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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    Red Wings look to future in net … a future possibly without Howard

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 07:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings makes a save against the Boston Bruins during the first period at TD Garden on April 7, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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    This summer looks like it could be one of changes for the Detroit Red Wings, even beyond the most obvious storyline of Pavel Datsyuk‘s future.

    One area where the Red Wings would like to make some tweaks is in net, namely in trading Jimmy Howard. The Detroit Free-Press points out that GM Ken Holland admitted that moving the former franchise netminder “might be good for the organization.”

    It’s reasonable to wonder what kind of market there will be for Howard, whose deal ($5.29 million cap hit through 2018-19) looks pretty tough to stomach on paper.

    Maybe it’s best to consider the Red Wings’ options if Howard starts the 2016-17 season off on a strong note, or something of that nature. Perhaps an expansion draft could “solve” that problem if Detroit cannot find any takers?

    The Red Wings remain forward-thinking and patient, which likely explains why the Free-Press focuses on their confidence with prospect Jared Coreau.

    “In the big scheme of things, he’ll play in Grand Rapids for another year, but now we know he can play a lot of minutes if needed,” Goalie coach Jeff Salajko said. “Jimmy Howard played four years in the minors. We’re not rushing Jared, but he is going to be an NHL goalie, there is no doubt in my mind about that.”

    In other words, a pairing of Petr Mrazek and Coreau wouldn’t just be a cost-effective duo … it might just be the Red Wings’ ideal scenario in the not-too-distant future.

    Stanley Cup Final referees: McCauley, O’Halloran, O’Rourke, Sutherland

    BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 13:  Referee Dan O'Halloran #13 holds up a face-off between the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators during their NHL game at First Niagara Center on December 13, 2011 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Dave Sandford Getty Images)
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    From the NHL:

    refs

    Pretty veteran crew, including three returnees from last year’s final.

    Per the NHL, O’Halloran and O’Rourke will call tonight’s series opener from Consol.

    After advancing to Cup final, DeBoer had Sharks fans coming up to him with ‘tears in their eyes’

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 29: Head coach Peter DeBoer addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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    PITTSBURGH — When Pete DeBoer was hired to coach the San Jose Sharks, he wasn’t totally cognizant of how much heartbreak the fan base had experienced throughout the years.

    Now he knows.

    “First year in the community, I didn’t realize kind of the baggage that was carried around,” DeBoer said this morning ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “Twenty-five-year season-ticket holders coming up to you with tears in their eyes and crying.”

    The Sharks, of course, have never been this far in the playoffs. Prior to this year, they’d made it three times to the Western Conference Final, losing each time.

    More painful were the first-round exits. Like in 2009 when they won the Presidents’ Trophy and got knocked out by the Ducks, and two years ago when they led the Kings 3-0 before dropping four straight.

    It was only after the Sharks beat the Blues that DeBoer fully realized the “gravity of what they’ve been through” as fans in San Jose, and “how important this is to them.”

    Not that he’s satisfied with getting this far.

    “The business at hand now is to get off on the right foot, plant the right seeds for this series, impose our game,” he said. “Every series is the same — it’s whatever team can impose their game on the other team the quickest and for the longest. That’s our goal here tonight.”

    Related: For Pete DeBoer, San Jose was the perfect landing spot

    Kopitar will play for Slovenia in Olympic qualifiers

    SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13: Anze Kopitar #11 of Slovenia skates against Russia during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar will spend part of his offseason trying to help Slovenia qualify for the Olympics.

    RTV Slovenia has the story here.

    The qualification games will be played September 1-4 in Minsk. Slovenia is in a group with Belarus, Denmark and Poland. The winner of the group will qualify for the Olympics.

    The NHL reportedly has no issue with Kopitar’s participation, even though the league has yet to commit to sending its players to Pyeongchang.

    Slovenia made its Olympic debut in ice hockey at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

    Kopitar will also represent Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup later in September.

    Related: Slovenia beats Slovakia for historic win