Pekka Rinne

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.

Pre-game reading: About that time Donald Trump considered buying the Panthers

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie discusses Paul Maurice’s status in Winnipeg. Is the Jets’ head coach on the hot seat?

— Did you know that Donald Trump once considered buying the Florida Panthers? He never did buy them, of course, but the Miami Herald’s George Richards recalls the time, “around 2000,” when Trump kicked the tires on the hockey club. The Panthers, oddly enough, are now owned by Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Army, Vinnie Viola. (Miami Herald)

— From The Journal Star newspaper in Peoria, Illinois: “A charter bus carrying the Columbus Cottonmouths team was in a rollover crash on Interstate 74 on Thursday afternoon as the Southern Professional Hockey League team was on its way into Peoria for a weekend series against the Peoria Rivermen.” Fortunately, there don’t appear to be any serious injuries — just some “bumps and bruises,” according to the team’s co-owner, Bart Rogers. However, two people were reportedly taken to the hospital in an ambulance. (Journal Star)

— The Washington Post spoke to Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer about the new streamlined pants that all NHL goalies must start wearing by Feb. 4. While Holtby isn’t too concerned about the changes, Grubauer had this to say: “I understand you want to get the game more exciting for the fans, but there’s a fine line between making the gear smaller and also keeping the goalies protected. If too many guys get hurt with those, it’s not a good thing. … What do you want to take away next? Goalies without sticks? Without skates?” PHT prediction: They’ll let goalies keep their skates on.  (Washington Post)

— An encouraging update from Bryan Bickell, who was diagnosed with MS in November. The Hurricanes forward has been taking a drug called Tysabri, and the results have been good. “I’m feeling a lot better. I’ve been on the ice a couple times. … Different people react differently to different drugs and I’ve been reacting good and we’ll see how it goes.” (NHL.com)

— The Nashville Predators picked up “another teammate” on Friday, but they’re still not sure if “Mario” will last the season as their good-luck charm. (The Tennessean)

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Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: Preds turn to streaking Saros

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 28:  In his first career NHL game goalie Juuse Saros #1 of the Nashville Predators skates against the Buffalo Sabres during the first period at Bridgestone Arena on November 28, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Juuse Saros will get another shot at cutting into Pekka Rinne‘s playing time.

Saros, who has been excellent as Rinne’s backup since being recalled from AHL Milwaukee, will get the nod tonight when the Preds take on the Flames in Calgary. The decision comes after Rinne played well in a 1-0 loss in Vancouver on Tuesday, but the veteran Finn was no doubt displeased on the one goal he surrendered.

(FF to 3:36)

Tonight’s start will be Saros’ ninth of the season. He’s gone 4-3-1 with a 1.25 GAA and .957 save percentage in his previous eight — including his last one, when he stopped 35 of 36 shots in a win over Boston — and could make the case for even more starts with another solid effort tonight.

Nashville heads into Calgary just one point back of the Kings for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, and needs all the points it can get.

For the Flames, Chad Johnson starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— No rest for Mike Condon, as he’ll make yet another start when the Sens travel to Columbus. He’ll be up against Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 24 saves on 25 shots in a win over the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Kari Lehtonen, who made 12 saves in relief of Antti Niemi in Tuesday’s 7-6 win over the Rangers, gets the start for Dallas in Brooklyn. The Isles are going with Thomas Greiss, who posted a 32-save shutout of Boston earlier this week.

We wrote about Henrik Lundqvist’s struggles earlier, and he’ll look to change his fortunes around in Toronto. The Leafs, as per usual, are going to Frederik Andersen in goal.

Jake Allen gets back in for the Blues after Carter Hutton started three in a row. The Caps will counter with Braden Holtby.

Mike Smith gets a rare night off for the Coyotes, who will give Louis Domingue just his third start of the month. Domingue will go up against Devan Dubnyk, who saw his four-game winning streak snapped with a loss against the Devils on Tuesday.

Semyon Varlamov is hurt again, so Calvin Pickard goes for the Avs in Anaheim. John Gibson‘s in for the Ducks.

Ben Bishop played on Monday and Tuesday, so Andrei Vasilevskiy gives him a breather as the Bolts take on the Sharks in San Jose. No word yet on who’s in goal for the home team.

Rielly’s injury means opportunities for Gardiner and Corrado

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. The Maple Leafs defeated the Devils 4-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs will be without their best defenseman tonight against the Rangers, and possibly for a few more games after that. Morgan Rielly is day-to-day with a lower-body injury after crashing into the boards Tuesday against Buffalo.

With Rielly out, Jake Gardiner will step into the top-pairing role with Nikita Zaitsev. It’s a big responsibility for the 26-year-old Gardiner. The Leafs are right in the thick of the playoff race, and they don’t want to lose ground.

“You’re playing against the best guys every shift,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “The best guys tend to be harder on the defensemen, so you just have to handle it. Jake has become a way better defender and can move the puck, so he does not spend a whole lot of time in his zone. We will see how it goes here today, but Zaitsev is a good player to play with too and it should be a good pair for us.”

Gardiner has spent most of the season on Toronto’s second pair alongside Connor Carrick, who will now skate with Frank Corrado. The other pairing will stay the same: Roman Polak with Matt Hunwick.

Rielly’s injury also presents an opportunity for Corrado to prove he belongs in the lineup. The 23-year-old has been limited to just one game with the Leafs this season; he was recently down in the AHL on a conditioning assignment.

Read more: Frustrated Corrado sounds off

“I think he went down there and tried to work real hard and be a real good pro, which I think is real important when you’re a veteran guy and you play with those kids,” Babcock said of Corrado, per Maple Leafs Hot Stove. “That’s positive, and now he gets his opportunity here.”

Fiery Lehner won’t apologize for being fiery

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Robin Lehner‘s trademark intensity was on display — again — two nights ago, when he responded quite angrily to getting hooked in a 4-3 loss to the Maple Leafs.

He smashed his goalie mask, and stared daggers at head coach Dan Bylsma. Given the game was in Toronto, there were more than a few media outlets that made note of the outburst — and quickly, the incident went viral.

On Thursday, Lehner addressed the situation. He took responsibility for the outburst — “I’m not helping the team by showing my emotions and I’ve got to learn from it” — but also said he wasn’t going to change who he is.

“It’s hypocritical to apologize for who you are,” Lehner said, per the Buffalo News. “I’m a competitive guy who doesn’t want to get out of the net. I don’t want to leave the net.

“I want to sink with the ship or be able to stand in there and come back.”

This isn’t the first time Lehner’s, uh, passion has gone viral. Last season he had a lengthy stare down with then-Habs goalie Ben Scrivens, and unleashed the crazy eyes on Columbus.

Essentially, it’s part of the package. If you like Lehner and want him as your goalie, you’re going to accept such intensity — even if it boils over from time to time. That’s what Bylsma said in the aftermath, anyway.

“He should be upset with getting pulled,” Bylsma said on Tuesday, per the News. “That’s part of Robin’s game, that emotion. I have no problem with that.”