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In Want of a Spoonful of Sugar; A Medicinal Predators Preview

mary-poppins11

Oct 1, 2013


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“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way!” – Mary Poppins, as performed by Julie Andrews

While quick with a tune and wont to fly above the rooftops with an enchanted umbrella, it’s well-known that the similarities between the melodious au pair and myself pretty much end there. While Ms. Poppins is all too eager to provide a sweet vessel with which to carry the bitter tonic, I’ve established that I’m more of the “hold your nose and choke it down” type. While some like a Candy-Apple-Sugar-Rim-Hawaiian-Punch Martini, I like my scotch neat. It may not be as light on the palate, but there’s a satisfaction to be found in the undertones and nuances of the whiskey. The burn may twist the face of the unprepared, but a connoisseur anticipates and comes to savor the pain. It’s all part of the experience, after all.

Similarly, I like to think that my opinions as they relate to the Nashville Predators are of the “straight, no chaser” variety. My prognostications won’t win me admirers among the glass-half-full crowd (and I promise that’s the end of the alcohol metaphors, I fear that I’m painting too clear a picture of myself, here), but I tell myself that there are those out there that appreciate the honesty. With the season getting underway tonight, and with a scad of dire forecasts for the Predators making the rounds from Las Vegas to Toronto, I figured that I would be remiss to sit this one out. Especially since I made a gloomy guess (12th in the West) in the Predatorial’s Season Predictions earlier this morning. A good number of you will be bothered or disappointed by that placement, so the least I can do is answer for it and justify my thinking.

I’ll preface this Predatorial by reiterating a point that I’ve tried to make many times in the past:  I don’t think that “negative” and “realistic” can be used interchangeably.

I’ve long had a reputation for being some sort of doomsday evangelist, and I don’t really agree or think that’s a fair portrayal. What I am is frank and genuine in my assessments. I don’t feel that I’m doing anyone a service to blindly expect or predict the best, each season. I have a different interpretation of some of the empirical and historical evidence that’s out there than other bloggers. I accept that it bristles some readers or even annoys others. What I resent and overtly deny is that it makes me a “bad fan.” I’m a lifelong New York Mets fan–I can tell you better than others that flying the “this year will be different” banner really only leads to frustration and bitter disappointment.

I actually think that being open to the possibility of failure makes me a GOOD fan. Being able to look at a team that I love and have invested myself in with clarity helps to put the greater puzzle in perspective. It’s not as if I relish in the valleys, nor am  I numb to the peaks. A lot of what I say–be it here, on Twitter, or from my perch at the Bridgestone Arena–comes from a place of either parental pride or frustration. The key is to divorce that critical eye from my overall enjoyment of the game–or at least find a way that the two can work in concert. I like to believe that I’ve achieved that balance.  At any rate…

I’ve been rather harsh in my assessment of the Predators’ offseason. As I’ve previously stated, I think that the greater message that can be culled from General Manager David Poile’s transactions and Barry Trotz’s statements is: “Brandon Yip and Chris Mueller were the problem, last season.” How else can one interpret moves that saw modest fortunes handed to career bottom-six forwards like Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks? Or a two-year deal awarded to a player that is virtually a perfect clone of Mike Fisher and David Legwand? When every pundit in the league harps on the Predators’ scoring woes…how is the answer “shore up the sandpaper factor?”

I understand and appreciate that Poile and Trotz have fostered a culture of character, grit, and against-all-odds achievement–but how much is too much? Is Eric Nystrom necessary when you already have a younger version in Nick Spaling? Is there room or justification for Matt Hendricks when a cheaper option like Rich Clune is already on the roster? Any of these moves, in a vacuum, I’m okay with–it’s not that they’re not useful players, but I don’t necessarily think that “spending money” equates with “upgrading the roster.” The comparison that I made a couple of days ago: David Poile received a Target gift card and was distracted by the miniature rubber ducks and novelty pens in the dollar bins near the front door.

The Predators’ roster is mirror-reflective of its coach. Barry Trotz has stated numerous times since free agency began on July 5th that the signings were made in an effort to bring back “Predators hockey,” to restore the “rudeness” that characterized the perennially playoff-present teams of years passed. While I do think that they’ve acquired the virtues they’re looking for, I’m not certain that the outcome will be as desired. While “seven of nine years in the playoffs” is an impressive statistic in the modern NHL, it’s tempered by “with only two series wins” and “paddled mercilessly in the second round.” Is going back to Trotz’s definition of “Predators Hockey,” an institution that was characterized by gritty, tough to play against regular season teams that were generally out-coached/out-talented in the playoffs, necessarily the answer? I’m not so sure that represents evolution. It’s more like, “we tried this, it didn’t work, so we tried something else, which REALLY didn’t work, so now we’re going back to the first thing.” The question becomes: is it the players, or the system?

