September 17, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio, whose influx of money helped a group of somewhat more local owners keep the Predators in Nashville, became the target of federal investigations and lawsuits after it became apparent he wasn't exactly truthful about his finances.
Like, for example, owing almost $35 million than he's worth.
After the revelation of his fraud, fans discovered that former Predators owner Craig Leipold and Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz loaned Boots more than half of his stake in the Predators, unbeknownst to the NHL. Oh, and that Boots was also scheming to move the Predators to another city, despite public declarations to the contrary. The Preds have had yet another few months of having to prove their viability as an NHL franchise. Good times.
Later in the summer, the Nashville Predators were stunned when scoring winger Alexander Radulov broke his contract with the team and bolted for the new KHL in Russia. The weeks that followed pushed the incident to the frontline of a raging labor dispute between the NHL and its new Russian counterpart, with late word the Radulov was having second thoughts about his controversial decision. Predators fans have been split as to whether the team should welcome him back or whether his treachery is unforgivable.
So there's Nashville's season ... wait, what? They were eighth in the Western Conference (41-32-9, 91 points) and valiantly pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings to six games in the conference quarterfinals? Say, that ain't half bad ...
Homecoming King (Top Player): The Predators' young, talented defense is going to be the foundation for any success they have this year. But if Coach Barry Trotz is going to smoke-and-mirror this team is another playoff berth, he's going to need the offensive output and leadership Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont provided last season.
Both players had 72 points, combining with the since-departed Radulov to form one of the top lines in the Western Conference last season. But it wasn't just a line with flashy stats: It was a line that made the difference between the Predators making or missing the postseason. They need that sort of consistency from Arnott and Dumont again, desperately.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Obviously, whatever player succeeds Radulov on the top line (assuming it isn't broken up) will be poised for a breakout season (assuming Radulov doesn't return, which is a factor that makes this one of the most annoying season previews to author).
One player to certainly watch: Patric Hornqvist, who hasn't played a game in the NHL but could be slotted on one of the top two lines. The Swedish Elite League standout has a good two-way game, but how will that translate to the NHL? The Forechecker has him at 33 points for this season; that's a good over/under.
Turning away from the forwards, defenseman Ville Koistinen is an interesting story for the Preds this season. The 26-year-old defenseman was a veteran in Finland before making the jump to the NHL last season. His numbers over the course of 44 games were good enough where the team felt it could deal Marek Zidlicky to the Minnesota Wild this off-season. Zidlicky averaged over 20 minutes a game, and Koistinen was just under 17 minutes per game last season. He's going to have more ice time and more responsibility on the power play. There's too much talent in front of him on the depth chart to go from depth defenseman to all-star; but Koistinen will be a much-improved player this season, as he's playing for a contract.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): The inability of Chris Mason to keep the starting goaltending job handed to him after Tomas Vokoun went to the Florida Panthers is one of the biggest choke jobs in recent NHL history. He's in St. Louis now, where the expectations are obviously more in line with his mental temperament. This is Dan Ellis's team ... at least until 25-year-old Pekka Rinne ("Delicious with vodka sauce!") gives him a suitable push for playing time.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Do the phones in the Predators front office work any more? What a quiet off-season. Ryan Jones is a right winger who came over in the trade with the Wild, and has four games of experience ... in the AHL. The Wild were high on him, though, and with the state of the Predators forwards he could have an impact.
Other than that, David Poile spent more time trying to translate Russian newspapers than signing reinforcements.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Beloved pugilist Darcy Hordichuk has moved on, leaving behind a legacy of pain much like the great Stu Grimson did years earlier. The Predators had 37 fights last season, and the undisputed leader on that list was the pest-tacular Jordin Tootoo. Clearly enraged by the public scolding he was receiving from ex-girlfriend Kellie Pickler, Tootoo won more fights than he lost, even if he keeps him damn helmet on too often:
Teacher of the Year: As much as Jacques Lemaire is synonymous with Wild hockey, Barry Trotz IS the Nashville Predators. He's been the coach since the dawn of the franchise, and has gotten this team into the postseason for four consecutive seasons. He did a masterful job last season keeping Nashville in the postseason picture and squeezing out some key wins during March as teams like Chicago and Edmonton charged the eighth seed.
If he's got any more magic to work, this would be the year to use it.
The Custodians (Goalies): Dan Ellis's decision to return to the Predators rather than take a UFA offer from another team in need of a goalie was a little surprising. But he's playing behind an improving defense, his numbers were stellar last season (including a .924 save percentage) and he's clearly the starter in Nashville. The Predators, however, will no doubt be keenly interested to see if Ellis may have been playing for a contract last season. The bottom line is that he's the third starting goalie in as many seasons for this team, and yet they've made the postseason in the last two.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The heart and soul of this team and this franchise. The Predators retained Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as RFAs this summer, and Suter looks poised to continue his steady climb into the ranks of the League's top two-way defensemen. He and Weber make for one solid pairing; Greg de Vries and Dan Hamhuis -- as completely underrated a defenseman as you'll find in the West -- should also be paired up to start. That leaves Koistinen, Greg Zanon and Kevin Klein vying for time on a third pairing.
The Predators have the kind of mobile defense that teams like the Red Wings have shown is vital to win in today's League. As questionable as the Preds are up front, they're incredibly solid on the blueline.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): It has to be Ellis. Simply put, he's a goaltender that's not started more than 37 games in a season, was playing for a contract last year and was driven to outplay the incumbent goaltender. Now he's in the spotlight, and the potential is there for the same thing that happened to Mason to happen to him.
AV Club (Media): John Glennon at The Tennessean does a marvelous job covering the team on the ice and in its various off-the-ice issues. The Predators are blessed with two must-read non-MSM blogs: On the Forecheck and Geek Thoughts.
Pete Weber and Terry Crisp are old pros that call a nice game.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Finding a top six. Arnott and Dumont are givens, but where do you place them? With the (assumed) departure of Radulov, this team might want to split up the veteran duo, slotting Dumont on a second scoring line with David Legwand, who's attempting yet another comeback season. Martin Erat's good for at least 57 points; do you put him up with Arnott? Where does Hornqvist fit in?
At the very least, Vernon Fiddler, Scott Nichol and Jordin Tootoo are three forwards that can cause problems and generate a little excitement on a third line. And while his plus/minus was flat out embarrassing last season, Radek Bonk can still contribute offensively.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "Rocket to Russia" by The Ramones. The Radulov defection has been the single biggest distraction for an NHL team this summer not named Sundin. Until his situation is clarified, the Predators feel unsettled.
Expected Graduation: I believe in the defense, I'm iffy on the goaltending and if Trotz finds a way to get enough offense out of this bunch to be 12th in scoring again, they should rename the Grand Ole Oprey after him.
In the end, Paul Nicholson from Geek Thoughts nails what might be the best case scenario for the team:
Take a "building year" on the ice to develop young talent that has been stuck in Milwalkee and Europe for too long, while pumping big dollars into marketing. Then next year, with your nice, shiny high draft pick thanks to a bad record, you'll have a marketable star (who cares if they are really game-changing, Stamkos is selling tickets in Tampa Bay and he's yet to step on the ice for them) at rookie-discount pricing who you can hype the snot out of.
No playoffs. Not in this conference. But a competitive season.