James Neal

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Poll: Will Blues compete for Central Division title next season?

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

The St. Louis Blues went through a number of changes last offseason. They key veterans David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott in free agency, and no one really knew how it would affect them on the ice.

After struggling pretty badly in January, they fired head coach Ken Hitchcock and they ended up replacing him with coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo.

At the time of the firing, the Blues were clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the West. In the end, they were able to move up to third place in the Central Division.

Thanks to some masterful goaltending by Jake Allen, they were able to knock off the Wild in five games in the opening round, but they fell to Nashville in round two.

The Blues didn’t make a ton of changes to their roster this summer. They acquired Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia at the draft and they added winger Beau Bennett in free agency.

Is it enough to come away with the Central Division crown?

Both the Blackhawks and Wild finished ahead of them in the standings last season. The ‘Hawks made some major changes to their roster, as they dealt Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Scott Darling and Marcus Kruger away. They’ve also already lost Marian Hossa for the season, too.

The Wild got off to a fantastic start last season, but they crumbled down the stretch and were no match for the Blues in the postseason.

As of right now, the biggest threat for the division crown is probably Nashville.  The Predators didn’t have a great regular season, but they managed to find a way to come together during a run to the Stanley Cup Final. They also added Nick Bonino, Scott Hartnell and Alexei Emelin this offseason. Notable losses include: James Neal, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson.  How will a long playoff run affect the Preds going into next season?

The most intriguing team in the division might just be Hitchcock’s new team, the Dallas Stars. They spent some money upgrading their roster, as they landed goalie Ben Bishop, winger Alex Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, defenseman Marc Methot. The Stars have had a tough time keeping the puck out of their own, so if Hitchcock and his new acquisitions can help them in that area, they’ll be tough to stop.

The Winnipeg Jets have an up-and-coming roster with plenty of skilled players. They signed Steve Mason to help young goalie Connor Hellebuyck out, but will that be enough? The Jets will likely be a dangerous squad in the near future, it just might not be this season.

And as for the Colorado Avalanche, well, let’s just say they still have a ton of work to do before we can put them in the conversation for the division title.

The Blues aren’t going to be the favorites to land the Central Division crown. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a shot. The key to this whole thing might just be Allen, who has always struggled with consistency at the NHL level.

If Allen can play anywhere close to the way he did during the playoffs (1.96 goals-against-average, .935 save percentage), they’ll have a chance to do some damage.

The biggest question is, did he just catch lightning in a bottle, or is he finally starting to take his game to the next level?

Alright, it’s your turn to have your say. Vote in the poll below and leave your opinion in the comments section below.

It’s Nashville Predators day at PHT

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The Nashville Predators entered the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs as the second wild card team in the Western Conference.

When the postseason was over, they were two wins away from a championship, sweeping Chicago in the opening round and beating St. Louis and Anaheim to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Along the way there was the breakout campaign of Viktor Arvidsson while on a top line with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg; the emergence of a dangerous top-four group of defensemen following the acquisition of P.K. Subban last summer; a fishy hockey tradition and playoff atmosphere that garnered national headlines, and the recognition of general manager David Poile for his efforts in putting together a Stanley Cup contender that will remain in its window to win next season, and likely for a few more years given the age of their core players.

There have been changes in Nashville this summer.

James Neal was selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Mike Fisher announced his retirement. Colin Wilson was traded to Colorado. Phil Housley, an assistant coach responsible for Nashville’s group of blue liners, took the head coaching job in Buffalo.

To bolster their club at center, the Predators signed Nick Bonino to a four-year, $16.4 million contract — just a few weeks after his former team, the Penguins, hoisted the Stanley Cup in Nashville. They also signed veteran forward Scott Hartnell and acquired defenseman Alexei Emelin.

Today at PHT, we’ll dig into the big storylines surrounding the Predators ahead of training camp next month.

Another nice deal for Predators: Aberg signs two-year, $1.3M deal

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As much as it stings to lose James Neal to Vegas, the Nashville Predators are mostly enjoying a strong off-season. More specifically, it’s been a pretty solid week for GM David Poile & Co.

A day after signing Frederick Gaudreau to a team-friendly deal, the Predators handed speedy, intriguing forward Pontus Aberg a two-year, $1.3 million contract. That’s a dirt-cheap $650K cap hit for a player some were a little worried would be snatched up by the Golden Knights.

