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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    Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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    Talk about making a great first impression.

    Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

    Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

    Here’s some footage of his performance:

    If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

    A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

    BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

    Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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    This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

    If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

    Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

    (Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

    Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

    Cleaning up

    Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

    Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

    Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

    One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

    Prospects and picks

    Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

    Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

    Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

    2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
    2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
    2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

    And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

    Still some problems

    The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

    They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

    Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

    Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

    There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

    So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

    Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

    The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

    Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

    Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

    Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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    Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

    It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

    Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

    Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

    Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

    Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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    The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

    Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

    Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

    Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

    Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

    So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

    We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

    The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.