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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    Latest way the Wild lost? Killed by penalty kill

    Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk sits on the ice after giving up a goal to St. Louis Blues' Jori Lehtera, of Finland, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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    It’s said that variety is the spice of life, yet it seems to be the spite of the Minnesota Wild.

    As head coach Mike Yeo said, this struggling team appears to find a new way to lose virtually every night. That couldn’t have happened once again on Saturday, when they fell 4-1 to the St. Louis Blues, could it?

    Actually …

    If you ask Jarret Stoll, the latest problem was the penalty kill.

    Honestly, Stoll may have been too specific, likely trying to throw his own unit under the bus. Instead, it might be more accurate to say that Minnesota’s special teams let them down.

    Indeed, the Wild struggled to limit the Blues’ power play, which went an unsettling 3-for-6. That said, Minnesota had a chance to trade blows with St. Louis. Instead, the Wild managed one power-play goal on seven opportunities.

    The silver lining is that the Wild believe that they showed more fight than this fragile bunch had been generating before.

    On the other hand, with Jonas Brodin on IR and Jared Spurgeon apparently hurt, that silver lining may not be so easy to see.

    Statement in Blackhawks’ blowout of Stars? Coach Q says they’re even

    Chicago Blackhawks center Artem Anisimov (15) scores a goal against Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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    Worry (if you’re pulling for the Stars) or gloat (if you’re a Blackhawks fan) all you want, but the bottom line is that the Central Division’s No.1 spot is clearly in Chicago’s control after Saturday night.

    The Blackhawks earned a decisive 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars, giving them a five-point standings lead over Dallas for the Central Division lead.

    You may feel like that’s more of the same, but consider this: things would look a lot closer if Dallas won or gained points, as they hold three games in hand on the ‘Hawks.

    At least one Blackhawks player admits this game means a little more than your average W.

    Indeed, while Antti Niemi was pulled from the game and Kari Lehtonen faced his own struggles in Dallas’ net, Corey Crawford ranked as one of the big reasons why the score was so lopsided.

    (Artem Anisimov had a big say in that, too.)

    As a wise coach with 1,000+ games of experience would do, Joel Quenneville didn’t go overboard in assessing the victory.

    Was this a statement game? Who knows, but a certain statement is that the Blackhawks now have a five-point standings lead.

    Brad Marchand wins it … on a penalty shot … in overtime

    Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand celebrates after scoring on a penalty shot during the overtime period of the Boston Bruins 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL hockey game in Boston Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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    Looking at the standings, beating the Buffalo Sabres was pretty important for the Boston Bruins. The Atlantic Division’s run for spots appears particularly congested out East.

    Of all the Bruins to get a chance to win it all, the team might have wanted Brad Marchand to have that opportunity. He’s on pace to destroy his previous career-highs for scoring, and Marchand’s been particularly hot lately.

    Either way, Marchand came up big indeed, scoring the rare overtime game-winner on a penalty shot. Check out the drama below:

    That can be a big extra point and ROW (regulation/overtime win) when the regular season is finished.

    Note: Many believe that Marchand should not have received a penalty shot on the play.

    Crosby kills the Cats: Penguins end Panthers’ winning streak

    Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) collides with Florida Panthers' Connor Brickley (86) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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    For quite some time, it looked like the Florida Panthers would keep the Pittsburgh Penguins under wraps.

    Florida nursed a 1-0 lead into a 2-0 margin almost halfway through the third period, looking to win its sixth consecutive game. That looked great … and then Sidney Crosby + Kris Letang happened.

    Let’s put it this way: this GIF of Crosby being frustrated is amusing, yet it doesn’t exactly tell the story of Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win for the Penguins:

    Instead, Crosby grabbed his 900th point assisting on a Letang goal, and finished the night with 902 by collecting the game-tying goal and grabbing a helper on Letang’s overtime game-winner.

    Crosby crossing that barrier is indeed special, even if it prompts “What if?” questions about No. 87’s health.

    The resurgence of Crosby and Letang already played a big role in the Penguins going from disjointed and frustrating to sneaky and scary, so it  shouldn’t be that surprising to see them play so well. Doing so in such brisk order is a little bewildering, however.