weber rinne

Backhand Shelf’s previews for the 2013-14 NHL season are going to work like a choose your own adventure novel, because fans only hear what they want to hear anyway, so we might as well embrace it.

You’ll get the flippant barstool prediction, the push-the-glasses-up-your-nose numbers take, the team is going to be good take, the team is going to be bad take, and then we’ll try to bring it back full circle at the bottom. Let’s get to it.

Click here for the previews you may have missed.

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-by Thomas Drance

Added: Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks, Seth Jones, Carter Hutton
Subtracted: Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt Halischuk, Jonathon Blum, Brandon Yip, Hal Gill, Chris Mason

The Predators are Going to be Good

In four of the past five seasons, everyone has counted the Predators out ahead of the season. And in three of the past five seasons, the Predators proved the experts wrong.

Last year educated observers nailed it, and the Wild struggled mightily. For once a massive loss in free-agency proved too much for the Nashvillians. As it turns out, Ryan Suter’s defection was more than “just a flesh wound” for the NHL’s Black Knight.

Still  we’re talking about one of the smartest, best run organizations in professional hockey. At the end of the day, I suspect smart guys like Barry Trotz and Dave Poile won’t be kept down for long.

The Predators made a fair bit of addition by subtraction this summer, jettisoning passengers like Mason, Kostitsyn, Halischuk, Blum, Yip and Gill. Less minutes for those guys, and more minutes for the likes of Ryan Ellis, Seth Jones, Craig Smith, Matt Hendricks and Colin Wilson, may make the Predators better on its own.

Of course Poile didn’t stop there. The Predators snapped up seemingly every available above average second and third line forward on the market. They’ve got a serious surplus of quality forwards, which will allow them to run four lines and beat up on tired opponents late in games. In a league with increasing parity, depth rules, and the versatile Predators forwards have that in spades.

On the back-end Shea Weber remains the second best defenseman on planet earth, Roman Josi is coming into his own and learning how to control games, and Seth Jones is probably going to be ready to handle big minutes right off the bat. And just imagine how good Jones is going to be with the “Nashville Predators elite defenseman assembly line(TM)” showing him the ropes. What serendipity for the team and player that selection was.

In goal the Predators still employ a certain freak of nature named Pekka Rinne. Rinne is unequivocally the most unique, dominant force in goal in the entire NHL.

Rinne combines the best glove hand in the league (by a country mile), with Brodeur-quality puck-handling. When he’s down in his butterfly, he’s a giant (stands 6,5). He’s also faster and more agile than any man his size has any right to be. Scoring on Rinne is tough enough, doing so with Weber in front of him is a nightmare.

The Preds are going to play a 200 foot game They won’t score too much, they’ll grind out wins with polish and professionalism. Same as its always been in Smashville.

The Preds are Going to be Bad

We’re talking about a team with a first-line of Patric Hornqvist – at least when he’s healthy, which he’s too often not – Mike Fisher, and probably Viktor Stalberg (when he returns to action). For some perspective let’s remember that Stalberg was great in Chicago – in a mostly third-line role…
Seriously, look at that group and throw in Eric Nystrom (really) Matt Cullen, and unproven rookie Filip Forsberg complete the top-six. What do you have? A popgun offense (with due apologies to popguns for the unfavorable comparison). Tough to imagine that group scoring enough to make the postseason. Especially not in a division with a defensive juggernaut in the Blues, and a handful of excellent, or at least above average, offensive teams like the Blackhawks, Stars and Jets.

As for Weber, he should probably commission one of Nashville’s many country singers to write him a song of sorrow and longing dedicated to Ryan Suter. Weber did okay without Suter last season, but frankly, he wasn’t nearly as effective as he’s been in the past. The early returns suggest that Suter suffered less from their divorce.

Can Weber even carry a top-pairing on his own, or is his reputation inflated because of his physical game and his cannon for a shot? He’ll have to prove it’s the former this season.

Flippant barstool prediction
It’s the Predators damnit, they’ll at least beat out the Stars, Avalanche and Jets and nab a wild card spot.
The Numbers:

The Predators posted a -28 goal differential last season, which was in the bottom-five league wide (only Carolina, Colorado, Calgary, and Florida were worse). Missing Ryan Suter much? Maybe, but the issue was more one of awful road defense and really bad luck at the offensive end of the rink.

The Predators were merely mediocre at home (11-9-4) but were a brilliant, vibrant tire fire on the road (5-14-5). The Predators saw themselves routinely ventilated on the road, allowing 78 goals against (and managing only 50 for).

My hypothesis: when playing with first change, the Predators just didn’t have the depth to overcome the opposition’s best when they were freed up from Shea Weber. The Predators were out-scored three-to-one in score close situations on the road when Weber wasn’t on the ice last season.

Overall The Predators went from outscoring opponents by 7 in score close situations in 2011-12, to being outscored by 9 in score close situations in an abbreviated 2013 season. That’s doubly concerning because Rinne stopped an elite .933% of shots when the game was within a goal at evens.

That’s ugly, and it’s not going to regress. But the good news for the Predators is that their underlying numbers didn’t suffer all that much from the loss of Suter, the issue rather was a massive drop in on-ice shooting percentage in close games (from 8.7% in 2011-12 to 6.6% in 2013). That’s an unsustainably low shooting clip, so the Predators may improve offensively just on the strength of better luck this upcoming season.

Or maybe they just don’t have any good shooters, which is a whole other story.

Okay, but seriously:

The Predators are a fringe playoff team, but they’re certainly not contenders.

Poile is smart, so he knows this. Which is why we should expect him to use Nashville’s massive surplus of quality depth forwards to his advantage. Look for the Predators to stockpile picks and future assets at the trade deadline (regardless of where Nashville sits in the standings come March).

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