2011-2012 season preview: Nashville Predators

2010-2011 record: 44-27-11, 99 points; 2nd in Central, 5th in West

Playoffs: Defeated Anaheim 4-2 in Western quarterfinals, lost to Vancouver 4-2 in Western semifinals

The Predators will look to build on their first ever playoff series win last season. Now that winning a first-round series is out of the way, Nashville will look to take the next step by following their strong defense and goaltending to the Western Conference finals and beyond. If fans around the league ever wanted to see what strong coaching, goaltending, and defense could do — look no further than the Predators. If they could only mix in a little more scoring, they’d have a little more room for error throughout the season.

Offense

No team is perfect and it doesn’t take long to figure out where the Predators weakness is on their roster. Their two leading scorers last season notched exactly 50 points last season. For perspective, Martin Erat and David Legwand, were tied for 91st in NHL scoring last season. To say the Predators are offensively challenged would be a little like saying the Boston Red Sox had a slightly below-average September.

Both Erat and Legwand missed 18 games apiece last season due to injuries; both will look to put together healthy campaigns and help the Preds for a full 82 games. Still, the team lacks that dynamic offensive talent that they haven’t seen since Alexander Radulov left for the KHL. The offense in Nashville isn’t expected to carry the team — they’re just expected to score enough to keep the team a float.

Defense

The blue line for the Predators is definitely the strong point of the team — this corps would be the strong point of just about every team in the league. Star captain Shea Weber was a Norris Trophy finalist and many people around the league will tell you that Ryan Suter is just as good. Between the two of them, they had 20 goals and 37 assists — not too bad for a defensive pair that plays over 25 minutes per game. Behind the top pairing, the Predators are going to go with some serious youth on the blueline. Jonathon Blum skated in 23 regular season games last season and showed the poise of a player who will be around for a long time. This season, the organization has left the bottom pairing open for a talented rookie — whether it be Mattias Ekholm or offensive dynamo Ryan Ellis. Either way, it’ll just be more of the same from the team that seems to have a never ending well of talented defensemen.

Goalies

When a team is built on goaltending and defense, the goaltending better be pretty good. Last season, the rest of the league discovered something fans in Nashville already knew — Pekka Rinne is an elite goaltender. He had a fantastic 2.12 goals against average and a spectacular .930 save percentage in 64 games last season. The good news is that Rinne could be in line for an even better season this year as the pending unrestricted free agent plays for a new contract. The bad news is that he’s a pending unrestricted free agent. Between Rinne and the talented Anders Lindback playing in about twenty games, Nashville is stacked in the crease.

Coaching

If Barry Trotz was coaching in Canada or the Northeast, he’d probably be mentioned with the best coaches of the last 20 years. He consistently gets more out of his players than just about any other coach in the league. Then again, there’s a reason that he’s still the only coach in Predators history. While many casual fans around the league may not know his name, the organization and fans in Nashville understand that they have a good one.

Breakout candidate

Colin Wilson is going to be given every opportunity to excel in his third full season in the NHL. The 2008 pick has shown flashes of the type of player who can succeed in the long-term. He potted 16 goals last season — yet it was his consistency that was the biggest problem for the young Wilson. If he can eliminate the inconsistency from his game, 20-plus goals and 50-plus points aren’t out of the realm of possibility. Remember, on the Preds, that would make him one of the team leaders on offense.

Best-case scenario

The best-case scenario for the Predators would be to have another season like the last one. By the end of the regular season, they had a Vezina finalist, Norris finalist, and Jack Adams finalist. Since Suter, Rinne, and Weber are all entering contract years, the trio could once again show the league that goaltending and defense is where it’s at. If they get similar seasons from their blueline and get a little added production from the likes of Sergei Kostitsyn, Wilson and Erat, the Predators could be a playoff team battling for home-ice in the first round.

Reality

The reality is that this team desperately needs a dynamic offensive talent to strike a little fear into the opposition. Both Legwand and Mike Fisher are very good NHL centers, but they thrive on the two-way game. Their power play has been a disaster for the last few seasons (26th in the league last year), and none of the offseason moves make us think they’ll be much better next season. We have the utmost respect for the strong team that David Poile and Trotz have put together on a shoestring budget, which is why we expect the Predators to make the playoffs again (despite the obvious lack of offensive talent). If they can figure out a way to score and produce on the power play, they have the potential to win a series or two in the playoffs this season. Look for the Preds to finish third in the Central and sixth in the Western Conference.

The Buzzer: Tuukka Time isn’t running out

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: Remember when people thought Tuukka Time was running out? Rask stopped 28-of-29 against the Flames in a 2-1 overtime win for the Bruins on Monday. Rask, according to Sportsnet Stats, is now 20-2-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 25 games, 24 of which has been starts.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: Rinne stopped 36-of-38 to help the Predators back into a tie first place in the Central Division. Rinne, who has won three of his past four starts, picked up his 30th win of the season, the seventh time he’s done so in his career, and fourth season in a row.

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker notched two tallies in the game, his second and third goals in his past two games, to help the Wild to a much-needed win after dropping their previous two contests.

John Gibson and Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson left after the second period with a lower-body injury. He made 13 saves. Miller came in for a relief stint and stopped 20 third-period shots for the rare combined shutout, just the second occurrence in team history.

