The Nashville Predators are coming off what was arguably their greatest season in franchise history.
Granted, their 99 regular-season points were 11 fewer than the franchise-best 110 they put up in 2006-07, but the organization accomplished something even better than an 100-point season: they got Carrie Underwood to attend a game.
Also, they finally won a playoff round, the first since the franchise's inception in 1998.
In 11 NHL seasons, the Predators had made the playoffs on 5 separate occasions, never winning more than two games. In 2010-11, however, Shea Weber and company finally broke through, dispensing with the Anaheim Ducks in six and giving the city of Nashville some much-needed second round exposure.
Now the question is simply whether they can build on that success. They have to. The future of the franchise depends on it.
Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne are the Nashville Predators, and all three are free agents at the end of this season (Suter and Rinne UFAs, Weber an RFA). If Nashville regresses, likely because they still don't have much up front and they didn't do much to address that in the offseason, convincing these three to remain in Tennessee will be the challenge of David Poile's career.
Can the Nashville Predators improve on last season's accomplishments?
Apart from shading the teeth on their primary logo, there were very few earth-shattering offseason changes for the Predators.
Their largest moves were bringing back their franchise defenseman and their leading goalscorer in Shea Weber and Sergei Kostitsyn, respectively.
Gone is Joel Ward, Nashville's breakthrough playoff performer. After a career-worst 10 goals in 80 games, Ward went off in the playoffs, scoring 7 in 12. That was enough to earn him a four-year, $12 million contract with the Washington Capitals that the Predators were probably wise not to match.
Steve Sullivan, the franchise's fifth-leading all-time scorer, signed a $1.5 million deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and reliable checking forward Marcel Goc signed a three-year contract with the Florida Panthers.
The club also chose to cut ties with JP Dumont, buying him out after a disappointing, 10-goal season and, in another cap-clearing maneuver, sent Matthew Lombardi (who missed all of last season with a concussion) and Cody Franson to Toronto for Brett Ledba and Robert Slaney.
Rather than add some proven scoring, the Predators chose to gamble on a couple free agents with some upside in Niclas Bergfors and Kyle Wilson, and add some fourth line toughness in Zach Stortini.
Like figure skating judges, this team will be scoring by committee. At forward, they aren't really led by anyone, but they'll rely on Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Martin Erat, Sergei Kostityn, and Patric Hornqvist to score the goals. It's alarming that, among these five guys, only Hornqvist has ever put up 30 goals in a season, and that was the year before last.
The Predators will also rely on increased production from the likes of Colin Wilson, Matt Halischuk, and Nick Spaling. While none looks like a future offensive superstar, all had some promising moments last season. If any one of these kids could turn in a 20-goal performance in support, that would be terribly helpful.
If not, the Predators' offense could be terribly terrible.
Thankfully, Nashville makes up for their thin forwards with their strength on defense. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the best defensive pairing in the NHL. Kevin Klein and Jonathan Blum are no slouches either.
In goal, workhorse Pekka Rinne and the black hole on his left hand will continue to stake both the Predators and fantasy owners to wins. He's one of the league's best goalies and he's coming off his first Vezina-nominated season. He'll probably do all right.
"Predator." Why? Because, like the stars of that film, Nashville's guys spend most of their time on the defensive and rely heavily on trapping. Also, um, because of the name. Starring Shea Weber in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role, because A) he's a badass, and B) I'm fairly certain he could take a Predator in hand-to-hand combat -- because he secretly is one.
Same as it ever was. David Poile is the only GM this franchise has ever known and Barry Trotz is, likewise, its only coach.
They've got a sweet thing going. One assumes they sit on a balcony and smoke cigars, like, every night.
Blake Geoffrion is one to watch this season, especially considering the course he's charted thus far. After winning the Hobey Baker award in his final year of collegiate hockey, Geoffrion went pro and had success right away, scoring two goals in three playoff games. He struggled to begin his first full season the following year, posting only 16 points in his first 31 games. But then he caught fire, picking up 17 over his next 7, and earning a callup to the NHL, where he scored 6 goals in his first 20 NHL games.
He was quiet in the playoffs, playing in all twelve games and only picking up two assists, but Geoffrion's trajectory looks promising. If he has a good showing in training camp and makes the team, he could have a breakout year.
In 153 games with the Montreal Canadiens, Sergei Kostitsyn scored a whopping 24 goals. Then, in his first season in Nashville, he led the Predators with 23.
Needless to say, it was a surprise.
By the playoffs, Kostitsyn had become an invaluable member of Nashville's offense. Then he stopped producing. He didn't score once in 12 games, and he became so nonthreatening offensively that, a number of times, the Canucks' penalty kill opted to leave him open at the side of the net so they could take Shea Weber's point shot away.
Has Kostitsyn come into his own as a scorer, or was his breakout season a flash in the pan? Even David Poile's not sure, which is why the Belarussian winger was only given a one-year contract. Anything less than another 20-goal season and he'll be a UFA next July.
Here's a commercial in which Taylor Swift eats breakfast with a Predators fan. She even busts out the fang fingers. What this commercial fails to mention is that David Poile had to promise Taylor Lautner the third-line center position in order to get her in the stands.
Truthfully, however, my favourite thing about this commercial is how much disdain the inattentive mother appears to have for both the Nashville Predators and her daughter.
No scoring. The Predators don't have much offensively, but they don't need much, not when they're playing a tight defensive system buoyed by two of the best defensemen the world has to offer.
That said, you win hockey games by outscoring the other team, so it stands to reason that you can't win them if you don't score, and the Predators' margin for error is slim. Last season, their leading scorers, Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat, only collected 50 points. If Nashville's scorers -- and I use the term loosely -- take a step backwards, this team will simply not be good.
The Western Conference has gotten better, and the Predators really haven't changed all that much from last season, so it would be reasonable to assume they might be one of the teams that gets bounced from the playoff picture.
That said, it would be unwise to count out Trotz and friends, as they always seem to find a way to stay in the hunt. I'm banking on this group finishing somewhere between fifth and eighth place.
- Nashville Predators
- Shea Weber
- Sergei Kostitsyn
- David Poile