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Predators seek revenge vs. Jets after playoff failure

Revenge may not taste as sweet as, say, getting it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but beating the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night is probably the next best thing for the Nashville Predators.

Nashville certainly hasn’t forgotten about getting crushed 5-1 in Game 7 by the Jets in the second round this past spring. Pekka Rinne hasn’t erased the memory of getting chased inside the first 11 minutes of the first period. They likely haven’t forgotten that Winnipeg beat them three times in their own barn in the series.

Nashville was primed for another run at Lord Stanley and the Jets were coming off their first playoff wins in franchise history. Despite similar records in the regular season (the Predators held a three-point advantage 117 to 114 on the Jets), Nashville was pipped to take the series from their young pretenders in the Central Division.

Of course, history now shows that wasn’t the case. The high-flying Jets proved to be too much for the Predators, with their vaunted defense and Vezina-winning goaltender Rinne, who had a disastrous .848 save percentage in the series.

And so instead of challenging for the Cup, the Predators were sent off on an early summer few saw coming. Despite the Presidents’ Trophy, their season ended in utter failure.

Thursday night in Nashville is a chance to re-assert themselves, a chance to make the first statement on this young season and begin to piece together some redemption.

For Winnipeg, it’s their opportunity to establish a new pecking order in the Central (if that didn’t already happen in May) and show the Predators who the new top dogs are.

For both teams, it’s a good test to see how each other stacks up against, well, each other. If there’s a repeat of last year in the standings (a one-two finish in some fashion), there’s likely going to be that inevitable meeting in the postseason once again.

Both teams enter the game with similar lineups to the one they iced nearly five months ago. Two Vezina-caliber goalies will duke it out. Winnipeg’s mighty offense against Nashville’s envious backend.

Mark Scheifele (and Tyler Myers) vs. P.K. Subban.

They also have identical 2-1-0 records early in 2018-19, adding a little more to the psychological melting pot. More importantly, and forgetting about last season, the game is two points in a Central Division that appears as if it is going to be extremely tight come April.

It’s not a must win in early October, but two points now could hold significant bearing come April nonetheless. And let’s not pretend that there aren’t some bragging rights on the line. These are two very prideful teams. Egos are at stake. Competitiveness oozes.

The Preds won’t be lacking in motivation after getting blanked by the Calgary Flames 3-0 on Tuesday.

The Jets, meanwhile, are riding high after dominating the Los Angeles Kings in their home opener that same night.

Both teams are healthy.

Enjoy.


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

NHL on NBCSN Doubleheader: Rangers host Predators; Flyers visit Vegas

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday. In the first game, the New York Rangers host the Nashville Predators at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The NHL season will begin at different ends of the spectrum for both the Rangers and the visiting Predators.

New York enters the season after tearing down parts of the organization over the second half of this past season. They finished last in the Metropolitan Division and began the fire sale while also subsequently firing head coach Alain Vigneault.

They return this season with Dan Quinn behind the bench, youth aplenty and a bevy of question marks often attached to a team that was forced into a rebuild.

The one constant for the Rangers will be in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist gets set to begin his 14th season with the Blueshirts. Lundqvist is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro but remains the linchpin in the Rangers chances of winning games this season.

“I’ve been reflecting this summer and over the last few days and what I come back to is that I am consistently most successful when I’m confident in my game plan and stick with it,” Lundqvist said. “For me, it’s about getting back to my base and not changing too much because of what’s going on in front of me. I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve allowed those early goals, but if I face a big scoring chance right at the start, then I have to make that save. The group has to be ready, and that goes for me, too.”

On the other side of the center line will stand the Nashville Predators, fresh off a Game 7 defeat in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Expectations last season for the Preds were much loftier than their early-round exit dictated, but the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season enters this year as one of the best in the NHL once again.

They re-signed Ryan Ellis long-term to ensure their vaunted top-four on the back end remained the envy of the NHL and added Dan Hamhuis to provide further depth on the third pairing.

The Predators should be a force to be reckoned with once again this season, one confident enough in their offense — with the likes of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — that they felt they could afford to send highly-touted prospect Eeli Toilvanen down to the American Hockey League.

They also boast the Vezina winner from last season in Pekka Rinne, who will be looking to bounce back from a poor playoff performance where his save percentage dipped from .927 in the regular season to an abysmal .904 in the postseason.

On paper, the matchup looks poor for New York, but consider that the Rangers have won eight of their last 12 meetings with the Preds. Counterpoint: Nashville was the best road team in the NHL last season with a 25-9-7 record.

Nashville will be without forward Austin Watson, who was suspended 27 games by the NHL for “unacceptable off-ice conduct” after pleading no contest in a domestic assault incident.

In the late game, the Vegas Golden Knights will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Can the Vegas magic continue?

That was one hell of an inaugural season for the Golden Knights, who reinvented what an expansion franchise can achieve after winning 51 games and reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

And those still thinking all that was a fluke can be reminded that Vegas only got better in the offseason, re-signing 43-goal man William Karlsson, and adding stars in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.

A second-straight run at the Cup doesn’t feel like a pipe dream for these Golden Knights. There’s a good chance they could repeat their same success as last season, and even eclipse it if things fall into place.

The Golden Knights boast one of the best lines in the NHL with Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith and can now watch Pacioretty and Stastny work together on the second line.

“If you need a goal, they’re on the ice,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said of his second line additions. “If you’reprotecting a lead, they’re on the ice. They can play power play, they can kill penalties, so there’s a lot of utility.”

Vegas will also be counting on Marc-Andre Fleury to once again shoulder the load after putting up career numbers last season. Fleury battled injury during the regular season before putting on a goaltending clinic in the first three rounds of the playoffs. His numbers tailed off against the Washington Capitals, who pipped Vegas to the Cup in five games.

In Philly, Gritty has been the talk of the town after the googly-eyed mascot made his debut a couple weeks ago.

The move to introduce the brilliant mascot wasn’t made to mask the Flyers’ chances this season. They made the playoffs last season — despite losing 10 straight at one point — and added James van Riemsdyk over the summer to help solidify their offense.

Claude Giroux enjoyed a resurgence playing out on the wing, amassing a career-high 102 points and 34 goals. The move also helped Sean Couturier, who was given an elite winger and that helped turn his season into a career year also, finishing with 31 goals.

Philly’s biggest question — as it has been for years — comes in the crease. They have the offensive capabilities with Giroux, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and a solid backend, but need Brian Elliott and/or Michal Neuvirth to stand on their head this year. The Flyers claimed Calvin Pickard of waivers earlier this week as insurance.

The Flyers will be looking to 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick to take the next step after recording 30 points in his rookie season.

The tools are there for Philly to improve on last season’s showing.


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

It’s Nashville Predators day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

2017-18:

53-18-11, 117 pts. (1st Central Division; 1st Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-3 vs. the Winnipeg Jets, second round

IN:

Dan Hamhuis
Zac Rinaldo
Connor Brickley

OUT:

Mike Fisher
Alexei Emelin

RE-SIGNED

Ryan Ellis
Juuse Saros
Mikka Salomaki
Ryan Hartman

It was supposed to be their year.

A year removed from the Stanley Cup Final. An intact team from the previous year that had a wealth of playoff experience under their belt, one of the best defensive cores in the league and one the NHL’s best goalies.

And by all accounts, the Predators lived up to their expectations in during the regular season with the top record in all of the NHL and the Presidents’ Trophy to show for it.

But that all came crashing down in the second round against the Winnipeg Jets.  The Predators were stretched to the limit against the speedy Jets. They forced a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t repeat the magic they had shown the year before.

The loss rendered the Predators’ season an abject failure. A team oozing with talent managed to shoulder the expectations that were levied upon them, by outsides sources, and their own lofty standards given their makeup.

Nashville showed just how difficult it is to get back to the Cup Final. And how being the best team in the regular season hardly translates to being the best team in the postseason. Their regular season showing was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their playoff run was not.

Now, the Predators press on with, once again, largely the same squad.

They added some talent to the back end in Dan Hamhuis, who replaces Alexei Emelin, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy, but struggled in the playoffs, will give it another go. And the team locked up the future heir to Rinne’s throne — Juuse Saros — in case there’s a big regression in the elder’s game.

And we’re not forgetting that Ryan Ellis is going to be on that back end for the next eight years.

This season should see the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen after he completed the world hockey hat trick last season, playing in the world juniors, the world hockey championships and the Olympic Games.

Make no mistake: The Predators are primed for another run. They’ve suffered defeat in the 11th hour now, and also learned what it feels like not to live up to expectation.

The question now is, can they add those two negatives together and get a positive: a Stanley Cup banner.

Prospect Pool:

• Eeli Tolvanen, RW, 19, Jokerit (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Tolvanen looked the part in the KHL this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 17 assists in 49 games as a rookie. He was named the KHL’s player of the week six times, its player of the month twice and attended the KHL All-Star Game, along with stints with Finland at the junior, senior and Olympic levels throughout the season. He’s a gifted skater, a saavy sniper and still can be disciplined defensively. The Predators have a budding superstar in Tolvanen.

• Dante Fabbro, D, 20, Boston University (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

Fabbro will head back to Boston University for his junior season after putting up nine goals and 29 points in his freshman year. Fabbro helped Canada win gold at the world juniors and the Preds felt he was ready to make the jump to the pro game, but Fabbro decided another year in college was worth it.

“We feel that he’s ready to play pro hockey,” said Predators assistant general manager and director of scouting Jeff Kealty. “That’s a personal decision on his end. On our end of things, we feel that he’s ready to be a pro hockey player.”