Aberg was the 37th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. The 23-year-old generated two points in 15 regular-season games and five points in 18 postseason contests, yet he showed a burst that seemed to indicate that he’s just scratching the surface.

His AHL numbers show promise, too.

Aberg scored 25 goals and 40 points in 2015-16 for the Milwaukee Admirals, and did even better this past season, scoring 31 goals and 52 points in 56 contests.

It wouldn’t be surprising if he starts to convert with the big club, possibly starting next season.

Why bringing back Scott Hartnell was a great move for the Predators

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Of the many reunions that took place on the first day of free agency the Nashville Predators’ move to bring back Scott Hartnell on a one-year, $1 million contract might have been the best one.

It also might have been one of the better free agent signings — reunion or not — any team made on the day. Or will make this entire summer.

The Predators needed to make some moves to address their forward lines after losing James Neal in the expansion draft and not knowing for sure whether or not they will get Mike Fisher back.

To this point they have been unable to swing a deal for an impact player — like Colorado Avalanche star Matt Duchene — but they did add Nick Bonino and Hartnell into the mix as they look to make another run at the Stanley Cup in 2017-18. But while Bonino’s contract will get most of the attention because of his role on a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner, as well as the years and dollar figures his contract carries, Hartnell’s small one-year deal might end up being the best value out of the two.

Even though Hartnell’s overall role and production declined rapidly this past season in Columbus and resulted in the remainder of his contract being bought out this summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, he should still provide plenty of value to the Predators.

The key to Hartnell’s value is that he still looks like a pretty outstanding player at 5-on-5.

Even though he logged an average of just 10 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game, he still managed to record 34 points during those minutes, the fifth most on the Blue Jackets. That total would have been fourth among all Predators forwards this past season, and more than outgoing forwards Neal and Colin Wilson.

It gets even better when you drill it down to a per-minute basis where his 2.42 points per 60 minutes of even-strength play was the eighth highest total in the entire league. 

He did all of that while still posting strong possession numbers, including a 52.4 percent Corsi that was fourth best on the Blue Jackets.

A lot of his overall decline in production this past season seemed to have more to do with a change in his role (less ice time overall, and especially less power play time) than a sharp decline in ability. At 35 he is obviously not going to be the player he was earlier in his career when he was an occasional 30-35 goal scorer, but given his cage-rattling style of play and even-strength production he should still have plenty to offer a Stanley Cup contender.

Especially when it is only going to cost them $1 million against the cap.

Predators won’t trade defense for forward help

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After losing James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past week the Nashville Predators have a pretty glaring hole in their top-six that is going to need to be addressed. Along with that, captain Mike Fisher is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is also considering retirement.

Because of those two developments general manager David Poile has made adding a top-six forward a priority for this summer, and he certainly has the salary cap space to get something done.

One thing he is not going to do, however, is trade one of his defensemen to find that help up front.

“We’ve traded enough defensemen in my recent history,” Poile said on Saturday, via the Tennessean. “I think everybody would be pretty much on the same page that our defense drives our team and our corps is as good as any in the league. We will not be touching our defense in the near future here.”

Over the past two years Poile has traded Shea Weber and Seth Jones off of his blue line but has still managed to assemble the NHL’s best defense. The quartet of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is so good that Poile made sure to protect all four of them in the expansion draft and leave Neal — a consistent 25-to 30-goal scorer signed for one more year on a pretty good contract — exposed for Vegas to take.

Without dealing one of their top-four defensemen it might be difficult to find an impact winger via the trade route, which might force them to turn to the free agent market.

But even that is going to be difficult because it is such a limited market. Now that T.J. Oshie has re-signed with the Washington Capitals Alexander Radulov would probably be the top winger available, but given his history with Nashville there is virtually no chance of that reunion happening. Justin Williams would be an intriguing veteran option, while Joe Thornton could help fill the void at center if Fisher does not return.

Still, not trading from the defense is the absolute right path for Poile and the Predators to take. Not only is that group the backbone of the Predators’ organization and one of the driving forces behind its success, it is also an extremely young group that is all signed long-term on cap friendly deals.

Even with the loss of Neal Nashville still has a deep group of forwards, while youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala could get an increased role and an opportunity to shine.