The pre-season games are over, the opening night roster has been set, and the puck is about to drop.
Yes, it's that glorious time of the year when the hockey season is about to get underway and the fans of all 30 teams are filled with hope and expectations for a stellar season.
Predator Nation is no different, and the success of this franchise over the years since the lockout has only served to heighten expectations for the upcoming season.
So what can we expect?
I'm glad you asked that question, because it's time to take a look at the Predators and what they will bring to the ice and ask some realistic questions about where this team will finish the season. And any discussion of this version of the Predators centers around one word:
So as we begin our examination of the 2011 version of the Big Cats on Broadway, we will begin where it all starts for a Barry Trotz coached team, and that is in the net.
The towering tandem of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback will once again man the pipes for the Predators. Rinne is coming off a career best season, one that saw him named as a Vezina finalist and finish second in the voting for that award. At 6'5", Rinne presents an intimidating presence in the net to opposing shooters, giving them very little open areas for their shots. Remarkably, for a goalie his size, Rinne is cat-like quick in net and very athletic. He has been called upon to utilize all those skills to clean up the errors in the defensive zone, and he has done so with aplomb. Rinne was second among NHL netminders last season with a .930 Save % and was third in the League with a 2.12 GAA in 64 games. Rinne will be called upon to once again post those kinds of numbers if the Predators are to have another playoff appearance in their future as he will have a young defense corps in front of him (More on that in a moment).
Lindback appeared in 22 regular season games for the Predators, posting and 11-5-2 record with a .915 Save % and a 2.6 GAA. Lindy proved he could handle the pressure when Rinne was lost to an early season knee injury and made seven consecutive starts, posting a 6-01 record..
This is a contract year for Rinne, and I would expect the Predators to attempt to get him under a new contract before the season gets too far along.
Once again, Rinne will be a workhorse for the Predators, especially if he is healthy. I would look for Lindback to get around 15 starts this season, and most of those will come before the All-Star break, as Rinne seems to thrive on the pressure and the workload during the stretch run to the playoffs. It will be critical that Lindback give the team quality starts when he has the opportunity.
Any discussion of the Predators defense always begins with Shea Weber, and rightfully so. The Norris Trophy finalist and runner up in the voting tied for fourth among NHL defensmen last season in goals with 16 and 10th in points with 48. The Captain brings a booming shot and a snarling physical presence to the ice and sets the tempo for the team with his play.
Much of the talk about Weber this off season centered around his contract negotiations and their break down. Weber was awarded a one year contract in arbitration for $7.5 million, and while I don't believe this has affected his relationship with the team or his mates in the locker room, it still looms in the background. As the season rolls on, this will become an even greater factor for the team. The hope is that this issue gets resolved well before the trade deadline and does not become a distraction for the team. The question is will GM David Poile get a deal done before the trade deadline, or, if not, would he consider trading Weber for other assets.
Ryan Suter is the other stalwart on the blue line, and in my estimation, is just as valuable as Weber is to the success of this team. A smooth puck handler, Suter is very intelligent and possesses great hockey sense. He has gotten physically stronger and is a calming presence on the ice to his teammates.
This too is a contract year for Suter, and like Weber's situation, is one that will loom large over the team. The hope again is that this is resolved before the season gets too old.
For Predator fans, this is where it gets interesting. Gone from the blue line are Shane O'Brien (contract not renewed) and Frankie Buillon (concussion). In their place is relative newcomer Jonathan Blum and and 8 year veteran Kevin Klein manning the second defense pairing. Blum appeared in 23 regular season games for the Predators last season, scoring 3 goals and adding 5 assists and recording a +8. Blum proved me wrong, as I thought he was not going to be able to handle the physical rigors of regular shifts on the blue line, but he performed very well for the team. He will be called upon to handle an even bigger workload this season as well as matching up with more capable opposing forwards.
Klein has been the target of the ire of some of the fans over the past few seasons, often for defensive gaffes that have resulted in the puck winding up in the back of our net. Some of the criticism is justified; most was not. I think Klein is mentally getting more comfortable in his role as a physical defenseman and has the ability to continue to grow into a very solid NHL blue liner. For the success of the Predators, I certainly hope this is so.
The remaining defense corp will be comprised of Jack Hillen, signed in the off season from the Islanders, and rookies Teemu Laakso and Mattias Ekholm. Hillen is solid and will be steady on the third D pairing. Laakso is getting his opportunity to prove that he belongs -permanently- on an NHL roster and will be paired with Hillen. Ekholm is an intriguing and highly talented prospect from the Swedish Elite League. The 21 year old is 6' 4" and 204 pounds who skates well and has a good shot that he is not afraid to use.
There is talent on the blue line, but there is also considerable youth. Any injuries to Weber, Suter, or Klein, would leave a very young group of blue liners to take on a potent group of Western Conference forwards. I think this group is capable of performing at a high level, a playoff contending level, but it will be critical that the young guys elevate their game quickly.
The critical question for this group will be if they can develop quickly and provide a consistent level of play on the back end.
For me as a fan of this team, this is where it gets interesting. Not to put any pressure on you guys, but if this team is going to make the playoffs and have a deep run, it will be dependent upon your play. Rinne is going to keep the team in games, but he has to have goal support. The defense is going to make some mistakes- they will continually improve as the season goes on- and they are going to have to have some goal support to take pressure off of that young group.
Sense a theme here?
Questions abound with this group.
Is Sergei Kostitsyn going to build on his success from last season? Will this be the year that Colin Wilson plays to his potential? Will Nick Spaling and Jordin Tootoo elevate their game to the next level? Can David Legwand and Marty Erat consistently contribute goals and points?
Like I said, questions abound.
Those questions not withstanding, I will tell you that I like this group of players. There is a talent level that allows the coaching staff to put four lines on the ice, and the third and fourth lines are talented and can do some damage offensively. There is the energy and exuberance of youth that brings a creativity and jump to the ice, and that is certainly positive.
All that energy, exuberance, and creativity aside, however, this is a group that must produce, and produce consistently, for this team to have success.
New addition Niclas Bergfors provides some depth and hopefully will become this season's Sergei Kostitsyn. Zach Stortini adds muscle and energy to the fourth line. Newcomer Craig Smith has the Predator faithful abuzz with his performance in rookie games and the pre-season. These newcomers are going to be asked to contribute right away, especially with the team opening the season without Mike Fisher, who continues to rehab from shoulder surgery.
While the newcomers are going to have to contribute timely scoring, it is imperative that the veteran core step up their game. If they do, this team can be potent offensively. If they do not... well, I hope Pekka and Anders take their vitamins and say their prayers every night before they go to bed.
Never one to shy away from making a prediction or two, I will forecast the following:
The Predators will surprise people with their level of play and will finish seond in the Central Division. The final Division standings will be:
3. St. Louis
As for the Western Conference, the Predators will finish 5th.
All of this- the success of the season and the final standings- hinges on one little word that carries so much possibility.