Predators: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
We were chatting with an NHL GM in mid-September about the Tampa Bay Rays and their chase of the Boston Red Sox in the AL wild-card race.
"You know, the Rays are just like the Nashville Predators. You can never count them out. They always found a way," the GM said.
Like the Rays, the Predators lose players every year but find a way to stay competitive through quality drafting and excellent player development. Huge credit goes to GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton.
After reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in their franchise history, the Predators will be tested again when it comes to organizational depth after seeing nearly a third of their roster leave town.
"We're obviously happy with our plan," Poile told ESPN.com. "We won our first playoff round last year. We still feel we have ways to grow on our team. We had a number of offseason moves that really got us in a position to fulfill the plan. We let some good veteran players go, and this is probably the youngest team we've ever had.
"We could have as many as 16-17 draft choices playing for us this year on a 23-man roster. That's the Predator way right there."
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Want to go deeper? ESPN Insider gives you access to player perspectives on each team, plus a breakout player from Craig Custance, key stats to watch and season projections.
Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. Young bucks stepping up
The departures up front of Joel Ward, J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan and Marcel Goc (can't really count Matthew Lombardi, traded to Toronto, since he played only one game for the Preds) open up ice time and jobs this season for Nashville's seemingly endless supply of young talent.
"We're giving opportunities to young kids to do what we feel we need to do to get to the next level," said Poile.
That means a bigger role for returning youngsters such as Cal O'Reilly, Nick Spaling and Colin Wilson, while rookies Craig Smith, Chris Mueller and Blake Geoffrion (played 20 games last season) have a shot at making rookie impacts. Niclas Bergfors, 24, was signed via free agency as he joins his fourth NHL team. The Predators lost experience, but they have plenty of relief up front in young bodies.
"We probably have more depth than we've ever had, but a lot of young players," Poile said.
Keep an eye on Craig Smith. He impressed at camp.
The Preds need some of these youngsters to step up. Nashville ranked only 21st in goals per game last season and 26th on the power play.
"I'm on the record as saying our forwards are underrated and we're going to do better offensively," said Poile.
"It's a luxury," star goalie Pekka Rinne told ESPN.com. "Those are the guys that can play over 25 minutes a night. They are leaders on and off the ice. Being a goalie, you can't help but like that situation. We have other great D-men as well, but I think that pairing is the best in the league."
Weber was a nominee for the Norris Trophy last season and his profile really grew after his performance in the 2010 Olympics for Canada. Suter hasn't received the same hype, but it says here he deserves more recognition for what he brings to the table. He's an all-star on his own and among the league's best blueliners. The Preds will be riding these two guys hard this season, perhaps more than ever after the veteran, offseason roster defections.
3. Second pairing after big two
The Predators lost a good defenseman when they dealt Cody Franson to Toronto, reluctantly, in order to get out from under Lombardi's contract.
Getting the promotion to the second pairing with Kevin Klein should be promising youngster Jonathan Blum, who played 23 games last season in his first taste of the NHL.
"He looks real good," said Poile. "He's probably better than people realize. Another really good development situation where he played the proper amount of time in Milwaukee to improve his game, his strength and gain confidence before he came up with 20-plus games to go last year."
4. Eye on the penalty killing
Brent Peterson is now an adviser with the Predators as he continues his battle with Parkinson's disease. He oversaw the team's fifth-ranked penalty kill last season. Lane Lambert replaced him behind the bench. Joel Ward was also a key penalty-killer now and he's gone. Will the PK be as good this season?
With Mike Fisher at the helm, the Preds should continue their stingy ways. That's a key for a team that struggles to score goals.
5. Big three expiring contracts
Weber is slated to be a restricted free agent again next July, and the Preds were unable to work out a long-term deal this past summer. Fellow star blueliner Ryan Suter, meanwhile, and franchise goalie Rinne are slated to be unrestricted free agents.
The challenge for the Preds is to not allow that storyline to become a distraction. Oh, the other challenge is to sign them.
"We're well aware it's the most topical thing in Nashville," said Poile. "Pretty much every day we're asked the same question. We know when we go on the road that's the question that's going to be asked. I tell everybody: I'm talking to the agents on a regular basis. All three players say they love it here and want to play here.
"A factor is the team being competitive, and, of course, money. So, we're working on it. Our dialogue is good. It's my goal to try and sign both Suter and Rinne before July 1 and eventually sign Weber as well."
Know this: If the Preds, for whatever reason, are not sitting in a playoff spot come the trade deadline, and Suter and Rinne remain unsigned to extensions, the pressure on Poile to move them will be gigantic. But there is a lot to play out between now and then.
6. Fisher's health a concern
Mike Fisher underwent shoulder surgery in May and was still in non-contact mode as camp entered the final week.
