We're about halfway done with our season preview and are a little ahead of schedule. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the Nashville Predators.
Team M.O.: On the ice, the team is one of the defensive variety that uses a sound system (not a soundsystem) to achieve victories over their opponents. Off the ice, they have a management group that has to focus on shrewd moves and building from within instead of going after high-priced free agents; they don't seem to have the money available to do that. Out of their expansion brethren, however, the Predators among the most successful and while they've yet to win a series in the playoffs, they've still had more post-season appearances and victories than either the Atlanta Thrashers or Columbus Blue Jackets.
Last Season: Seventh in the Western Conference, where they were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games during the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Not bad for a team that constantly has faced ownership issues and a lineup that always seems somehow incomplete.
Offense: Steve Sullivan has been an efficient point-producer for the Predators and while he'll hold down a scoring role for the team, age and injuries are increasingly becoming a concern for him. Speedy forward Matthew Lombardi comes over from the Phoenix Coyotes and will give the team a solid pivot who has solid playmaking abilities. Patric Hornqvist signed an extension to remain with the team; he will be counted on for a variety of ways as he was the only player on the team to break the 30 goal mark. David Legwand's production has been on the decline since his career season in 2007-08 and while he's defensively reliable, his salary is a hindrance given his production rate. Martin Erat, however, seems pretty consistent in his production and gives the team a winger who can produce 50-60 points a season. Jean-Pierre Dumont's got the talent to give the Predators some solid scoring but seems to lack a certain level of consistency or intensity for the team; he's been shuttled up and down the lines in an effort to get him going, per se. Colin Wilson might get a solid shot at making the roster this season but you can't help but wonder if additional time in the minors would be better for him; his numbers in the pro game aren't exactly dominant at any level despite his age and skill set. Sergei Kostitsyn will get the opportunity to crack the team's scoring lines; he has the talent but his attitude (or rather the problems with it) saw him packing his bags in Montreal and being sent to a "non-traditional" hockey market.
Entering the checking territories of the depth chart, Joel Ward has emerged from the system to give the squad a solid third-liner who can generate roughly 35 points a season while Marcel Goc was signed as an unqualified free agent to give the team a similar level of production. Jerred Smithson gives the team with a solid grinder who can kill penalties and provide versatility in the checking roles. Though Jordin Tootoo and Wade Belak are around to provide the toughness and agitation, Tootoo failed to amass more than 40 PIM while the Predators were second-to-last in the NHL last season in fighting majors (there was a particular team that beat them and here's a hint, they're from Detroit). Forwards Cal O'Reilly, Nick Spaling, and Matt Halischuk are all young players who will compete for depth spots at camp; a solid camp by any of them will get them out of the minors and into the league on a permanent basis. Jonas Andersson returns to the team after spending his post-lockout career in Europe while Jamie Lundmark was brought on to provide forward depth.
All and all, the team looks alright for a group that scores-by-committee but any injuries or offensive slumps will be taken a lot harder by these guys than they would on other team where the scoring is more robust. They don't seem to have the financial flexibility to make moves (despite the cap space to do so) so this is likely what they're handed with.
Defense: Shea Weber is entering a contract year and while he is going to be a restricted free agent, there's no doubt that another team would gladly give up the draft picks required for his demanded salary in order to have him on the team; he's an all-world defenseman and only a disastrous season will all but assure him remaining a Predator even as an RFA. Ryan Suter was also proficient for the Predators during the regular season; he'll have to increase his intensity come playoff time though because he was held pointless during their series against Chicago. Cody Franson was excellent during his first season with the Predators and could silently break out on the team the way Keith Yandle did for the Phoenix Coyotes. Kevin Klein's got the speed to be a playmaking defenseman but needs to tighten up on the defensive aspects of the game if he wants to be considered an above-average defender. The gutsy Francis Bouillon joined the team on a PTO and parlayed that into three years of NHL employment; he may be small but he attacks like a bulldog. Ryan Parent comes back from the Philadelphia Flyers and will give the team a solid Number 6 or 7 defender to employ judiciously. Alexander Sulzer and Aaron Johnson will likely compete for the last spot as the "offensive specialist" of the bunch.
Their defense isn't necessarily overwhelming but with Weber and Suter as a tandem (not to mention Franson's breakout season last year) they could be good enough to stifle the attacking opposition on a regular basis.
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne managed to do what every other Predators goaltender did before him; steal the job away from the incumbent. He doesn't necessarily have to worry about that this season but that's because the goaltending depth takes a steep drop after him. Chet Pickard was only recently drafted while Mark Dekanich and Anders Lindback have no call-up duty to speak of (and Lindback has yet to play in North America.) There's an abundance of goalies still available or looking to be shipped out via trades. They should make a move to grab one.
Management: Give GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz credit; if they were leading a team like the N.Y. Rangers or the Philadelphia Flyers they'd have won at least one championship at this point if not more. However, they have to work within their means and when they're handed lemons, they do their best to make lemonade.
Prediction: Fifth in the Central Division and out of the playoffs.
A likely story considering I predicted this fate for them last season and they wound up back in the playoffs. I like Trotz's style and I think he's a great coach; but unless injuries happen to other teams, they're going to find it hard to be better than their divisional rivals on a regular basis to break the Top 8 of the conference by season's end.