Once again in 2009-10 the Nashville Predators quietly enjoyed a successful season that saw them finish 7th in the Western Conference with an impressive 47-29-6 record. Patric Hornqvist enjoyed a breakout season by scoring 30 goals while the second half goaltending of Pekka Rinne behind a superb defence core helped propel the team to a 100 point season despite its offensive shortcomings. The Predators would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs in 6 games.
Nashville was the only Western Conference playoff team that did not finish the regular season with a positive goal differential; this was by and large a team that relied upon its defensive prowess, timely goaltending, and an adept ability to win close games. The Predators’ record in one goal games was 28-9-6, which speaks volumes to their ability to play an effective shutdown style. Barry Trotz was named a finalist for the Jack Adams award as the league’s best coach, a nomination that was rather overdue.
Given the club’s ongoing financial uncertainty, and the relative anonymity of the market in which they play, the Predators are a model of success for teams looking to win while maintaining some semblance of frugality. It was by no means out of the realm of possibility that the Predators could upset the Blackhawks, but they just didn’t get the right bounces…
In an effort to plug a little more speed into their offensive attack, David Poile signed free agent centre Matthew Lombardi to a 3-year deal and gambled on the mercurial but talented Sergei Kostitsyn via trade with Montreal. Other fresh faces added to the fold in Music City include Ryan Parent, Jonas Andersson, and Aaron Johnson.
2010-11 will be the beginning of the post-Arnott era in Nashville as the former captain was shipped to New Jersey after spending the last four seasons with the Predators. Dan Hamhuis was one of the more highly sought after free agent defensemen of the offseason; his rights were moved twice this summer before he settled on Vancouver as his new home. Whiny millionaire Dan Ellis is no longer in the picture, along with Dustin Boyd and Denis Grebeshkov.
The Predators don’t score a lot of goals, but they seem to get the big ones. Patric Hornqvist carried a huge portion of the offensive load on his own after offensive drop-offs from both Martin Erat and David Legwand. Hornqvist was rewarded with a fresh 3-year $9.25-million deal for his effort. The slick Swede also accounted for 10 power play goals and netted a total of 8 game winners, all while averaging less than 16 minutes per night.
Poile and head coach Barry Trotz are hoping that the addition of talented speedsters like Kostitsyn and Lombardi will open up the play a little bit and find a way for Legwand, J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan, and Joel Ward to get more pucks on the net.
Put simply, the Predators have one of the league’s most talented and reliable groups of defensemen. The pairing of new captain Shea Weber and Ryan Suter is arguably one of the league’s best, and with future stars Cody Franson, Ryan Ellis, and Jonathan Blum coming up through the system at various degrees, the Preds look primed to carry a solid defence core for the next 3-5 years.
Cody Franson was impressive in his rookie season, finishing second only to Hornqvist in +/-. The ‘undersized’ Ellis may require another year of seasoning below the NHL, although the departures of Hamhuis and Grebeshkov may open up the door for any one of the trio of he, Blum, and Teemu Laakso.
Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein both figure in as depth guys on the back end once again, the latter will be looking to bounce back from an inconsistent 2009-10 season. This is the section where I will gush about Shea Weber, who is more than a little bit awesome at just about everything:
So begins the Pekka Rinne era in Nashville. After splitting time with Dan Ellis for the last two seasons, the time has arrived for the gigantic Finnish netminder to show he can be the man. Rinne enjoyed an excellent second half last year, and was brilliant down the stretch posting a 12-4-1 record with four shutouts.
It should be a little bit worrisome for Predators’ fans that there’s no clear cut backup behind Rinne. He’s clearly number one, but the addition of a reliable backup that can handle 25-30 games would go a long way in ensuring that there’s stability in goal. Mark Dekanich and Chet Pickard both figure to compete for the backup role, although neither has any NHL experience. There’s still several quality goaltenders available via free agency, including Jose Theodore and Manny Legace. Theodore could be a nice fit if his price is right.
Best Case Scenario
The offence finds its identity and provides nightly support for an imposing Predators’ defence. Rinne solidifies his status as a number one on the way to squeaking into the playoffs with another late second half surge. Poile signs Weber to an extension and a couple of the kids earn their way into the lineup. Predators’ fans (yes, they have some) breathe a collective sigh of relief as their franchise finds financial stability… okay, that might be a stretch.
Worst Case Scenario
A lack of first-class offensive punch sinks the Preds while undermining a terrific defensive effort. Pekka Rinne battles with the number one role and a lack of depth in goal derails any hopes of getting back to the playoffs. Weber is struck with a sudden urge to play in a major market and walks at season’s end. Jim Balsillie wants a hockey team again and starts tossing rogue offers around, it’s a Nightmare in Nashville.
Ryan Ellis is the true blue chipper, although Blum and/or Laakso may get a chance to play regular minutes first because of their size and the stay-at-home style both tend to lean towards. Goaltender Chet Pickard was a standout in junior with Tri-City, assuming the club doesn’t sign an NHL-caliber backup, he could be thrust into the role.
All Eyes On…
The Predators’ defence will need to keep the opposition and pucks away from their own net if they are to reach the playoffs for the sixth time in franchise history. They’ve got a couple of studs that can change the game at both ends in Weber and Suter. With Cody Franson and several hot prospects in the system the Predators have some depth at the position. Of the returning D-men, only Kevin Klein posted a minus in the +/- column last season, you could say they’re a responsible lot. Questions are abound with the offense, but we know that the D can play with anyone in the league. Success in Nashville this season will begin on defence, everything else is hope and a lot of potential.
I’ve been chasin’ the big wheels all over Nashville
Waitin’ for my big break to come
Livin’ on ketchup soup homemade crackers and Kool-Aid
I’ll be a star tomorrow but today I’m a Nashville bum.
-Waylon Jennings, “Nashville Bum”