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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    NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin will look to stay out of the box against Bruins

    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals collides with Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on October 21, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Bruins defeated the Capitals 4-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

    The Capitals put an end to their three-game losing streak by defeating the Buffalo Sabres in overtime on Monday night, but the biggest thing that came out of that game was coach Barry Trotz’s criticism of Alex Ovechkin.

    “If it’s going on again, then there’s not going to be a lot of power play and playing time,” Trotz said, per the Washington Post. “If my message is not getting through, then the only thing I have is really ice time.”

    On Tuesday, Ovechkin, who has five minor penalties in his last three games, had a chance to respond to his coach’s comments.

    “Obviously, I have to be on the ice and not in the penalty box,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a good thing we talk. It’s my mistakes, and I just have to handle it and don’t take those penalties.”

    Washington’s captain seems to have taken the criticism in stride, and we’ll see if Trotz’s message gets through to him right away.

    Beyond the Ovechkin story line, the Capitals have surprisingly had a difficult time scoring goals.

    With names like Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and company, you’d think that they’d be willing to fill the net with ease. Instead, Washington currently sits 23rd in goals for with 61.

    They’ll be going head-to-head with the team that’s scored the same amount of goals, the Boston Bruins.

    Boston’s inability to score with regularity was a little easier to predict than Washington’s, but they’re hoping that their latest 4-3 OT win over the Panthers will give them a spark.

    “A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said David Backes, per CSN New England. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.”

    One Bruin who isn’t struggling, is David Pastrnak. The 20-year-old has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season.

    He’s already scored 15 goals in 21 games, which puts him on pace to find the back of the net an incredible 55 times.

    This should be a great one!

    PHT Morning Skate: A beer named after Shayne Gostisbehere

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    –Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took the league by storm last year and obviously, people noticed. Starting on Friday, he’ll have a beer named after him. The Conshohocken Brewery is coming out with the “Ghost Bear Golden Ale”. (Bardown)

    –No one expected rookie Brandon Carlo to make the Bruins out of camp, but he’s been terrific in his first NHL season. Thanks to his reach and wingspan, he’s been able to be effective in his own zone. “The one thing is that he’s so long and his stick is so long, it gives him time to recover because as a young kid in the league you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. He has the ability to come back and recover,” said teammate Torey Krug. (CSN New England)

    –The Pittsburgh Penguins have an interesting dilemma with the upcoming expansion draft. First, they need to figure out if they’ll keep eight skaters and one goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Once that’s settled, the team will need to figure what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury and a youngster like Derrick Pouliot. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun takes a closer look at their situation. (ESPN)

    –Through 24 games, Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has yet to pick up a single penalty minute. Some people might see that as a positive thing, but others might feel he’s too soft. So, which one is it? We know what MacKinnon thinks: “I’m being aggressive. I’m playing regularly, just not taking any minors. I think it’s a good thing. Usually I’m good for some roughing penalties and I’ve asked a couple guys to fight this year. I’m not trying to have zero penalty minutes,” said MacKinnon. (Denver Post)

    –Injuries have hit the Tampa Bay Lightning pretty hard this year, but they have a bargaining chip named Ben Bishop. Is it time for them to trade him? Here are five reasons why they should.  (The Hockey News)

    –The San Jose Sharks are having some fun on social media. Their latest hilarious video involves players guessing which teammate of theirs is depicted in a young fan’s drawing. It’s pretty funny:

    Flames keep showing life, Stars stumble once again

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    If you think the Dallas Stars are struggling because of defense more than anything else, then you’ll make sure to keep the video above “on file.”

    There Kari Lehtonen was, helpless on a 2-on-0 rush for the Calgary Flames, which Johnny Gaudreau finished with calm and ease. For some, that goal is the symbol of the Stars’ season.

    Either way, it was a painful goal in the Flames’ 2-1 win against the Stars. Calgary won despite Dallas firing 30 shots on goal versus the Flames’ 20.

    One team climbing, the other stumbling

    With that, the Flames are now on a four-game winning streak. Since falling to 5-10-1 on Nov. 12, the Flames have gone 9-3-1 in their last 13 games, pushing them to 14-13-2 overall. Gaudreau coming back is the icing on the cake after Chad Johnson really took charge of the Flames’ top job.

    During a similar span, the Stars can’t seem to get it together. Dallas stood at 6-6-3 after beating the Oilers 3-2 on Nov. 11. They’re now 10-11-6, essentially standing in place as a .500 team.

    Dallas can’t seem to get momentum going, a thought that might have left them envious of the team on the other end of the ice on Tuesday.

    Canadiens are facing some turbulence (and mostly passing the test)

    ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 6: Patrik Berglund #21 of the St. Louis Blues checks Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Montreal Canadiens at the Scottrade Center on December 6, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/ Getty Images)
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    The Montreal Canadiens aren’t in crisis mode, but as far as this so-far outstanding 2016-17 season goes, they are finally facing some adversity.

    Alex Galchenyuk, one of their most promising young players, is out indefinitely. There are murmurs that captain Max Pacioretty isn’t getting along with head coach Michel Therrien.* Tuesday presented a body blow or two to boot.

    For one thing, the Canadiens gave up a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues in overtime. Jaden Schwartz grabbed an assist and scored the game’s last two goals, including the OT-winner:

    Losing to a contender like the Blues, especially while still grabbing a “charity point,” isn’t that big of a deal. A possible David Desharnais injury makes things a little dicey, however:

    Really, though, it’s not all that bad for Montreal. They managed a 2-2-1 mark during a five-game road trip heavy on quality opponents.

    Also: six of their next seven games come at home, where they’re 12-1-1. So things will look brighter soon enough.

    Still, with some injuries and a big road trip to end 2016 and start 2017, there may be some moments where Montreal looks vulnerable.

    Ultimately, fighting through stretches like these could very well benefit the Habs later on.

    * – Ah, the old standby: “Player X isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Therrien.”

    From the Blues’ side: