Without a doubt, this is the turning point for the Nashville Predators. The Three marquee players are entering their contract years. Of the 12 marquee rookies this year listed by SI.com, four will be wearing the fangs this year. The kids have the keys to the car this year. With revenue up, and the new ownership possibly about to add another partner which could even further stabilize the team and anchor them permanently at 501 Broadway, it’s within the realm of possibility this could be the last year Nashville hangs around the midpoint. That is, if the front office wants to keep all three of Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne, and Shea Weber.
This will always be what many view as the weakness of this team, but it may be a position of strength this year if the youth comes through. Sure, Joel Ward is now fat and happy in D.C., Steve Sullivan will be protected in Pittsburgh, and Marcel Goc will now be able to work on das tan in South Florida. But with their absence opens opportunity. And for a franchise that’s finally ready to churn out some forwards, here’s their chance. Veteran presence still resides up the middle with David Legwand and Mike Fisher; a pair of solid defenders who do possess decent playmaking skills. No one was happier than Legwand when Fisher arrived last season, and it showed in the postseason. Martin Erat and his beautiful hair will still be turning circles in Music City, and to be honest his defensive skills really shined this past year.
My favorite line in the history of Predator hockey did us proud last year. I am of course referring to the “Chaos Line”; Nick Spaling, Jerrod Smithson, Jordin Tootoo. In a perfect world I would want this line to take over the duty of shutting down the other team’s top line, allow the Fisher and Legwand lines to be even more offensive. They’re physical, play quality minutes, and suddenly Jordin Tootoo gets the idea that games are won by scoring goals. He’s making brave passes, he’s carrying the puck, and doing more than just crushing souls and ruining lives along the boards. He’s been a different player since returning from rehabilitation. Nick Spaling is every bit the player that Barry Trotz would create himself. This line tends to exhibit the best chemistry.
The real test this year is what will happen with guys like Cal O’Reilly, who also happens to be in a contract year. Cal would be best suited to rekindle his chemistry with the maligned Colin Wilson (Preds’ version of James Van Riemsdyk). Most of you have now heard of Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist, whom should account for 60 combined goals this year. Also with this being the year of the prospect in Nashville, Blake Geoffrion, Matt Halischuk, Niklas Bergfors, and possibly even Craig Smith will see key minutes throughout the year. Given the current roster, there’s not much room for doubt on that assessment.
Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are both entering the last year of their existing deals. While there will be some uncertainty in the offseason, the season itself could be their best ever together. Suter found his physical game last year, and could be considered the most valuable non-goalie for most of the season. Weber is one year older, meaner, and stronger. Behind the top pair lies Jonathan Blum and Kevin Klein. Blum had himself a stellar campaign in the last couple months of the season, and seemed to lift Klein’s game tremendously. The hope is that toss two will develop into the second pairing, or at least in Klein’s case be a stop-gap moving towards Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. There’s lots of potential on the blue line, but the number of open spots decreased with Jack Hillen was brought in to anchor the 3rd pairing. He seems like a good fit, but should he not work, the next hungry younger player will get the call. As long as Trotz and Poile are running the show, expect some serious depth.
His name is Pekka Rinne, and he may be the best goalie in the NHL. The entire text above this category means nothing without a comparable performance from Rinne. The depth behind Pekka is well above average with Anders Lindback, who in addition to being confused as Pekka’s fratboy cousin, gave a decent performance last year after being thrown in the fire early in the year.
Within reason, this could be a top 5 or 6 team in the league. The style of play, and type of players at the most prime positions have shaped the image of the franchise. There will likely never be a 50 goal scorer under Barry Trotz. There will be some awesome forechecking and puck pursuit though. This will be another year of “Predator hockey”, and given that this group will be largely composed of players who’ve grown up through the Nashville system, expect even MORE close games, MORE grinding, and more hatred from fans who follow flashy teams and their 100 point players drafted in the top 5. The goal is to make it into the top 8, and from there… who knows. The cliche’ is that this will be yet another team “no one wants to play” in the playoffs. No kidding. If 2011 turns out to be a repeat of last year, very few would complain. Another first round exit wouldn’t be the cataclysmic disaster, but it would be bad for business and a growing fanbase.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team in the 2nd round again, but from there… I just don’t know. Ask us in February.