Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Nashville Predators.
A year after their first ever trip to the second round, the Nashville Predators defied everyone who thought they had overachieved by doing it again in 2011-12.
They got better too. Their powerplay jumped from a dismal 15.2 conversation rate to a league-best 21.6. Their goals per game rose from 2.6 to 2.83. And, they posted a five-point improvement, good enough for home ice in the first round.
Inspired by the improvements (and perhaps slightly in denial over what was coming), GM David Poile loaded his team up for a lengthy run. He acquired Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn at the trade deadline, he coaxed Alexander Radulov back from Russia in a prime bit of cleverness, and he held on to Shea Weber and Ryan Suter despite concerns that it could cost him one or both in the summer.
After all, those problems wouldn't come up for months, and hopefully by then, the Predators would be champions. Maybe Suter and Weber would be coaxed into staying because their Stanley Cup rings weren't ready yet?
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. The Predators again made the second round but advanced no further, eliminated by the Phoenix Coyotes in five games. Thus, the summer began, and sure enough, Poile's gambit cost the Predators. The team enters the 2012-13 campaign one All-Star blueliner short: Ryan Suter plays for the Wild now. And
Can the Predators soldier on without one of their best soldiers?
"Hey, remember Alex Radulov? NEITHER DO WE"
There are some notable departures for the Predators. Gone are forwards Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, who burned their bridges in Nashville when they did the unspeakable thing during last spring's second round playoff series versus the Phoenix Coyotes. What's the unspeakable thing? No one can say...
Gone too is Ryan Suter, who surprised everyone, David Poile included, when he dismantled the league's top defensive pairing by skipping town with Zach Parise.
Now, Suter was always the second banana on that pairing with Shea Weber, but that's only because Shea Weber is the league's best banana. On any other team, he's a top banana and trying to replace him could drive Barry Trotz bananas.
Sorry, I'm eating a banana. Moving on.
At forward … The Predators don't have a go-to guy, really. They haven't had a 60-point player since J.P. Dumont in 2008-09. But they have a lot of good, responsible forwards capable of putting the puck in the net. The top line of Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, and Sergei Kostitsyn remains intact, as Kostitsyn agreed to a two-year extension at a very reasonable $3 million per year.
One wonders why Kostitsyn didn't shoot for the moon with that extension, but he really doesn't shoot all that often.
Behind the top line, David Legwand leads reserve corps that includes Patric Hornqvist, Gabriel Bourque, Paul Gaustad, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, and Matt Halischuk.
How Barry Trotz winds up splitting these six guys into lines is anybody's guess. Legwand and Hornqvist will likely play together, but they could use an injection of speed and skill to help them with zone entries. Could Gabriel Bourque be that guy? Or what about Craig Smith, if he takes another step forward offensively?
On defense … Captain Shea Weber is back after signing a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet with the Flyers, only to have it matched by the Predators. But lucky him: he still gets to adjust to a massive change: he'll have a new partner in Roman Josi. Hooray for change!
It's a huge promotion for the young Josi, who can't be a Suter, but he could be a suture, holding that pairing together and allowing Barry Trotz to continue relying heavily on the duo.
Ryan Ellis should see his first full season in a Predators' uniform, possibly alongside Kevin Klein, but, if we're lucky, alongside the monster Hal Gill. Here's hoping they work out a play where Ellis rides on Gill's shoulders, like in that movie The Mighty.
In goal … Pekka Rinne will continue to be hockey's version of the old lady who swallowed a fly, just gobbling up everything in an effort to stay alive.
Let John sing you the history of the Nashville Predators, including the time they almost moved to "Hamilton, Canada". Or, if you would rather not subject yourself to the musical equivalent of waterboarding, don't let John sing you the history of the Nashville Predators.
David Poile and Barry Trotz return for their 15th year as general manager and coach, respectively. They've been together so long they're practically common-law.
They're as trusted a tandem as you'll find in the NHL and at this point it seems like they're practically made men in Nashville, but a tough year could begin to chip away at their comfort level, especially after a rough summer. After a second-round playoff exit and some troubling issues with Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, Ryan Suter left in the offseason, a departure that made Poile look silly and leaves a massive hole in Trotz's system.
With Ryan Suter gone, it will be up to Shea Weber to keep that top defensive pairing, the lynchpin of Barry Trotz's system, humming at an elite pace. There's a treat for him if he can do it: Nicklas Lidstrom finally retired, so the Norris trophy is actually attainable this year!
Craig Smith had 14 goals and 22 assists in his rookie season, but also finished the year a team-worst minus-9 (not counting Jonathan Blum, who was minus-14 in only 33 games). Now, plus/minus is a bit of a bum stat, but if you're at the top or the bottom of it, it's usually telling, and in Smith's case, it speaks to some difficulty adjusting to his defensive responsibilities, especially in Barry Trotz's system. His sophomore year should show some improvement in this area, and if his shot continues to improve, especially around empty nets, he could break out in a big way.
Barry Trotz has gone on record as saying that Roman Josi would inherit Ryan Suter's job on Shea Weber's left side. That's a boom or bust position. If he can handle it and keep the Predators competitive, he'll be beloved. But more likely, especially considering I don't think people really understood how much Suter did, is that Josi will underwhelm.
"This offseason, Shea Weber re-signed with the Nashville Predators for 110 million dollars. It's a contract worth 700,000 more than the domestic box office earnings of Crocodile Dundee II."
"Is this a coincidence? Or did Shea Weber insist on out-earning Crocodile Dundee 2 because of some longstanding grudge?"
"Did Shea Weber forget to negotiate a no-movement clause for his contract because he was more concerned with making sure this contract exceeded the domestic box office earnings of Crocodile Dundee 2? Does Shea Weber think that because he makes more money than Crocodile Dundee 2, he's better than Crocodile Dundee 2?"
"We've got news for you, Shea."
"NOTHING IS BETTER THAN CROCODILE DUNDEE 2. NOTHING."
"Paid for by the Crocodile Dundee Protection Agency."
The Predators defy expectations and make pundits look foolish seemingly every year. No matter what the roster, no matter what the predictions, they always manage to stay in contention. That in mind, I'm sure this prediction is going to come back to haunt me, but I think this is the year they drop out of the top eight.
The Predators success last year was a little baffling at times. They were out-possessed regularly, which is typically a mark of a bad team. They were the only team in the NHL to finish in the top 10 while averaging fewer shots than they allowed. Frankly, they were due for a fall all year, and it just never came. One major reason: they still have the best defensive pairing in the NHL. Now they don't, and in a league with insane parity, that could be enough to drop them to ninth.