"He's getting better, but we're not sure he's going to be able to make it for opening weekend," Poile told ESPN.com on Sept. 26. "But it really won't be much longer after that."
7. The sensational Rinne
Rinne was the best netminder on the planet last season not named Tim Thomas.
His first Vezina Trophy nomination was well deserved.
"Obviously I'm proud of it," said Rinne. "But also we had a great year as a team. Being a goalie, you realize that you need your teammates and I'm lucky to have a great team in front of me and one of the best D's in front of me. But yeah, it was so much fun last year."
The Preds need him to maintain that Vezina form in order to cover up the shortcomings in their game, especially offensively.
"Pekka's great," Poile said. "We think he's one of the top goaltenders in the league. To retain him, we're going to have to pay him as one of the best goaltenders in the league."
8. Eliis' impact
Blue-line prospect Ryan Ellis had a whopping 101 points (24-77) in 58 games in his final season of junior hockey with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. The internal debate with Preds management is whether the 11th overall pick in 2009 needs seasoning in the AHL before cutting his teeth in the NHL. The Predators strongly believe in developing players through the AHL -- even Weber had to do it.
"We're very confident that he's going to be a player in the NHL," Poile said of Ellis. "Right now with all young players, it's just for him knowing what he can do on the ice in the NHL. He's such a creative player; he tries a lot of things and some are successful, some aren't successful. We have to get our arms around whether he should be finding out about these things up here or down in Milwaukee."
9. Kostitsyn's production key
The former Montreal Canadiens winger put up a career high in goals (23) and points (50) last season. The Preds can't afford to have him decrease in production given their offensive struggles. To their delight, Sergei Kostitsyn showed up to camp this year apparently in the best shape of his life. That bodes well for another production season.
10. Big season for Wilson
Wilson's first full season in the NHL started off well but ended badly after he was benched in the playoffs. He struggled in the second half. He has the tools to be a very effective two-way player in this league, but he must show more consistency in his second full season to earn the trust of head coach Barry Trotz.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering 13th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Barry Trotz is the only coach in franchise history, hired in August 1997 and never looking back.
He should get an automatic nomination for the Jack Adams Award every year for his work with a small-budget team season after season.
His teams play ultra-hard night in, night out. What else can you ask of a coach? -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Shea Weber
With a taste for shooting often, scoring and putting in mega-minutes, both at even strength and with an extra skater, Weber will also reward you with a few minutes in the box here and there. If only the Predators, as a whole, scored more, Weber would find himself a fantasy top-10 blueliner. That could change if the team adds another top-six winger. As it stands, the 26-year-old is a No. 1 or No. 2 D-man in most leagues. -- Victoria Matiash
Risky pick: Mike Fisher
Fisher is not assured of a spot on the Nashville Predators' top two lines. With the chemistry Cal O'Reilly showed on the second line, Fisher would have to battle with David Legwand for the opening between Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat on the top line. Given Legwand's speed and experience, it's hard to envision Fisher beating him out. Still, it's an open battle and Fisher could surprise. If he plays between Kostitsyn and Erat on a regular basis, Fisher could approach his career-high of 53 points. On the third line, 35 points is more likely. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: Colin Wilson
Wilson has more scoring ability than he has shown to date (16 goals and 34 points last season). With most of the top-six spots for the Predators spoken for, Wilson may have to spend another season as a back-checking third-liner before he gets a chance to flex his offensive muscles. An injury this season could push him into the spotlight on the depth chart though, so remember his name as the season wears on. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Predators:
• June 9: Named Lane Lambert assistant coach.
• June 15: Re-signed D Teemu Laakso.
• July 3: Acquired D Brett Lebda and LW Robert Slaney from Toronto for D Cody Franson and C Matthew Lombardi.
• July 3: Signed RW Niclas Bergfors.
• July 5: Signed C Kyle Wilson and RW Zack Stortini.
• July 7: Re-signed RW Matt Halischuk, LW Nick Spaling, C Cal O'Reilly and RW Chris Mueller.
• July 8: Re-signed LW Sergei Kostitsyn.
• July 29: Signed D Tyler Sloan.
• Aug. 3: D Shea Weber awarded one-year contract in arbitration.
• Aug. 8: Signed D Jack Hillen.
• D Cody Franson (traded to Toronto)
• C Matthew Lombardi (traded to Toronto)
• C Marcel Goc (unrestricted free agent, signed by Florida)
• LW Steve Sullivan (unrestricted free agent, signed by Pittsburgh)
• RW Joel Ward (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• RW J.P. Dumont (contract bought out)
• D Shane O'Brien (unrestricted free agent, signed by Colorado)