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Predators primed to bounce back into playoff contention

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Jul 30, 2013


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Last season was likely the worst season that the Nashville Predators have had since the team’s first years after expansion. They not only struggled to win games, but they struggled to score goals and even direct the puck to the net.

Perhaps most disappointing for Nashville last season was that the team was mostly intact after a run to the second round in the 2012 playoffs.

Many believe that the 2013-14 season will be the make-or-break year for the Predators coaching staff and management. Another season like last season could see wholesale changes across the organization. A return to “Predators hockey”, however, could make everyone in the organization just a little bit more comfortable.

After last season, the team has made changes to strengthen virtually every aspect of its game, from the players on the ice all the way to the coaching staff. There have been several small tweaks, but will they be enough to push Nashville away from the Draft Lottery and back into playoff contention?

Forward: At the end of the 2012-13 season, Nashville traded Bobby Butler, allowed Matt Halischuk and Brandon Yip to walk and terminated the contract of Sergei Kostitsyn. Then David Poile went shopping. On the NHL’s version of Black Friday, the Predators picked up Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom as doorbusters and then added weaponry up front in Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg. The giant question going into the season will be what to do with Nashville’s abundance of skaters on the front end. As of right now, Nashville currently has 14 forwards on the active roster…and that does not include Filip Forsberg and Austin Watson, both of whom saw significant time at the end of last season. There are worse problems for a team to have than too much depth up front. However, unless the Predators decide to deal a piece or two, someone is going to eventually have to risk going through waivers.

It’s very difficult to think of last season’s performance as one that would result in a passing grade for the Predators forwards. The Predators were dead last in the league in shots and goals. Their leading goal-scorer had 12 goals. The leading points producer was a defenseman. It simply was a terrible year offense-wise for Nashville. The only place for them to really go is up.

Importantly for Nashville, based on last season’s statistics, the four forwards acquired during free agency show a marked improvement on paper of the forwards who departed at free agency.

Player GP G A P PIM SOG
Bobby Butler 20 3 6 9 4 28
Matt Halischuk 36 5 6 11 10 51
Sergei Kostitsyn 46 3 12 15 11 42
Brandon Yip 34 3 5 8 26 35
TOTAL 136 14 29 43 51 156
Player GP G A P PIM SOG
Matt Cullen 42 7 20 27 10 79
Matt Hendricks 48 5 3 8 73 54
Eric Nystrom 48 7 4 11 61 49
Viktor Stalberg 47 9 14 23 25 113
TOTAL 185 28 41 69 169 295
Per Game G A P PIM SOG
Departures .103 .213 .316 .375 1.147
Arrivals .151 .222 .373 .914 1.595
Improvement .048 .008 .057 .539 .448

Stalberg should be especially interesting to watch for Nashville since he will be playing first-line minutes after being relegated mostly third-line minutes with the Blackhawks.

A healthy Gabriel Bourque and a healthy Colin Wilson could also go a long way for the Predators. Both players were in the midst of breakout years when injuries abruptly ended their seasons.

Forward is obviously the single biggest question mark for Nashville going into the new season. Besides having too many of them, there is no one who jumps out as the top-six goal scorer that the team seems to so desperately need. However, the team appears to be banking on Stalberg having talents that have yet to be tapped into. Even if Nashville does not make enormous leaps and bounds in the goal-scoring department, even a slight improvement could increase their season outlook. Last year the Predators played in 23 one-goal games, they lost 16 of them.

Aside from the lack of a goal-scorer, Nashville will also find out whether or not the departure of Martin Erat will affect the team. Erat was traded to Washington at the deadline last season for Filip Forsberg, who may or may not be making an appearance on the opening night roster but who does appear to play a large part in Nashville’s future plans.

Defense: The only departing defensive set pieces from the 2012-13 lineup are Jonathon Blum and Hal Gill. Gill, while a reliable penalty killer, missed significant time due to injury in 2012-13 and was subsequently bought out from his contract. Blum was a high draft choice and a highly touted prospect who never seemed to pan out like he should, whether it be effort level or mere inability to fit into Nashville’s style. It appeared that Blum was going to walk regardless of who Nashville selected in the first round. Gill, on the other hand, likely would have returned had Nashville not drafted Seth Jones. However, with the young defenseman coming in, Nashville needed a roster spot and let him go. Blum saw his minutes dwindle and saw plenty of time during the season as a healthy scratch, so his departure should not affect the team.

