The Nashville Predators remind you of that armless, legless black knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." You know, the one who continues to challenge his full-strength opponent "to come back and fight like a man" even though he's at a ridiculously large disadvantage.
Adversity has been coming in waves the last couple of seasons at the Predators like a Sidney Crosby-led rush, most of it the off-ice variety. Still, Nashville avoids the potential distraction and forges on. The Predators are riding a streak of four straight postseason appearances, not bad for a franchise that's played just nine seasons.
Of the eight other recent expansion teams – those who have joined the league since 1991 – only Ottawa managed to string together as many as four straight playoff seasons so early in franchise existence.
Anaheim (14 seasons) has appeared three straight years; Atlanta just once in eight seasons; Columbus is 0-for-7; Florida has qualified three times in 14 seasons, a streak of two once; Minnesota is riding a two-season playoff streak with three visits overall out of seven years, and Tampa Bay had a four-year playoffs streak snapped last season, but the Lightning qualified for the postseason just once in their first 10 years.
After missing the playoffs during its first four seasons, Ottawa has a current streak of 11 straight showings. And San Jose has streaks of four straight and five straight, while qualifying 11 out of 16 seasons overall, but most of that success came after more growing pain than Nashville had to endure.
General manager David Poile was basically handcuffed last summer when the team was in the process of being sold.
High-profile talent slipped away via free agency, unsure of what direction the Predators were headed and unable to negotiate long-term with Poile. Still Nashville persevered, getting unexpected contributions from an untested goalie, who wasn't necessarily even supposed to play above the AHL and Barry Trotz – the only coach the franchise has employed – found a way to pull the group together again.
This offseason has been slow again for Poile, whose moves have been modest. Then came the Alexander Radulov bombshell, as the 22-year-old flashy forward announced he's signed a deal with the Continental Hockey League, the upstart pro league in Russia. Radulov is supposed to be fulfilling the third and final year of his entry-level deal, but he's not and the whole saga is sure to end of in court. Add to it that NHL Players Association executive director Paul Kelly said last week Radulov has had a change of heart and wants to return to the NHL, and it is one tangled mess.
Last season: 41-32-9, 91 points, second place Central Division, eighth place Western Conference. The Predators slipped into the playoffs with the hotly contested final seed. Their fourth straight visit to the playoffs ended just as the first three did – a first-round defeat, in part because Nashville still has not managed to win a road game in the postseason now after 10 tries. The Predators worked out of an 0-2 hole against Detroit to tie the opening-round series against their division rivals, but lost Game 5 in overtime and were shut out in Game 6 at home.
Imports: RW Ryan Jones (2007-08 team: Minnesota Wild), LW Josh Gratton (New York Rangers/Phoenix Coyotes), LW Triston Grant (Philadelphia Flyers), G Drew MacIntyre (Vancouver Canucks), RW Joel Ward (Minnesota Wild).
Exports: D Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota Wild), G Chris Mason (St. Louis Blues), LW Martin Gelinas (available free agent), LW Jan Hlavac (Europe), LW Darcy Hordichuk (Vancouver Canucks), D Janne Niskala (Philadelphia Flyers).
Three keys to the season: Dan Ellis is trying to make the Predators forget about Tomas Vokoun, who for most of his eight seasons in Music City was arguably the Predators' best player before departing for the sunny skies of Florida and the Panthers before last season. Ellis, 28, was earmarked for the minors last season, but Chris Mason couldn't make the jump as Vokoun's back-up to the team's starter. Fortunately for the Predators, Ellis was outstanding, especially late in the season. Now he needs to prove his 2.34 goals-against average and .924 save percentage was no fluke. Nashville has 2004 draft pick (No. 258 overall) Pekka Rinne slotted as Ellis' backup, and Poile picked up Drew MacIntyre for added depth.
Second, the Radulov situation needs to resolve itself in a positive manner for Nashville. In other words, the Predators need the skilled young 15th overall pick from 2004 to be back in their locker room and poised to lead them offensively on the ice. Radulov has huge upside, but his character is going to be tested. If he does return, he's going to have to patch up his relations with teammates and management. It's not the ideal way to head into a contract season (due to be a restricted free agent at season's end). And if Radulov doesn't return, it creates a huge hole on the first line for a team that already is concerned about support scoring from its other combinations.
Third, the young defense has come a long way, but they can't stop now. Shea Weber, 23, Dan Hamhuis, 25, and Ryan Suter 23, were all drafted, developed and put into a regular role by Nashville. All three are solid NHLers at a young age. Free agents Greg Zanon, Ville Koistinen and Greg de Vries have been added to the mix to round out the top six. And the Predators are anxious to see what additional picks Jonathan Blum, Alexander Sulzer and Teemu Laakso can do when added in the next year or two.
On the hot seat: David Legwand is set to make $5.5 million this season, and he has four more years left on a lucrative contract. Chosen second overall in 1998, those expectations never diminish. Legwand is 28 years old now, and with eight full seasons under his belt most would agree he's fallen short of projections. He's only broken the 20-goal barrier once (27 in 2006-07) and as many as 50 points just once (63 two years ago). Legwand is penciled in as the team's No. 2 center when most would have expected him to be playing No. 1 by this point of his career. There will be pressure on Legwand to produce career-best numbers, especially if Radulov doesn't return.
Poised to blossom: Patric Hornqvist may not have turned a lot of heads as an amateur – he wasn't drafted until 230th overall in 2005 – but he's done enough since to merit top-six forward considerations heading into training camp. The 5-foot-11, 194-pounder scored 23 goals to break Peter Forsberg's rookie record in the Swedish Elite League two years ago. He plays a defensively responsible game, is gritty, but could use work on his skating.
Analysis and prediction: The Predators have to be complimented for their consistent results, but the fact remains that the rest of the Central Division is improving, especially in Chicago and Columbus. There aren't as many easy points available, and in the West the loss of just a couple points is enough to spell an early end to your season. This is the season Nashville finds itself on the outside looking in.