History shows that there are two kinds of Predators teams: 1. Low on talent, lots of heart, charms everyone with a valiant effort against a playoff foe that hopelessly outclasses them in terms of talent. 2. Reasonably talented, favored going into the playoffs, flames out against a lesser team in postseason. I’m not sure if one is worse or one is better, but I’ve long said that Trotz probably should have been let go after the 2006-2007 season. Coaches have been dismissed for far lesser disappointments. The ensuing post-firesale years likely fortified his position however, bringing back a “Type 1″ team that had no business being as good as it was. While the possibility exists that this year’s team could be that sort of feel-good story, there are a few key differences:

First, those teams were a bargain-basement assortment of parts based on necessity. The team was near the bottom of the league in payroll, and couldn’t AFFORD better players. That’s not the case anymore, so why does it feel like fans are once again looking at a collection of lovable cast-offs, interspersed with some bright young homegrown talent?

The second difference is that the “spare parts” don’t look to be as productive as their previous counterparts. While Jason Arnott wore out his welcome, he was routinely in the 30 goal neighborhood in his time here. J.P. Dumont, remembered as being a fourth line black hole in his final season, scored north of 70 points for the Predators. Looking up and down the 2013-2014 lineup, I’m not sure I see the potential for anyone to hit either of those marks. Hornqvist will likely lead the team in goal scoring, somewhere around 25. You may see Fisher or Wilson put up 50-55 points. I don’t know if that’s good enough, unfortunately.

Defensively, there’s a lot of promise, but there’s also a lot of inexperience. For a team that’s not going to score a lot of goals, much is being staked on a defense counts Roman Josi’s 100 games as “veteran.” What happens if Josi takes a Blum-esque regression? What if Phil Housley isn’t the elixir for Ryan Ellis’s ills? What if Victor Bartley goes back to being a career minor leaguer? What if Seth Jones hits a rookie wall or struggles out of the gate? What if Mattias Ekholm continues a troubling trend of dropping the ball, every time it’s handed to him? There’s a lot of potential for disaster, which is a sharp contrast from the days when, if nothing else, the Predators had the best defensive pairing in the league in Suter/Weber. The margin for error is that much thinner.

While I’m underwhelmed by the Predators’ roster, and cite that as my primary justification for predicting them where I did, it bears mention that the new playoff format/realignment isn’t going to do Nashville any favors. The Western Conference has several teams that I would consider “elite,” and the Predators will need to find some formula for success to survive that gauntlet. Additionally, I feel that a few teams that lingered in the neighborhood of the Predators last season will be better this year: Dallas (some strong additions made), Edmonton (strong additions made as well and presumably better health) and Minnesota (Parise and Suter acclimated, Pominville appearing to be a good addition thus far) will all push the Predators.

Looking at rosters strictly on paper, the only two teams in the West that I feel have markedly weaker lineups are Calgary and Colorado. I think that it will come down to the Predators being too thin up front and too green on the back to truly “contend,” and if they’re within shouting distance of a playoff spot by the trade deadline, the season should be considered a surprising success. It’s worth noting also that next summer’s draft isn’t nearly as strong as this one, so that particular silver lining isn’t even present this time around to console fans, should you need consolation.

With all of that said, and with your tongue now reeling from all of the bitter potions I’ve handed you, it’s still an exciting time and I’m excited for the season to get underway. While I don’t see a Stanley Cup or even a playoff appearance in the cards this season, there will still be some compelling storylines to keep an eye on:

Will Colin Wilson continue to grow into an offensive force?

Will Filip Forsberg develop into the dynamic scorer that the Predators have ceaselessly craved?

Will Seth Jones emerge as a budding superstar on the blueline?

Can Pekka rebound after an injury-plagued, lackluster season?

Will youngsters like Taylor Beck, Simon Moser, and Austin Watson take the next step once and for all?

What rivalries will emerge from the realigned conferences?

Hopefully, watching these plots unfurl will provide enough sweetener to choke down whatever bitter pills that may need to be swallowed.

-JN