In a terrible season, one of the only bright spots was the success of the pairing of Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Now Nashville will have a strong second defensive pairing that could develop into an alternate first pairing with Kevin Klein and the highly touted Seth Jones. Those two pairings should take the lion’s share of the minutes this season, which will leave time for younger defensemen like Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to develop while playing in the third pair with another pleasant surprise from last season – Victor Bartley.

Perhaps a large portion of Nashville’s woes last season were the losses of Ryan Suter and Francis Bouillon. While Roman Josi excelled replacing Suter on the top line, Josi’s replacement on the second line was never found. With Jones, the Predators probably have that player for the next several years. After a mid-season call-up, Bartley showed all the tools needed to anchor that third pairing.

Nashville has some iffy spots in the line-up, but the defense should be pretty solid going into the new season and should anchor the Predators’ return to playoff form.

Goaltender: Goaltending is another area on Nashville’s roster that leaves a gigantic question mark. No, not with Pekka Rinne, but with the back-up position. With Anders Lindback, the Predators had perhaps one of the best back-up goaltenders in the NHL. On the 15 or 16 nights a season when Barry Trotz would decide to give Rinne a rest, Lindback would usually step in without missing a beat. Last season, Nashville tried a baseball-esque strategy where Chris Mason returned to the roster and was featured almost as a change-up. Unfortunately, Mason was not as effective in goal as he had been during his previous stint with the team. Thus, Nashville will roll into training camp this season with the back-up position far from set. Competing for the position will be Magnus Hellberg – a tall, Scandinavian goalie who plays a lot like Rinne and Lindback – and new acquisition Carter Hutton – not a tall, Scandinavian goalie, but one who has dominated Milwaukee in the AHL. While Hellberg has shown every sign in the AHL that the back-up position should some day become his, Hutton is absolutely in the mix to win the position. Fortunately, for Nashville, they really cannot get much worse this season on Pekka Rinne’s nights off this year.

However, here’s the important part – while the back-up position might be one of the team’s biggest question marks, it is also perhaps the most easily improved upon spot on the entire roster.

Last season, Chris Mason appeared in 11 games and won just one. Even stretched out over an 82-game season and rounded, that’s just 2 wins. If Hellberg and/or Hutton manage 3 wins, then they have shown an improvement on the prior year’s work.

Coaching: Perhaps the biggest addition in the offseason to be continuously overlooked is the addition of Phil Housley, who replaces Peter Horachek on Nashville’s coaching staff. A legendary defenseman in his own right, Housley coached an American team featuring Seth Jones to a World Junior Championship in January. Housley has not coached with an NHL squad, so what impact he will have remains to be seen.

The Predators will also have a full, normal season to prepare for games. While some teams strived in the high-pressure, short-turnaround season brought about by last season’s lockout, the Predators struggled. Injuries compounded upon themselves, practice time was reduced and the coaching staff simply could not create any sort of flow. With a full season coming and with the roster seemingly in place for the most part, the coaching staff will have roughly three months to plot its course for the upcoming season. While things will change along the way, having time to prepare should give the team every opportunity to have a very strong start.

Outlook: There is a reason for Nashville to look up and it is a fairly common theme in this analysis – it really cannot get much worse than it was last season. You cannot be worse than the worst team in scoring and a lack of scoring was Nashville’s downfall. The only way for the team to go is up.

Luckily for Nashville, there’s realignment. The Predators enter a new Central Division without Detroit and the surging Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead they have to face the Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars six times a year. Yes, the St. Louis Blues and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks are in the division, but when the top three teams in the division earn an automatic spot in the playoffs, that is not a bad tradeoff.

At the end of the day, on paper, Nashville looks like a team that can easily return from the dredges of the NHL. Once the forwards shake out, they should have an improved scoring touch. The defense is about as solid as it can be. For about 75 percent of the team’s games they will be stopped by arguably the best goaltender in the league. Plus, the team is entering a division in which they can easily compete.

In conclusion, not only is that third-place spot in the Central Division attainable, it should probably be the team’s minimum expectation on the season.

Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua

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