Preds fans will be worried they have another Jimmy Vesey on their hands. That wound still stings. That said, Fabbro progressed well in his first season in Boston and another year there isn’t a bad thing. There’s still time for him to move to the AHL next season, or perhaps right into an NHL role.

• Emil Pettersson, C, 24, Milwaukee Admiral (AHL) – 2013 sixth-round pick

Pettersson’s stock took a nice bump due to a solid first season in the American Hockey League, with 13 goals and 33 assists in 72 games, and the fact that Nashville dealt prospect Vladislav Kamenev to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that brought them Kyle Turris last November. Another good showing in Milwaukee could offer him some opportunities with the big club this season. Nashville has a great spine at center, so breaking into it will require an injury or an outstanding performance during training camp.


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

Ryan Ellis earns eight-year, $50 million extension from Predators

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The Nashville Predators locked up another defenseman long-term as they agreed to an eight-year, $50 million extension with Ryan Ellis.

“Ryan is a huge part of our team on and off the ice and we are happy to have his leadership remain in our locker room for the foreseeable future,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We have talked about wanting to keep the core of our team together, and this is another opportunity to help us do so while continuing to compete for a Stanley Cup. Ryan is entering his prime and is one of the reasons why we feel this team has a chance to win every time we step on the ice.”

As TSN’s Bob McKenzie notes, the extension lacks any no-movement or no-trade clause, which is kind of what happens — if you’re not Pekka Rinne — when you work a deal with Poile.

Ellis is entering the final year of his current contract, which means he’s now tied to the Predators through the end of the 2026-27 NHL season. He’s now one of three defensemen on the team signed beyond the 2020-21 season.

That’s a pretty picture right there if you’re Poile, Peter Laviolette or a Predators fan. Arguably the best top-four in the league are signed for the next two seasons, which will again see the team on the short-list of Stanley Cup contenders. When you’re able to retain core pieces on very team-friendly deals, that’s how you build a group that can keep its elite status on an annual basis.

After returning from off-season knee surgery, Ellis was terrific over the final 44 games of the season. He scored nine goals and recorded 32 points while averaging over 23 minutes a night. He was Nashville’s best defenseman possession-wise with a 55 percent Corsi and was only behind Mattias Eklholm in Relative Corsi (4.63), per Corsica. He is dependable and productive and showed no ill effects from the injury.

The Predators will likely be among the leagues stingiest defenses in 2018-19 and Ellis plays a big part in that.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hartman handed prove-it contract by Predators

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The Nashville Predators want Ryan Hartman to succeed and are prepared to give him every opportunity to do so after signing him to a one-year contract on Monday.

Hartman’s deal comes in at $875,000 for the 2018-19 season, a prove-it deal that, if all goes well for the former first-round pick, could mean a bigger haul next season as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.

“[Predators head coach Peter Laviolette] said to him in the exit meeting that basically the cupboard is open,” Predators general manager David Poile told reporters following his team’s second-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “So, when you come to training camp, take whatever you want, meaning we’re open to him playing up in the lineup, different positions, maybe power-play opportunities; Lavi and our coaches had Ryan killing penalties, which he didn’t do in Chicago. In doing that, he did it very well for us, so it’ll be his best chance to with the whole year to know exactly where he fits in.”

Nashville seems open to letting Hartman compete for a job, and now it’s up to Hartman to keep his wits about him and prove he’s the same player he was in his rookie season.

Hartman cost the Predators a first, a fourth and a prospect at the trade deadline, and after an up-and-down time with the Predators following his acquisition, the Predators are hoping a healthy Hartman can offer a good return on investment.

Hartman underwent surgery for a torn labrum this offseason but is expected to be ready for the regular season. He has a proven ability to be versatile in the lineup and can play a role on special teams as well, both power play and penalty kill.

Poile said it himself: This is Hartman’s chance. Hartman notched 19 goals in his rookie season with the Blackhawks, and that type of form would be a perfect fit on a Predators roster that could use the secondary scoring. He had 1.89 points-per-60 with the Blackhawks this past season and 1.40 with the Predators, where his shooting percentage was over 10 percent.

He’s also proven to be a pretty effective puck-possession player, finishing his rookie season at 53.06 CF% and last year at 53.09.

A little more consistency in his game would help.

Hartman was made a healthy scratch for Games 1 and 6 of the second round and Game 6 of the first round and was suspended for Game 5 of that series against the Colorado Avalanche for a wild check to the head of Carl Soderberg.

He also scored the game-winner for the Predators in Game 4 of the series against the Jets.

This is a low-risk deal for the Predators with the potential of a nice reward if Hartman can find his place in a team that seems destined to contend once again this year. A good showing by Hartman could really round out their roster.

The deal also doesn’t break the bank for the Predators, who still have to sign Miikka Salomaki and Juuse Saros, who are the team’s remaining RFAs. CapFriendly has the Predators at just over $68 million counting against the salary cap, which is set at $79.5 million for the coming season.


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