2010-2011 NHL season preview: Nashville Predators

sheaweber2.jpgLast season: (47-29-6, 100 points, 3rd in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference) Each and every year, people try to count out the Predators and each and every year they seem to make the playoffs. For a team that’s gotten the runaround when it comes to rumors about being moved and talk of financial instability, the Predators take care of business pretty well. A hard first-round battle with the Blackhawks left the Predators without a series win, but putting the scare of a lifetime into the eventual Stanley Cup champions is something to hang your hat on.

Head coach: Barry Trotz enters his 12th season as head coach. He’s the only coach the franchise has ever known and that consistency at the top of the organization helps Nashville stay in the hunt year in and year out. The system never changes, what’s expected is always known, and players all ideally know where they stand within the organization. Taking a team from their days as an expansion franchise to where they’re consistently a difficult team to deal with is an impressive feat. That said, more is demanded from the fans in Nashville and winning a playoff round or two would go a long way towards solidifying hockey’s hold in Music City.

Key departures: F Jason Arnott, F Dustin Boyd, D Dan Hamhuis, D Denis Grebeshkov, G Dan Ellis. Losing Hamhuis and Grebeshkov are tough blows for the defense, meanwhile Arnott’s departure was to help free up room salary-wise. Ellis’ departure opened up competition for the backup job as Pekka Rinne’s hold on the starting job was permanent.

Key arrivals: F Matt Lombardi, F Sergei Kostitsyn, D Ryan Parent, D Aaron Johnson, G Anders Lindback. Adding Lombardi was a coup for the Preds. After his big year in Phoenix his salary demands were higher than expected and he came to Nashville as a relative steal. Kostitsyn arrives looking to shake off negative opinions on his game earned in Montreal. Parent returns to Nashville to help solidify the defensive unit. Lindback is making his North American debut as Rinne’s backup.

Under pressure:  This might come off as unfair, but the most pressure is on Trotz. After all, the team still hasn’t won in the playoffs. They’ve been the prototypical really tough team for Cup competitors to face in the first round and beating the Predators in the playoffs has been the spark that both Chicago and Detroit needed on their way to winning their most recent Stanley Cups. At some point, the Predators need to stop being the tough team to face in the first round and become the team that stuns someone big on their way to making a deep run in the playoffs.

pekkarinne2.jpgProtecting the house: The Predators have handed the reins over to Rinne. After dueling with Ellis last season to see who would come out on top, Rinne’s stellar play over the inconsistent Ellis ensured that the job would be his. How much work Rinne sees this season will be interesting to watch as some suspect he’ll be the next goalie to join the 60+ starts society. Should that not pan out, Lindback will be there supporting him. Lindback was the Preds’ seventh round pick in 2008 and he played well in Sweden the last two seasons and impressed enough in training camp to win the backup job. If Rinne struggles, it’ll be interesting to see what Lindback can do in a bigger role than expected.

On defense, captain Shea Weber leads a very able and capable crew. Ryan Suter, Francois Bouillon, Ryan Parent, Cody Franson, Aaron Johnson and Kevin Klein round out a gang of seven that will play things tight to the vest. Losing Hamhuis to free agency was a tough blow, but bringing back Parent and getting more minutes from Franson should help offset his play.

Top line we’d like to see: Steve Sullivan-Lombardi-Patric Hornqvist is what we’d like to see. Sullivan is the veteran scorer leading the way, while Lombardi is the new guy coming off a hot season and Hornqvist is the big body with the goal-scoring touch in front of the net. It’s a bit of the past, present, future motif we’ve seen with other teams, except this one isn’t quite as drastic. The Preds need goal scoring and a line like this will make it happen with Sullivan’s ability to slice in and out of traffic, Lombardi’s ability to make things happen and Hornqvist blocking the goalie’s view.

