The impending hockey season holds questions for every team. Foremost in every fan's mind is the question "who will step up?" We all wonder which player will pleasantly surprise with their performance; who will continue to improve; and who can turn around their game.
For the Predators, these questions are especially pertinent as some new names have been added to the roster. These questions also apply to some of the familiar names to Predator fans, as some players are going to be expected to elevate their game to the next level to stay ahead of the spirited competition in training camp.
Let's take a look a five players that bear watching in this upcoming season.
The Predators number one draft pick has been a source of frustration for many fans. Legwand possesses above average speed and great size for a forward, and he is in his prime as a hockey player. Yet last season saw Legwand disappear from the score sheet for agonizingly long periods of time. Legwand tallied 11 goals last year, woefully low for one of the highest paid players on the roster. Legwand has developed into a stellar defensive forward and often draws a shutdown assignment against the opponent's top offensive threats, which sometimes limits his offensive opportunities. Nevertheless, more is expected out of Legwand in terms of offensive production. For this team to succeed in the regular season and have playoff success, Legwand has to contribute more offensively. It is unacceptable for a player with the talent that Legwand has to notch only 11 goals over the span of an 82 game season. Legwand was strong in the playoffs against Chicago, playing his best hockey of the season. It remains to be seen whether Head Coach Barry Trotz can motivate Legwand to play this way in the regular season. This season represents an inflection point for Legwand: will he elevate his game or will he float offensively? I believe that last season frustrated Legwand, and I look for better offensive production out of this talented but under performing forward.
This signing in the off season led some to wonder what happened to David Poile, the Predators normally conservative General Manager. Bringing in a player that has had a checkered past- to be generous- seems out of character for the Predators. I think this may turn out to be one of the more astute moves that Poile has made. Kostitsyn has had some well publicized disciplinary problems since being drafted by the Canadiens in 2005- leaving the team when he refused re-assignment to their AHL affiliate resulting in several suspensions and a mid season return home to his native Belarus; and consorting with suspected mob characters in Montreal, to name a few. Doesn't sound like a typical Predator player does it? Here are the reasons why I think that Kostitsyn could be the surprise player for the Predators. He is now 23 and (hopefully) a bit more mature than when he was drafted and brought to North America at 18. Moving him away from his older brother will be, in my opinion, a positive for him. He will have a chance to grow as an individual and not be Andrei Kostitsyn's younger brother. Playing in Nashville will also remove him from the harsh glare of the media in one of the most fervent hockey markets in the NHL. He can be a regular guy off the ice. There is no doubt that he is an offensive talent- he has played 122 games since coming to North America and has tallied 209 points. The question is can he translate that potential to consistent production in the NHL? I think he can. He recognizes this is an opportunity to turn around his game and his reputation. Look for Kostitsyn to be a very pleasant surprise for the Predators.
Wilson spent part of last season with the Predators after battling groin injuries that slowed him at the outset of his rookie campaign. Wilson has said that this was the first major injury with which he has contended, and it was as tough on him psychologically as it was physically. That is understandable. Contending with the groin injury affected his play, but nevertheless, he showed flashes of being a number one draft choice. Last season was a learning experience for Wilson; learning what it took to compete effectively at the NHL level and what it takes to be a solid performer every night. Much like Patric Hornqvist elevated his game in his second stint with the big club, I expect Wilson to bring his game to a higher level. Wilson possesses the physical tools, and last season equipped him with the mental tools to be a consistent performer. The game should slow down for Wilson and in turn, I expect more offensive production from him. He has also had a year to mature physically, which will obviously better equip him for the rigors of the 82 season grind.
The acquisition of Lombardi was ostensibly to replace Jason Arnott, the number one center traded to the New Jersey Devils. The Predators got a player seven years younger than Arnott and one who definitely brings more speed to the ice. The question for the Predators is whether Lombardi can be as productive as was Arnott. Arnott averaged just over 26 goals per season in his 4 years with the Predators.Lombardi had his most productive season with the Calgary Flames in the 2006-7 season with 20 goals, and has averaged 12 goals per season as an NHL player. The Predators can ill afford a loss of 14 goals with this player swap, so it will be imperative for Lombardi to step up his scoring. He brings attributes that the Predators desire in their players: speed, a great work ethic, and defensive responsibility. For the Predators to consider this trade a success, Lombardi is going to have to mesh quickly with his new line mates and begin to put the puck in the net consistently. His speed should create opportunities for both he and his wingers, and he is going to have to distribute the puck and take advantage of scoring opportunities.
J.P. is a talented but enigmatic player that has seen his production drop over the last two seasons (2006-7 21G-45A; 2007-8 29G-43A; 2008-9 16G-49A; 2009-10 17G-28A). J.P. has been overly prone to making a pass rather than take a shot on goal, much to the chagrin of the fans and coaches. As the season wore on, J.P. was demoted to third and sometimes fourth line duty and he saw his ice time diminish significantly. He never complained and continued to compete, but to some it appeared as if he had lost confidence in his shot and his offensive game. J.P. is skillful with the puck and has shown that he can score goals, and the Predators need to have him regain his scorer's mentality in the offensive zone. Getting him to 25-30 goals would be a huge bonus for the team and create some interesting line options for the coaching staff. Mediocre play will once again cause J.P. to lose ice time. That could be an interesting situation for him as he will be one of the players that will be pushed by some of the younger talent in the system if he struggles again this year.
These players are vital to the Predators success. Each needs to elevate their game and contribute more to the upcoming season. If they do so, the Predators will (once again) continue to surprise the conventional wisdom that says they will not make the playoffs in the upcoming season.