2009-10 Team Preview: Nashville Predators
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10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PREDATORS
By Scott BurnsideA string of four straight playoff appearances ended for the Preds in April when a desperate bid to make the postseason fell just short. The Predators fell three points in arrears of the eighth and final playoff spot. While there is optimism the team can return to the playoffs, the fact still remains that success has been elusive for this troubled franchise. The team has yet to win a playoff round, and it will always be cash-strapped, operating nowhere near the NHL's salary cap. In that way, the Preds will continue to hope that smart drafting and patient development, along with top-notch coaching from Barry Trotz and his staff, will keep the team competitive.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Predators heading into this season:
1. The three horsemen
It's not quite like being on autopilot, but the three big men along the Nashville blue line are as close as you can get to automatic in this league. Shea Weber, second-best on the team with 23 goals last season, is the man with the big shot and the big body (6-4, 230 pounds). Then, there's silky smooth Ryan Suter, 45 points, and underappreciated Dan Hamhuis. They will log an incredible amount of ice time this coming season and will be instrumental as the Preds try to improve on last year's 13th ranking in goals-against per game.
"All you do is manage ice time [as opposed to teaching them]," Trotz said. "They're all very good. They're all very special."
2. The three old guys
In Nashville, age is relative. It's likely the Preds will ice a defensive unit with newly signed Francis Bouillon, 33, as the only player over the age of 26. Up front, though, the Preds' offensive machinery will be driven by relative graybeards -- Steve Sullivan, 35, Jason Arnott, 34, and J.P. Dumont, 31. They will be counted on to help drive the Predators forward from their 24th ranking in goals per game.
Sullivan is the key; he not only produces five-on-five, but he also helps the power play. Trotz pointed out that when Sullivan returned from a back injury that had kept him out of action for most of three season, the Preds' power play jumped in efficiency by about 20 percent.
3. The guys you don't know yet
The Predators are going to need lots of secondary scoring, and it's going to have to come from players you've probably never heard of. Players like Patric Hornqvist, who didn't make the cut last year, playing 28 games. Colin Wilson, the seventh overall pick in 2008, will also get a shot (he had a 55-point performance in 43 games for Boston University). Throw in Ryan Jones, a former collegiate star who came over last offseason in a trade with Minnesota, and winger Mark Santorelli, and there are lots of moving parts for Trotz.
"I think we're a lot deeper than we were last year," Trotz said. "There's a little uncertainty, but I'm not as uncertain as I was last year."
4. Cheeseheads before cowboy hats
In some ways, there are parallels between Nashville and Columbus, two Central Division teams that seem destined to be battling for one of the last two or three playoff berths. Both rely on drafting and developing talent from within, as opposed to raiding the free-agent market. To that end, many of the young players Trotz is looking to for help this season have spent time playing for the Preds' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. One of the messages the organization sends to young prospects is they shouldn't set their sights on Nashville until they've familiarized themselves with Milwaukee first.
"I think we do it the right way," Trotz said.
5. Pekka Power
If there is one area Trotz is absolutely comfortable about, it's the Predators' goaltending. And why not? With Pekka Rinne coming off a spectacular first season as an NHL starter, it appears that the Preds have finally found the starter.
Although all the attention went to rookie of the year Steve Mason in Columbus, Rinne's numbers weren't all that much different. The 26-year-old Finn ranked within the top 10 of all NHL netminders in save percentage, shutouts and goals-against average. As for a potential to backslide after earning the starter's job in Nashville, Trotz doesn't think it will happen, citing Rinne's cool attitude toward his success.
"I don't think his demeanor means he's going to change at all," Trotz said. "He's just laid-back. He's got a lot of those special qualities [top goalies have]."
6. Road weary
Only Phoenix and Colorado won fewer road games than the Predators' 16 last season. That will have to change if they hope to crawl back into the playoffs.
7. Battle tested
Given that the Preds are not going to blow opponents out of the water, they are well-accustomed to having to squeeze out victories, so there is no flinch when they are faced with one-goal games. They finished tied for seventh in the league with 22 one-goal victories and boasted an impressive 22-8-8 record in one-goal games. For the record, every team ahead of them in that category qualified for the playoffs.
The Predators are caught in a vicious cycle. Until they enjoy some playoff success, it will be financially difficult to move forward, both in terms of retaining their solid core of talent and attracting top free agents. But playoff success will be elusive unless they spend more money. Last season, the Preds ended up with about 8,600 either full or partial season-ticket holders. While the team continues to sell those packages as we speak, it's believed the team is behind that pace for the coming season. Although often dismissed by the hockey media, there is a solid core of dedicated fans. There would be more if the team went on a nice playoff run. But that's going to be a difficult story to write for the Preds.
8. A scheduling note
In mid-October, the Preds head out for a five-game road trip, return for two home dates, and then head out again for four more on the road. Did we mention the Preds hate playing away from home?
10. Olympic exposure
Pencil Weber into the Canadian Olympic lineup right now; likewise for Suter with the U.S. squad. Hamhuis is a long shot for the Canadians, while Rinne will get a look from the Finns, although they are deep in net. Marcel Goc will play for Germany, as will defenseman Alexander Sulzer.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 40-34-8
• Division: Last in the Central
• Conference: 10th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• It may seem a little like Groundhog Day for the Preds and their fans as they will once again get oh-so-close to a playoff berth, but will ultimately be denied, finishing fourth in the Central Division.
CENTRAL DIVISION PREVIEW
Experience: Entering 11th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Only Buffalo's Lindy Ruff has a longer tenure with his team among current NHL coaches than Nashville's Barry Trotz. The hard-nosed, likeable Trotz is the only coach the Predators have ever known. He has done a remarkable job. Trotz has kept the Predators in the hunt the past couple of seasons after former owner Craig Leipold gutted the team, trading away top players and declining to re-sign others. That challenge will continue this season as the Predators will once again have to rely on top coaching and game management to stay competitive.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT
F -- Steve Sullivan
• If he keeps back problems at bay, Sullivan should lead the Preds offensively.
F -- Jason Arnott
• The team's heart and soul up front, he led the team with 33 goals.
F -- J.P. Dumont
• Veteran playmaker led the team with 65 points.
D -- Shea Weber
• Big, tough and talented, there's a Norris Trophy somewhere in Weber's future.
D -- Ryan Suter
• Smart and skilled, he is the yin to Weber's yang.
Best Bet: Pekka Rinne, G: Rinne won the starting job from Dan Ellis last season and finished among the league leaders in most categories. Rinne now goes into the season as the clear No. 1 and will have that starting job for years to come. We are being a bit bold with the projections on Rinne, but the Predators do have a solid team defense and a terrific set of top-four defensemen. His track record in the minors, and at every stage of his development, suggests he can be an elite goaltender for fantasy purposes.
Risky Move: Jason Arnott, F: Arnott is a consistent 30-goal scorer, but his assists (and therefore points) fluctuate by as much as 20 a season in recent years. The supporting cast is definitely part of the problem, as the loss of Alexander Radulov took some serious wind out of the Predators' sails, but with no major free-agent signings there does remain an X factor for Arnott to come closer to 70 points this season: Steve Sullivan. If Sullivan is truly over his chronic back issues and regains his former skill, look for Arnott to achieve numbers that rival those of a No. 3 forward. However, given the severity of Sullivan's problems, we'll put Arnott down as a No. 5 forward at the moment.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
INSIDE THE PROJECTIONS
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Nashville Predators finish this season in Central Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.