Oh captain, my captain: You couldn’t ask for a guy who sets a better example of what the Predators are all about than Weber. He’s big, he’s talented, he flies under the radar for mainstream popularity — he’s the human embodiment of the Predators. He’s also playing the game with the kind of tenacity that Trotz wants out of everyone.

jordintootoo2.jpgStreet fighting man: There’s ideally a pair of candidates here. One guy does actual fighting (Wade Belak) and the other makes everyone want to fight him (Jordin Tootoo). If Belak gets into a game, you can guarantee him dropping the gloves. With Tootoo running around all game you’ll have a lot of ticked off players on the opposing team. Fact is, the Predators aren’t really a fighting team. They were third from the bottom in fighting majors last season and Belak was their runaway leader with 10 and he didn’t even play that often. Any fans that believe that fighting hockey is what’s selling in Nashville are greatly mistaken.

Best-case scenario: Hornqvist builds off his 30-goal season and adds a few more than that this time around. Lombardi builds off his big season in Phoenix to give the Predators a legitimately lethal offensive first line. Martin Erat finds a way to pot more than his customary 20-25 goals, while J.P. Dumont models his game more after Hornqvist and becomes an effective net presence. Colin Wilson becomes a breakout star and puts home 25 goals. Rinne turns into the real deal and has a Vezina-worthy season in goal while Weber and Suter become the defensive pairing for the next generation leading the Predators deeper into the playoffs than they’ve ever been before — the second round.

Worst-case scenario: Lombardi isn’t able to replicate his production from last season while Hornqvist struggles under the weight of expectation. Sullivan and Erat see their goal totals level off and the offense sputters again. Rinne tires out trying to carry the Predators. Defensive inconsistency also sets in and the Predators just miss the playoffs.

Keeping it real: I know, you want to count the Predators down and out, but let’s face it, they’re always going to be there and the team did take some strides forward last season. Rinne will be very good and Lombardi’s addition should pan out well. Getting a little something more from lifetime Predator David Legwand would be great as well. All in all, this team will be tough as always and go through fits where they look like they could be really tough in the playoffs and others where they look completely pedestrian. They’ll be a playoff team once again and the key for them is to finally get out of the first round. Whether they can do that or not is up in the air.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Predators are a perfect 3. They’re going to be a playoff team and from there anything can shake loose. I’m not one to hold a team’s past against them and assume that they’d be a ‘one round and done’ team but the team doesn’t immediately jump out at me as a Cup contender. That doesn’t mean they aren’t one, they’re just not at the top of the list. Last year proved that just about anything can happen in the playoffs, but times are tougher in the Western Conference and the road to the finals is always a bit tougher.

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    Ovechkin limped off the ice during Capitals practice

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    There was a scare involving star forward Alex Ovechkin during Washington Capitals practice on Monday.

    Per reports, Ovechkin limped off the ice after getting tangled up with a teammate during drills. He left the ice and reportedly didn’t return, which would certainly be cause for concern.

    Capitals head coach Barry Trotz seemed to quell that a little bit afterward.

    “I think he’s going to be okay,” said Trotz, per NBC Sports Washington. “I got to talk to the trainers here. He got tangled up there; it’s a contact sport.”

    The news wasn’t so good for winger Andre Burakovsky, who will miss “a little bit of time,” according to Trotz on Monday.

    The Capitals, who have lost five of their last seven games, don’t play again until Thursday, when they visit the Vancouver Canucks to start a three-game road trip that also includes stops in Edmonton and Calgary.

    On an individual level, the 32-year-old Ovechkin has enjoyed a great start to the season, with 10 goals, which puts him into a tie atop the league in that category with Nikita Kucherov of the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning.

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    Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

    Kucherov, Stamkos and the Bolts are lighting it up

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning are off to quite a start in the Eastern Conference, and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are at the middle of it.

    It shouldn’t come as any surprise that on Monday, the linemates received recognition from the NHL for their efforts, with Kucherov being named the NHL’s second star for last week and Stamkos the first star.

