Preseason hockey is upon us, and the sound of great rejoicing is heard throughout the land as hockey fans eagerly await the beginning of the season. Preseason is a time of hope and great expectations for all teams as fans speculate on what the final roster will be and the potential of their favorite team. To that end, the View will offer his view on the Predators and the upcoming season.
Marcel Goc, Ben Guite, Peter Olvecky, Ben Eaves
Greg Zanon, Vern Fiddler, Radek Bonk, Scott Nichol, Ville Koistinen, Jed Ortmeyer, Drew MacIntyre, Antii Pihlstrom
Returning Free Agents
Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward
The big signings for the Preds during free agency were Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward. Sully brings offense to a team that desperately needs scoring, and his potential loss to free agency would have been devastating to the Preds. The big issue for Sully is to stay healthy for the duration of the season. Joel Ward had a breakout season last year, his first full season in the NHL, and the Preds will count on Wardo building on this past season. Marcel Goc signed a two year, two way deal with the hope of jump starting what was a disappointing tenure with the San Jose Sharks. He brings size and speed to the linup, and hopefully will discover a scoring touch with the Preds. Peter Olvecky played 31 games last season as a rookie with Minnesota, tallying 2 goals and 5 assists. Ben Guite played the last three seasons with Colorado and brings grit and an occasional scoring touch to the lineup. Ben Eaves is a 27 year old, 5'8", 180 lb. center that was the Pittsburgh Penguins fourth round draft pick in the 2001 entry draft, but has yet to crack an NHL lineup. He has played the last two years in Finland.
Perhaps the biggest loss for the Predators was blueliner Greg Zanon. The veteran D-man signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Wild. His experience on the blueline and his shot blocking capability will be missed by the Preds. Nichol, Bonk, and Fiddler provided depth and penalty killing capabilites, and Bonk will be missed in the face off circle. Ortmeyer was injured and missed the past season, and Koistinen was a talented but very erratic D-man that never produced to his potential.
Goaltending will be a strength for the Predators. Pekka Rinne enters the season as the putative number one goalie, having established himself as the starter midway of the past season. Dan Ellis, who started the past season as the number one goalie, will challenge for the starter's role, and is a solid goalie that did not get much support from his D this past season. I expect Dan to push Pekka, and this should make both goalies better. Pekka has to avoid the "sophomore slump" that has victimized some young goalies that have assumed the starter's mantle. Pekka is very athletic, moves well, and uses his size in the net to his advantage. Pekka plays a good positional game and is not predictable in the net, and has one of the best glove hands in the league.
Waiting in the wings will be Chet Pickard and Mark Dekanich, both of which are expected to start the season in Milwaukee, the Preds AHL affiliate. Pickard shows great promise, and will challenge for a roster spot with the Preds in the near future. Should he prove himself and show he is ready to make the jump, Dan Ellis could be offered in a trade later this year as this is Dan's final year of his contract with the Preds.
When considering the Predators D, the conversation starts with Shea Weber. Shea is coming off an All Star season this past year. Weber is a beast on defense that plays with a snarl and is a physical force. Webs is strong, reads the play well, and plays good positional defense. Last season, he tallied 20 goals and 33 assists, and his booming slapshot is one of the hardest in the league. The Preds blueline is bolstered by Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis, young players that have developed into top flight defensemen. Suter has quietly become a very solid D-man that plays a very intelligent game and can score. Hamhuis is a quiet performer that logs quality minutes every game. He doesn't get the press that Weber does, but plays a very fundamentally sound game.
The concern for the Preds behind these three is the experience level of the players that will round out the D corp. Kevin Klein logged his first full season in the NHL last year and was paired with Greg Zanon for most of the season. Hopefully, Kleiner learned from this experience and picked up pointers from the veteran as he will be called upon to take a bigger role this season. Klein has the tools and is a good puck handler, and will need to embrace the role he is called to play. The remaining spots on the blueline are up for grabs, and in the mix will be Alexander Sulzer, Cody Franson, Teemu Laakso, and possibly Jonathan Blum. Sulzer played in two games this past season before suffering a seperated shoulder against Vancouver. He shows the potential to earn a roster spot as he plays an intelligent game, moves the puck well, and can be physical. Cody Franson has the tools to be an NHL defenseman, possessing great size (6'4". 205 lbs.) as well as a scoring touch. Last season, he registered 11 goals and 41 assists in 76 games for Milwaukee. Laakso was the Preds third round pick in the 2005 entry draft and played 41 games for Milwaukee last season. Blum was the Preds first round pick in the 2007 entry draft and has played for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. Last season, he had 16 goals and 50 assists in 51 games. Blum is a fundamentally strong D-man that plays good positional defense, moves the puck well, and can score. The concern about him is his size. At 6'1" and 180 pounds, it is expected that the 20 year old will need to add some bulk to prepare for the rigors of an NHL season, but he is a young D-man that is on the cusp of making the roster.
Last season, the Preds were 13th in the league with 228 goals against. The young D will have to step up quickly for the Preds to maintain this level of play.
If the strength of this team is from the goal outward, then this area presents the greatest concern for Predator fans and is the weakest. The top line is set, with Jason Arnott (33-24-57) centering Steve Sullivan (11-21-32 in 41 games) and J.P. Dumont (16-49-65). This line has shown great chemistry and offensive pop, and I expect that to continue in the upcoming season. It is the other lines that the Preds will put on the ice that are in question. For the Predators to have a successful season and return to the playoffs, it is critical that the offensive production improve from the second line, and specifically Martin Erat and David Legwand. Last season, Marty had 17 goals and 33 assists; David had 20 goals and 22 assists. These two players in particular have to pick up the scoring and play to their potential, and head coach Barry Trotz has said as much in the off season. Marty and David are entering the prime of their NHL careers and have been rewarded with long term contracts by the club. It is now time for them to produce in a manner commensurate with their compensation. Additionally, the Preds will be looking for Joel Ward to improve on his 35 point production from last season.
There will be roster spots for the taking by some of the young players. Cal O'Reilly played 11 games last year for the Preds and showed some promise. Patric Hornqvist started the year with the Preds and was not as productive as hoped. The expectation is that the time up with the big club will give them a better understanding of what is necessary to compete and be productive at this level. Other young players expected to compete for a roster spot are Colin Wilson (I expect him to make the roster), Nick Spaling, and Mike Santorelli.
Last season, the Preds were 24th in goals scored with 207 goals; 13 additional goals would have tied the Preds with 7th place Columbus. The success of the upcoming season depends upon this team putting pucks in the net at even strength and improving the power play (26th in the NHL at a 15.7% success rate). Having a healthy Steve Sullivan for the full season will improve both numbers, but it is critical to have improved scoring from the second line and have younger players chip in with timely goals.
Barry Trotz is the only head coach in Predators history, and has built a reputation of getting the most out of the talent that he has. Trotzy is a solid coach with a capable staff in Peter Horachek, Brent Peterson, and video coach Robert Bouchard. This will be one of the younger squads that this team has iced, and it will be imperitive that Trotz and his staff do an excellent coaching job to keep this team in the mix in the Western Conference.
The Preds have 6 home games in October, 8 in November, and 6 in December. This young squad is going to have to be strong on the road early in the season or they could be in a significant hole. The Preds have to get confidence and consistency on the road, something they struggled with early last season. The positive in this is that the back end of the schedule is weighted toward home games. March will be a critical month as the Preds play 17 games because of the schedule compression resulting from the Olympic break.
This will be a young squad that will have to improve quickly and the vets are going to have to step up their play to have success and get back to the playoffs. Play in the early part of the schedule will determine if this team can get into position for a playoff run. I think the mix of young (albeit unproven) talent and veterans combined with a great locker room chemistry will bring success for this team. My view: 4th in the Central Division and 8th in the Western Conference