Last year marked the best regular season in franchise history for the Nashville Predators. A disappointing playoff exit, though, has left them wanting more.
With the return of goaltender Tomas Vokoun and key free-agent signings, the Predators set their sights on a Stanley Cup run when they host the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday in the season opener for both teams.
Although Nashville won 49 games and finished with 106 points—both franchise-bests—the team was ousted in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season, losing four in a row to San Jose after winning the opener of the Western Conference quarterfinal.
“We’re just trying to be a better team than last year. We weren’t good enough. We made great strides as an organization, as a team. But we weren’t good enough to be the best. In this league, you have to be very good. We have to be a better team,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said.
That’s why Vokoun’s return is so important. He missed the last three weeks of the regular season and the playoffs after developing blood clots stemming from a childhood incident.
Vokoun spent three months on blood thinners to remove all but one of the clots. Doctors cleared him to play after determining the clot is no longer considered serious.
“He’s always in great shape, but he is at the peak of his fitness level and strength,” Trotz said.
The Predators inked Vokoun to a four-year, $22.8 million extension in July. Then they went to work on the offense, signing free agents J.P. Dumont from Buffalo and Jason Arnott from Dallas and acquiring Josef Vasicek from Carolina for team scoring leader Scott Walker.
Arnott recorded a career-high 76 points for the Stars while Dumont was instrumental in helping the Sabres reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Those players join Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan to give the Predators a more potent offense. Kariya and Sullivan led the team with 31 goals apiece, and Kariya had a team-record 85 points in his first season with Nashville.
“It’s going to be big for us, especially 5-on-5 to have some size not only around the net but in the corners,” Kariya said. “We’ll be better on 5-on-5, which was probably a weakness we had last year. We really relied on our power play to score.”
Unlike Nashville, which won’t be happy with another first-round playoff exit, the Blackhawks would be glad just to make the postseason. Chicago made the playoffs every year from 1970-1997, but has just one trip to the postseason in the last eight seasons.
The Blackhawks had only 65 points in 2005-06 under first-year coach Trent Yawney and are relying on a revamped roster and the return to form of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, a colossal flop in his first year in Chicago.
Khabibulin signed a four-year, $27 million contract before last season after leading Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup title in 2004, but finished with a 3.35 goals-against average and .886 save percentage, his worst numbers since he became a full-time starter in 1995-96.
“Every year you play you want to get better,” Khabibulin said. “Last year I put too much pressure on myself. This year I just want to relax and play.”
Bell, who had 59 points, was traded to San Jose as part of the three-way deal to acquire Havlat while Calder, a 56-point scorer, was traded to Philadelphia for center Michal Handzus.
Havlat played only 18 games last year for the Senators, but has 235 points in 298 career games and is expected to lead Chicago’s attack.
“It’s not about one guy, but having 20 guys on the same page and knowing your role,” Havlat said. “I’ll be in a situation where people will expect me to be scoring, but I was in the same situation the last three years in Ottawa, too.”
Tuomo Ruutu, who played only 15 games last season because of injuries, is out four weeks after spraining his left knee.
The Predators won six of the eight meetings with the Blackhawks last season, including all four in Nashville.