Risk Factors: Nashville Predators edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Nashville Predators

1. Pekka Rinne – It might come as a surprise to see Nashville’s $7 million man as a risk factor, but it’s hard to guarantee great results after two troubling seasons.

In 2013-14, Rinne’s health-related luck was horrific … he’s one of the few (only) athletes to ever be sidelined with E. Coli. Beyond the unusual nature of that ailment, it all stems from hip issues. Dealing with problems in that area isn’t exactly ideal for the goaltending position (just ask the many who reasonably wondered if Ray Emery could come back from his very serious problems). Rinne looks pretty young, yet at 31, he’s not exactly a spring chicken either.

On the bright side, Rinne told the Tennessean that his hip-related issues are behind him.

“The hip feels great. I had a good summer. I worked hard and stayed healthy. I’m just really excited for this upcoming season. I feel like I’m ready to go,” Rinne said. “I still have to pay attention to it, but I don’t have to change anything, I don’t have to skip any training because of that. It feels normal, I feel like I have the strength back in my legs this summer. It feels great and it’s nice not to think about it all the time.”

Healthy or not, the less settling notion is that Rinne hasn’t enjoyed much success since Ryan Suter defected to Minnesota.

After putting up Vezina-caliber stats in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Rinne’s been under .500 since the Predators last made the playoffs (25-26-11 combining the last two seasons) with underwhelming individual stats (.910 in 2012-13 and .902 in 2013-14). Granted, that accounts for only 67 of his 317 career regular season appearances, so it’s not exactly time to panic just yet.

Of course, there’s one other question floating around: if the Predators open things up, might that expose their towering netminder, especially if his lateral mobility is even slightly inhibited by an aching hip?

Nashville’s obviously confident in the big Finn, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should be. Carter Hutton earned some useful experience last season, but the bottom line is that Nashville will go as far as Rinne can take them.

2. Square peg, round hole? – After 15 years of bending to Barry Trotz’s preferences, the Predators did what they could to acclimate to the about-face that is hiring far more offensive-minded head coach Peter Laviolette.

Will his tactics translate well against brutal Central Division competition? Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks would probably happily go toe-to-toe with Nashville offensively while the St. Louis Blues of the world may just smother them.

Laviolette can be a pretty volatile personality at times. Will Predators execs get a little nervous if their second-ever head coach experiences some serious growing pains?

There are some interesting young players who may benefit from Laviolette’s presence, particularly Craig Smith and Seth Jones. The fiery bench boss has a nice track record of turning around moribund offenses, so it’s plausible that he could make a change of pace work for the Preds.

That said, this team has been molded in Trotz’s image for more than a decade, so the transition can be awkward … and opponents won’t show any mercy.

3. Lack of firepower – This one dovetails with the Laviolette questions: while the Predators boast a group of defensemen that could really push the pace and create chances from the blueline, Nashville’s forwards still leave a bit to be desired (at least on paper).

It’s not to say that the Predators haven’t made strides offensively. As useful as Patric Hornqvist has been for the team, James Neal seems to have a higher ceiling as one of the league’s most dangerous power forwards. Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro might not be the most exciting additions, but they’re low-risk veterans.

Still, few teams are going to be shaking in their boots when they look at Nashville’s set of forwards. When you scan Nashville’s list of forwards, Neal is still the only forward who really seems like an obvious first-line talent, and considering the fantastic centers he’s benefited from in both Dallas (Brad Richards in his prime) and Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby), even Jokinen/Ribeiro at their best will be a dramatic step down. It remains to be seen if the volatile power forward can create the same kind of chances without world-class passes reaches his stick.

Even if Neal can make a smooth move to Nashville and a few players thrive with more creative freedom – Colin Wilson, perhaps? – this offense isn’t the stuff of nightmares for opposing coaches.

It might take some time for this team to truly be molded in Laviolette’s vision … assuming that’s even the best vision for this club (as we discussed in the second risk factor).

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.