    (By the way, remember that column about tempering expectations on Stamkos early in the season? Yeah, about that . . .)

    Last week, Kucherov had to endure a brutal one-game scoring slump but did manage to capture five goals and eight points in four games, and is battling with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals with 10. Stamkos, who has most recently had to battle back from knee surgery last season, had 11 points in four games, capped off with a four-point performance and a career milestone against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

    “You can’t overlook the fact that 600 points — that’s a lot of points in this league,” said coach Jon Cooper on Monday. “He’s just shy of 600 games right? So, to play that many games and be above a point-per-game player … it’s one thing to do that in 10 games but to do it in 600 games is pretty impressive.”

    The Bolts and Toronto Maple Leafs continue to duke it out for not only the highest scoring team in the league right now, but also top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning currently have a three-point lead.

    While Kucherov and Stamkos have been a big part of Tampa Bay’s hot start, this club has received healthy contributions throughout their lineup. Their linemate Vladislav Namestnikov has gone about his business with 10 points, which has him tied in that category with Brayden Point.

    Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is still 19 years old and eligible to return to junior, is on the verge of playing his 10th game, but he’s currently Tampa Bay’s most productive blue liner (eight points in nine games), which makes it virtually a guarantee that he’ll remain in the NHL beyond that mark, using up the first year of his entry-level contract.

    “There’s a really good chance you’ll see him tomorrow,” said Cooper of Sergachev.

    Oh, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been impressive early on with a .933 save percentage through his eight starts.

    Kucherov and Stamkos are obviously worthy of this recognition, and it’s probably not the last time they’ll receive such kudos from the league as this season continues. But the danger this team poses to the opposition goes beyond its stars.

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    Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

    Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

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    Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

    On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

    While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

    “That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

    When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

    The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

    The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    ‘We need more’ — Struggling Habs demote slumping Galchenyuk

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    The Montreal Canadiens, as an entire team, have been mired in a brutal scoring slump to begin the season.

    The result has been a seven-game losing streak that, believe it or not, took an even uglier turn last week when the Habs were swept in embarrassing fashion on a three-game trip through California.

    Among the players continuing to have difficulties producing is Alex Galchenyuk, who has one goal in eight games, produced one shot on goal in more than 18 minutes versus the Anaheim Ducks last week and only 14 shots on the season, and practiced on the fourth line with Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak ahead of tomorrow’s home game with the Florida Panthers.

    This isn’t the first time this season that head coach Claude Julien has skated Galchenyuk on the fourth line. He offered a rather simple explanation on Monday, after situating a 30-goal scorer from only two years ago — and a player signed to a three-year, $14.7 million contract extension this summer — now situated in the bottom six of a lineup that is dead last in the league in scoring.

    “Right now, I don’t think Alex has given us enough to … continue playing on our top line for the time being,” said Julien. “We certainly need more. At the same time, hopefully those guys I put him with are going to make him work and hopefully get better. At one point you’ve got to do something as a coach to get players that maybe deserve to be up, such as (Paul Byron) — he needs to be up there because he’s playing well, he’s scoring goals. You reward people that deserve it and at the same time, other guys have got to give you more.”

    The aforementioned Byron, who skated Monday on the top line, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher are currently tied for the team lead in goals — with two each. That’s through eight games. Yes, it’s bad. Max Pacioretty, a five-time 30-goal scorer, has just one so far, and he’s been candid about his complete lack of production so far.

    “That is the challenge … how am I going to go tell my teammates that we got to be better when I’m the worst one on the ice,” he said last week, per Sportsnet.

    There are individual players, specifically Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov each with 10, who have scored almost as many goals as the Habs as an entire team.  And after such a disastrous start, the heat is now on general manager Marc Bergevin for some of his moves in recent years, and for him to try to turn it around by perhaps pulling off a trade to upgrade their offensive attack.

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    Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.