facing the team over the next 2-3 seasons, and the new head coach must find the way to give these youngsters ample opportunity to prove their merit at the NHL level. Sometimes it's not easy to give a kid 18 minutes a night after a critical turnover costs the team a game, but working through those setbacks is essential both for the individual and the team as a whole.
This can be a tough balancing act, not only for the coach's peace of mind but also in terms of how more veteran players might react to a loss of ice time and responsibility. Would Matt Cullen be satisfied playing 12 minutes a game while Jarnkrok works through his learning curve, for example? What if Eric Nystrom were relegated to the fourth line while players like Beck and Forsberg received more work?
That can be a tough sell even in the best of times, and if the team runs into a rough patch, those situations can really blow up if not managed effectively.
Just be a head coach, not a hockey missionary
One of the reasons Barry Trotz is so beloved in Nashville is that he played a pivotal role in the development of a hockey fan base here in Middle Tennessee, as all of the original employees of the team have done to a greater or lesser degree. Whether by conducting clinics for youth players and newbie fans, or spending extra time with media members talking about the game, the task here in Nashville was as much educating people about hockey as it was winning games on the ice.
That time, however, has passed.
The Predators have established an enduring foothold in this market, with thousands of die-hard fans and tens of thousands of more casual followers, and the business side of the operation is working to both expand and more deeply engage that customer base. Bridgestone Arena is busier than ever on non-hockey nights, and the franchise's stability is no longer the question it used to be, when we followed paid attendance numbers closely out of fear that the team might leave town.
Moving forward, the head coach needs to be focused on winning, not public relations. The attitude may turn starkly different in post-game press conference and morning skate media scrums, but that's OK. The new guy will have a tough job to do, and we need to let him do it.