Highlights of the Night:

Poor Erik Karlsson:

Brad Marchand uses his head for some good:

The Chronicles of Rittich:

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Wild 5, Islanders 3

Capitals 3, Sabres 2

Bruins 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Predators 5, Senators 2

Kings 3, Blackhawks 1

Ducks 2, Golden Knights 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

U.S. beats Slovakia 5-1, will play Czechs in Olympic quarters

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ryan Donato scored two goals, Troy Terry had three assists and the United States beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualification round Tuesday to advance to face the Czech Republic in the Olympic quarterfinals.

College kids again led the way for the U.S., which scored more against Slovakia then it did in all three preliminary-round games. James Wisniewski, Mark Arcobello and Garrett Roe also scored for the Americans, who took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play for hits on Donato and goaltender Ryan Zapolski.

Shaking off a collision with Ladislav Nagy, Ryan Zapolski had arguably his best game of the tournament, stopping 21 of the 22 shots he faced. Zapolski and the U.S. also beat Slovakia 2-1 in the preliminary round when Donato scored twice. With his second two-goal game, Donato equaled his father, Ted, who scored four goals for the U.S. at the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Slovakia goaltender Jan Laco allowed five goals on 33 shots and Peter Ceresnak scored a power-play goal for Slovakia, which became the first team eliminated from the men’s side.

After a listless first period with no goals and few scoring chances, the U.S. wasted little time getting on the board early in the second. Terry, as he has done all Olympics, used his speed to get to the net, and Donato picked up the loose puck and beat Laco 1:36 into the period.

The Americans got not one but two scares 26 seconds later when Nagy ran over Zapolski and Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky put a shoulder into Donato’s head in the neutral zone. Trainers attended to Donato and Zapolski as backup goaltender Brandon Maxwell stretched and prepared to go in.

Donato got stitched up on the bench and Zapolski took a few minutes before deciding not to leave the net. The ’90s hit ”Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba blared over the speakers when both players got to their feet and provided a fitting soundtrack for the next few minutes.

With Cajovsky given a match penalty – a five-minute major and an ejection – and Nagy in the penalty box for goaltender interference, the U.S. scored 18 seconds into its 5-on-3 power play with Donato screening Laco for Wisniewski’s first goal to make it 2-0 at the 2:20 mark. Terry took advantage of all the time in the world behind the net and found an open Arcobello for a one-timer to put the U.S. up 3-0 at 13:30.

After Jordan Greenway was penalized for slashing, Slovakia scored on the power play 16:54 into the second to cut it to 3-1, but the lightning-fast line of Roe, Brian O’Neill and Broc Little combined for a tic-tac-toe goal to make it 4-1 at 9:52 of the third. O’Neill flashed his speed down the right wing, took a hit while making the pass to Little who found Roe for a tap-in.

Donato scored his second of the game, this time on the power play, 16:46 into the third.

NOTES: St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch again for the United States. … Veteran forward Jim Slater returned to the lineup, replacing Chad Kolarik. … Former NHL player and coach Craig Ramsay coaches Slovakia.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Desperate for goaltending help, Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek

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The deal: The Philadelphia Flyers acquired goaltender Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Why is Philadelphia is making this deal? Simple: With the injuries to Brian Elliott (out five-to-six weeks with a core muscle injury) and Michal Neuvirth (out indefinitely with a lower-body injury), the Flyers had Alex Lyon, a veteran of just four NHL games, left to shoulder the load. Philly needed help after Neuvirth went down on Sunday and they went out and got it in 25-year-old Mrazek. The Flyers are currently third in the Metropolitan Division. Even with their six-point cushion from the second wildcard spot, relying on a rookie to see out the rest of the regular season could have been met with disastrous consequences.

Why is Detroit is making this deal? Sam Carchidi of Philly.com said Flyers general manager Ron Hextall had spoken with the Red Wings about Mrazek prior to Neuvirth’s injury, but the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flyers turned down a deal that would see a third-round pick go the other way. With the Red Wings being sellers, and with Hextall even more desperate for help after Sunday, he had no choice but to fold to Detroit’s demands.

Who won the trade? Pretty even. The Red Wings get a couple of picks over the next two years as they rebuild their team. The Flyers get immediate goaltending relief and perhaps an upgrade on the oft-injured Neuvirth. And Flyers fans will like that the team didn’t overpay to fix their problems. A good move from Hextall.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks ban fans after racist chants directed at Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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The Chicago Blackhawks took action on Monday, banning a few fans from team home games after their involvement in directing racist chants at Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly on Saturday.

In a post on the team’s website, the Blackhawks said they have “contacted the offending individuals and notified them that they are no longer welcome at Blackhawks home games.”

“Racist comments and other inappropriate behavior are not tolerated by the Chicago Blackhawks,” the Blackhawks said in a post.

Four Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball, basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black.

On Monday, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville spoke about the incident.

“Totally unacceptable in our game, in any sport and in society,” Quenneville said. “We have to learn from something like that. (It) can’t happen. I talked to (Capitals coach Barry Trotz) yesterday, apologized to the organization and the player, Devante. We’re sorry about what happened and let’s learn from it.”

Anthony Duclair, who is black, also spoke to the media.

“It’s not ok,” Duclair said. “Whether it happens to Devante Smith-Pelly or a random person on the street, you should be comfortable in your own skin and gender and nationality or religion, your beliefs. Everyone’s equal. Everyone should love each other.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement on Sunday morning:

“Last night in Chicago, individuals directed racial taunts and abuse at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The League fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.

“While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment – free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience.”

February is Hockey is for Everyone month in the NHL.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck