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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    After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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    On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

    (That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

    The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

    So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

    Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

    That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.

    Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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    ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

    Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

    Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

    “We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

    In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

    This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

    “You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

    What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

    Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

    “We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

    Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

    Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

    The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

    Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

    That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

    “It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

    NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

    AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

    More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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    Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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    GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

    The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

    “Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

    “I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

    This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

    He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

    However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

    Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

    “The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

    “It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

    He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

    “I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

    Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

    “They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

    Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

    “You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

    Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

    “We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

    Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

    Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

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    Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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    Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

    The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

    Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

    “We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

    Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

    Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

    For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

    It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

    You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.