2008-09 Team Preview: Nashville Predators
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsidePlayoffs? No one gave the Predators much of a chance last season after departing owner Craig Leipold denuded the team of most of its talent on his way out. But the Predators finished in the eighth hole, qualified for the playoffs for the fourth straight season and gave Detroit all it could handle in a six-game first-round series, It was a testament to the coaching skills of Barry Trotz and the managerial skills of GM David Poile.
Still, this is a Predators team that in many ways is treading water and once again will be life and death to make the playoffs. The owners, as much as they insist they're in it for the long haul, are going to find it difficult to continue to pay out if the salary cap continues to rise or even if it flattens out. There are lingering issues related to the William "Boots" Del Biaggio fiasco, and there's the defection (or is that re-defection?) of talented, young forward Alexander Radulov to Russia, even though he owes the Predators another season on his entry-level contract.
The Predators relied on a scoring-by-committee approach last season, finishing 12th in goals per game with four 20-goal scorers -- Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, Radulov and Martin Erat. With Radulov and Marek Zidlicky, who had 43 points from the back end, gone and Steve Sullivan once again absent with a chronic back problem, the pressure will be on others to pick up the slack.
David Legwand, who missed the final 12 games of the regular season and three of six postseason games with a foot injury, has to be in the 25-goal area. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis all have the tools to help out from the blue line, although the 27th-ranked power play will have to improve markedly to see the Predators return to the playoffs. That's easier said than done given the absence of Radulov. Collegiate star Ryan Jones, who comes over from Minnesota in the Zidlicky trade, has size (6-foot-1) and could make a case for a top-six forward spot. Tough as nails Jordin Tootoo could get a chance to play a more offensive role up front, as well.
If the Predators are to return to the postseason, it will be on the strength of one of the most impressive corps of young defensemen in the NHL. Weber is poised to become one of the game's top defenders, although he was hampered by kneecap and leg injuries that limited him to 54 regular-season games in 2007-08. He has a cannon, plays physical and might be Canadian Olympic material if he can stay healthy. Suter, another top prospect, took a big step forward and should be on the U.S. Olympic radar, and Hamhuis is a captain in waiting. Part of the rationale for dealing Zidlicky was that it would allow the other young defensemen (Ville Koistinen and Kevin Klein) to play more minutes. Watch for Koistinen to share some power-play time. If the blue line can stay healthy, the D should improve on its middle-of-the-pack standing (15th in goals allowed per game in 2007-08).
Another season, another starting goalie for the Preds. After Tomas Vokoun was shipped to Florida at the 2007 draft, Chris Mason was handed the starting assignment, but he couldn't quite get the job done. That opened the door for late-blooming Dan Ellis. The 28-year-old native of Saskatoon wowed observers with his late-season play, going 23-10-3 in the regular season with a spectacular .924 save percentage (best in the NHL). He was even better in the playoffs in a six-game first-round loss to Detroit, posting a .938 save percentage and setting a franchise-record with 52 saves in Game 5. Poile acknowledged that until Ellis can do the same thing as a starter, there will be questions. "There's no question it's much different being No. 2 than it is being No. 1," Poile told ESPN.com. Hulking 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne will try to earn some playing time and prove he's NHL material as Ellis' backup.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Nashville is the stability created by a veteran GM and coaching staff that has been allowed to remain together and build the right way. Every season, the experts opine that this is the year Nashville misses the playoffs, and every year for the past four consecutive seasons, calm and collected GM David Poile and one of the best teaching coaches in the NHL, Barry Trotz, find a way to get it done. This duo has guided the Predators through ownership changes, personnel fire sales, off-ice distractions and the defection of one its top scorers, and they do it with grace and dignity and unflappable resolve.
While the Preds didn't make a lot of additions this offseason, they did get tougher. The signing of Josh Gratton and the recent acquisition of Nick Tarnasky will help make Nashville a grittier team. It all starts on the back end for the Predators as Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Greg de Vries are solid and improving. Goalie Dan Ellis won the starting job last season, but must now demonstrate he is capable of carrying the load as the go-to guy.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
• Predators Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Search: Predators IN REVIEW
• Record: 41-32-9
• Division: Second in the Central
• Conference: Eighth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round vs. DET
• The season will be 3 weeks old when the Preds embark on their longest road trip of the year, a six-game jaunt that will see them in Vancouver, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles between Nov. 4 and 15. Talk about an early test of your road mettle.
Experience: 9 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Barry Trotz may well be one of the best NHL coaches no one's heard of. True, he has failed to get his Predators past the first round in each of four tries, but the fact he has managed to get those teams with wildly varying skill sets into the postseason is a testament to his skills. This season will be no different as Trotz will have to squeeze points out of a lineup that isn't nearly as deep, especially up front, as many of the rest of the Western Conference's top teams.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Jason Arnott
After missing 14 games in his first season in Nashville and recording just 54 points, new captain Arnott bounced back last season with 72 points, including 28 goals. He will have to maintain that level of production and be a strong presence in the Predators' dressing room.
F -- J.P. Dumont
The one-time Buffalo Sabres cast-off continues to be an impressive find. Dumont recorded career bests in goals (29) and points (72) as he and Arnott combined to be the team's most important offensive duo. There will have to be more of the same this season.
F -- Patric Hornqvist
The 21-year-old isn't penciled in on the Predators' top line. Heck, he might not even make the team. But the man who was named rookie of the year in the Swedish Elite League in 2006-07 reflects the opportunities that exist for young players to step forward and seize the opportunity as the other member of the top line. The question Trotz and Poile will be asking: If not Hornqvist, then who?
D -- Dan Hamhuis
Weber isn't the only one thinking about the Vancouver Olympics. Hamhuis, 25, is entering his fifth NHL season and has played for Canada at the world championships the past three years. Solid and composed, he is slightly ahead of Suter and Weber in terms of maturity by virtue of his already significant experience. If he were in another market, his profile would be significantly enhanced.
D -- Shea Weber
Weber missed 17 games with a dislocated kneecap (ouch) and 11 games with another leg injury. If he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for the 23-year-old. "His development is probably going to go in direct correlation to his health," Poile said.
Answer: No. Not quite. As always, the Predators will be among the best-prepared teams in the NHL. That's a given with Trotz. But it's likely Poile will have to make a move to bring in some scoring help if his gaggle of untested forwards can't answer the bell. He might catch lightning in a bottle, but it likely is going to take some imported lightning to get the Preds into the postseason for the fifth straight time, given the improvements of other West teams.
Bust: Shea Weber, D: While the quartet of Koistinen, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis and Weber should all have a chance to contribute offensively, there won't be a ton of scraps to go around, and Weber has little chance to repeat last season's stellar numbers.Fantasy outlook: A balanced attack led Nashville to 110 points in the standings in 2006-07, with seven players scoring over 50 points; last season, that number dwindled to just four players. With Steve Sullivan's back issues still unresolved, and Alexander Radulov off to Russia, the team will look to Martin Erat, David Legwand and rookies Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Jones to shoulder some of the load. With Chris Mason headed to bluer pastures in St. Louis, the starting goaltending job is fully in the hands of Dan Ellis, who finished 2007-08 as the NHL's league leader in save percentage (.924) and 12th in goals-against average (2.34).-- Tim Kavanagh