Rant Sports NHL 30 in 30: Nashville Predators

Don McPeak – US PRESSWIRE

2011-2012 Season Recap

After the franchise’s first postseason series win in 2010-2011, the Nashville Predators had high expectations for the 2011-2012 season. In the end, the season ended in similar fashion.

After a mediocre start to the season, the Predators went 11-2 in the month of January, jumping into contention for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Predators played typical Barry Trotz hockey: Defense first. That strategy certainly becomes infinitely easier when your defense is anchored by a top defensive pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and an all-star goalie in Pekka Rinne.

Despite the defending zone first attitude, the Predators fell back into the middle of the pack in terms of goals allowed. While that may normally be detrimental to a Barry Trotz team, the Predators stepped up and scored the third most goals in franchise history, potting 237.

The team’s scoring push was led by lifers David Legwand and Martin Erat who joined the team in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Erat contributed a career-high 58 points, and Legwand showed no signs of slowing either, putting up 53 points.

Weber came a goal shy of reaching 20 for the second time in his career and was likely robbed by a forward masquerading as a defenseman for the Norris Trophy. Suter continued his excellent two-way play as well, setting career highs in points and assists.

The playoff push of the Predators was aided by the trade deadline acquisitions of Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill. Predators general manager David Poile gave up a lot for the two players, including a first round pick and prized prospect Blake Geoffrion, but the additions added more size on defense in Gill and more success in the faceoff circle and the penalty kill in Gaustad. Andrei Kostitsyn was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens at the deadline as well, bringing an instant scoring touch with him, as well as questions about his dedication and effort.

The end of the season also saw the controversial return of Alexander Radulov, the once highly-touted prospect who defected to the KHL following the 2007-2008 season. After leading the KHL in points for two years in a row (including setting the single season record), the Russian’s contract with Ufa Salavat ended and he decided to return to the states to play his final year of his contract with the Predators. The gamble paid off initially, with Radulov scoring seven points in nine games, but the high was short-lived.

In the playoffs, the Predators locked down the fourth seed, but drew a tough matchup with the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Despite how closely played each game was, the Predators were able to down the Wings in five games and immediately made themselves the popular pick to reach the Stanley Cup after the Vancouver Canucks were defeated in five games by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.

That elation was not meant to be, however.

In the second round, the Predators ran into a determined Phoenix Coyotes team that refused to play Nashville’s slower tempoed game in the first two games. Led by an inspired Mike Smith, the Predators simply could not overcome the Coyotes and fell in five games, ending their hopes for their first trip to the Western Conference Finals.

The big news in the Phoenix series was Trotz’s benching of both Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for Games 3 and 4 after they were spotted in downtown Scottsdale in the early morning hours prior to Game 2. After winning Game 3, Trotz kept the same lineup for Game 4 which did not work as it had the previous game. They returned to the lineup for Game 5, but were unable to swing the series in the Predators’ favor.

Offseason Additions

The Predators’ only free agent acquisition of note was goalie Chris Mason who had spent his 2011-2012 season with the Winnipeg Jets. Mason began his career with the Predators, but looks to be a sparsely-used backup to Rinne, who will likely plays about 80-85% of the team’s games.

The team also acquired veteran netminder Sebastien Caron along with a third-round pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Anders Lindback and Kyle Wilson.

In the draft, the Predators first pick was at number 37, where they selected the number six rated European skater as per NHL Central Scouting, Pontus Aberg. The Predators also selected Colton Sissons in the second round at number 50 overall.

Aberg is under contract with a Swedish Elite League team through 2013-2014, and will likely not be stateside until the end of that deal. Sissons has great potential as a checking forward, but the debate rages as to his offensive upside. He will likely play with Kelowna of the WHL for this and next season.

Offseason Subtractions

Many would look at the Predators’ offseason as a huge failure, but it could have been much, much worse.

After taking a few days to ponder his options, of which there were many, Suter decided to head home to Minnesota to play for the Wild with fellow Minnesotan and US Olympic teammate Zach Parise for identical 13 year, $98 million contracts.

Poile was clearly upset by Suter’s departure, especially given his assertion that he “misled him” when he accepted the Wild’s offer. One can understand Poile’s consternation. Who wouldn’t want the chance to play with Weber on a nightly basis?

But the fact remains that Suter chose home over the Preds, a hard reality, but one nonetheless. But his waffling was only the beginning.

Radulov re-signed in the KHL with CSKA Moscow for 4 years, $36.8 million, an unseemly amount for him in the NHL, on July 2. This and the Predators’ assertion that Andrei Kostitsyn would not be back were not surprising given their benching in the playoffs.

Then came what could be the biggest story of the offseason: The Weber offer sheet. It’s a miracle Poile didn’t keel over upon hearing of the news himself.

It seems the Philadelphia Flyers and Predators were in discussions about a trade including Weber, but when they fizzled Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren went another route by offering the restricted free agent a 14 year, $110 million deal that included $27 million upfront. The speculation was rampant for the week, but eventually the Predators matched the offer, locking up their captain for the next 14 years.

Many were surprised that they did match, but, as many have said, the Predators had little choice. With the loss of Suter, the team simply could not afford to lose Weber and hope to compete on a nightly basis.

The interesting part of the Weber saga is that the contract does not have a no-trade clause. When an offer sheet is signed, the player is unable to be traded for a year. So Weber is certain to remain with the Predators for that amount of time, but there is speculation that the absence of a no-trade clause may lead to his changing addresses after all.

Beyond the major departures, the only other players that left of note were Lindback, who will compete for the starting job in Tampa after his trade, and Jordin Tootoo, who signed a three year, $5.7 million deal with the Red Wings.

X-Factor for 2012-2013 Season

With the departure of Radulov and A. Kostitsyn, the Predators’ forwards are relatively unchanged from the start of last season, with Tootoo being the only major change. That means that they need to find scoring from within, and that attention will be focused on the Predators’ two young and talented forwards Colin Wilson and Craig Smith.

Both are highly-touted American NCAA players who were top scorers on their respective teams (Wilson led Boston University in points with 55 in 2008-2009; Smith was second on the University of Wisconsin’s 2010-2011 team with 43 points). Both have great playmaking abilities and are strong skaters. Both are also adept at the two-way game, something that is necessary to play i Barry Trotz’s system.

While Erat and Legwand had excellent seasons, they need some help from the youth on the team. Given the loss of offensive talent the Predators have experienced, Wilson and Smith are their best hope.

If the two young guns can improve on their impressive performances from last season (35 points for Wilson; 36 points for Smith), the team has a chance to compete. If they stay at their current level or regress, however, it will be hard for the team to put up the type of offensive output it will need given the loss of one of the league’s best defenseman.

Breakout Player

When you lose a top talent, everyone always asks who will replace them. In this case the departure of Suter has opened the door for another blue chip defenseman in the Predators’ system: Ryan Ellis.

Ellis is about as accomplished a junior player as one could imagine. Ellis played for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires for four years, racking up an amazing 313 points in 226 games, including a Paul Coffey-esque 101 points in 2010-2011.

In his four years with Windsor, Ellis also represented Team Canada in the World Junior Championships three times. That is as many times as Eric Lindros, possibly one of the most touted prospects ever, played for Team Canada. Ellis is the tournament’s all-time leading scorer as a defenseman with 25 points and trials only Lindros as the leader for all positions.

With all of that success, it is not hard to imagine Ellis translating it into an excellent NHL career. While his defense still needs some work (think Erik Karlsson) and he doesn’t have prototypical size, Ellis can certainly contribute offensively to the Predators immediately. He showed that ability in his 32 games with the club last season, putting up 11 points.

Given the gaping hole left in the defense by Suter, look for Ellis to step up and at least partially fill it. He will likely see ample powerplay time with Suter gone, and will see his even strength minutes jump as well.

Don’t be surprised to see Ellis’ name in the conversation with Karlsson’s in a few years as to who is the best offensive defenseman in the NHL.

2012-2013 Season Outlook

Coming into the season with an extremely similar roster, Nashville will certainly still be in the hunt for the playoffs in the Western Conference. Anytime a team has Weber and Rinne on the same team, they will be strong defensively, and the offense seemed to find a groove last season.

There are some concerns with Suter’s departure, but it’s not the crippling blow losing Suter and Weber would have been. Also, the Red Wings are not the same team they were last year, giving the Predators the opportunity to overtake them once again. The Chicago Blackhawks and  St. Louis Blues will be tough however, and the Central may be the toughest division in hockey for the second straight season. This of course assumes any improvement from the awful Columbus Blue Jackets who can only improve from their embarrassing season last year, or so we think.

Weber will shine as everyone expects him to, simply because he’s one of the two best defenseman in the league. Rinne should be in the Vezina conversation again, and will need to be to allow the team to have the same year it did last year. Erat and Legwand should be big contributors once again, with Mike Fisher picking up the slack.

Look for Nashville to contend for the Central crown, but to ultimately fall short. It would take elite-level seasons from their young talent like Wilson, Smith and Ellis for the Predators to overtake the Blackhawks and Blues this season. They will likely be a playoff team, however, and can be a tough first round matchup for any team.

Prediction: 42 wins and 96 points, good enough for the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

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