The Nashville Predators were the only team in their division to miss out on the playoffs last season and how do they react? They subtracted seven players and added fourth-liners Marcel Goc(notes), Ben Guite(notes) and Ben Eaves(notes), who spent the last couple seasons in Europe.
You have to wonder what the priorities are these days in Music City. After reaching the playoffs four straight seasons with teams that didn't feature big-name stars, the Predators slipped into the Central Division basement with a record that hardly befits a fifth-place team.
Just the same, when the Preds look at rivals Detroit, Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis, they should feel the urgency to improve because everyone else around them sure are getting better. Instead, the team is looking within to find the answers while walking a tightrope with the salary cap in a much different way than most teams.
Nashville needs to spend within $16 million of the ceiling of the cap – hey, those are the rules – and they qualify, but not by all that much. The scuttlebutt of late surrounds Nashville's interest in Boston's unsigned restricted free-agent forward Phil Kessel(notes). That would help to bump Nashville's payroll, but more importantly give the Preds another offensive threat.
David Poile and Barry Trotz, the only general manager and coach, respectively, the franchise has known are putting on a brave face. They're used to playing this role as Nashville has seemingly always been asked to do more with less. Obviously this year is no different, but with the way GMs and coaches are cast aside these days, both are probably quite happy to try and meet the challenge.
Last season: 40-34-8 (88 points), fifth place Central Division, 10th place in the Western Conference and 20th in the overall standings. Despite winning one fewer game than the previous season and finishing with six more victories than regular-season losses, the Predators were last in the division and the only team out of the Central that failed to make the playoffs. That snapped a streak of four straight postseason appearances for Nashville.
Exports: C Scott Nichol(notes) (San Jose), D Ville Koistinen(notes) (Florida), C Vernon Fiddler(notes) (Phoenix), C Radek Bonk(notes) (Russia), G Drew MacIntyre(notes) (Atlanta), RW Jed Ortmeyer(notes) (San Jose) and D Greg Zanon(notes) (Minnesota).
Salary cap: The Predators have amongst the smallest payrolls in the league, committing approximately $42 million as camp opens. There's a whopping $14.5 million or so available before hitting the cap, but Nashville's budget won't allow for anything close to that happening. Cap rules stipulate teams must spend within $16 million of the ceiling, so the Preds barely qualify.
Three keys: Pekka Rinne(notes) emerged last season to grab the starting goaltending status, and that was very important. Nashville has always received decent play in goal, but it hasn't been sustained for more than a season by anyone since Tomas Vokoun's(notes) departure.
That's Rinne's challenge this season. He can't become Chris Mason(notes) or Dan Ellis(notes) – previous Preds goalies who turned out to be nothing but a flash during their time in Nashville. The 6-foot-5, 26-year-old Finn takes up a lot of net, and he figures to get as many starts and as much action as he can handle.
Second, defense is the team's strength. Nashville is particularly proud of three the organization has drafted and developed on its own – Shea Weber(notes), Ryan Suter(notes) and Dan Hamhuis(notes). All between 24-26 years of age, the trio is just moving into the primes of their career with many years left.
The next homegrown product the Preds are looking at to break into the blue line mix is 2007 first-rounder Jonathon Blum(notes). He was honored as the Canadian Hockey League defenseman of the year last season, then jumped directly from junior hockey to the AHL playoffs and did just fine there, too.
Third, there are jobs to be won and roles to be filled on the forward lines. Competition should be fierce during camp and the preseason. The Predators definitely need someone to step up, and they're not exactly sure who it might be.
David Legwand(notes), who has never fulfilled the expectations dropped at his doorstep when he was the second pick in 1998, is expected to center a second line and there's always J.P. Dumont(notes) who will find himself on one of the top two lines. Nashville knows what it will get from Goc, Guite and Jordin Tootoo(notes) ‐ all role players who figure to play 8-12 minutes at most – now it wants to find out what else it has.
On the hot seat: Captain Jason Arnott(notes) is basically being asked to work miracles. Arnott, who turns 35 before the season is even two weeks old, will be centering a top line that isn't expected to have near the firepower of most teams in the league.
Yet Arnott will be expected to at least match if not exceed his previous scoring high from his three seasons with the Predators (72 points in 2007-08). Arnott also is coming off an injury that limited him to 65 games last year.
Poised to blossom: Martin Erat(notes) is no rookie, he's been in the league for seven seasons and is 28 years old. Usually that's enough of a track record to predict how a season might go, but Erat might be the one veteran forward who could give more. Erat scored 17 goals and 50 points during 71 games last season.
His career-high is 23 goals scored the year before. His shot totals both years, 163 and 149, respectively, are relatively modest for a winger who is counted on for scoring. Look for Erat to shoot the puck more, get plenty of time on the power play and have his best offensive season to date.
Time has passed: Steve Sullivan was a deserved winner of the Bill Masterton Trophy last season after competing a successful comeback from multiple back surgeries that many figured would be the end of his career two years ago. What Sullivan doesn't deserve is the expectations to play a first-line right-wing role, which is the way the Predators are rolling things out in training camp.
Sullivan, who at 35 is the oldest forward on the roster, scored 11 goals and 32 points while appearing in exactly a half-season's worth of games (41) and missing the entire 2007-08 campaign. Sullivan was limited to 57 games in 2006-07 when the back issues first cropped up.
Prediction: This is not going to go well for Nashville, regardless of how many rabbits Poile and Trotz have pulled out of their hats in the past. There's not enough offense, no home-ice advantage, too many tough games inside their own division (not to mention the conference) and there's no money being spent to get better. Last place in the division and a race with Colorado and Phoenix for worst in the conference if not the entire league.
- Barry Trotz