The dust has settled on the James Neal trade and the Predators activity in free agency. So what are we to make of all this?
Neal, a second round draft choice by the Dallas Stars in the 2005 Entry Draft, made it to the NHL in the 2009 season, in which he played 78 games and notched 65 points (27G-38A). In subsequent years, he had 55 points (2010-11 22G-23A in 79 games); 81 points ( 2011-12 40G-41A in 80 games); 36 points (2012-13 21G-15A in 40 games); and 61 points last season (27G-34A in 59 games).
Neal has been productive playing with centers like Brad Richards and Evgeni Malkin, and the Predators lack that caliber of player at that position.
One of the questions that arose after the trade was who was going to center Neal's line and get him the puck? That is a valid question because the Predators have struggled to find an elite number one center. Colin Wilson was thought to be able to grow into that role when he was drafted, and although occasionally showing some flashes, has never developed into the consistent number one center the team had desired.
Could it be promising youngster Calle Jarnkrok? Craig Smith?
The lack of a definitive answer to that question has many wondering whether Neal can continue to be productive at the levels he has displayed so far in his career.
That question will not be answered until after the preseason, but I believe that the Predators will find a solution. Now, will it be a player currently on the roster or one acquired via trade?
I don't know, but I believe the Predators are still in the market for a center. It could be Vinnie Lecavalier from the Flyers or perhaps another player. Regardless, the Predators have the assets to make a deal.
Barring a trade, someone on the roster has to step up. To me, the most likely candidate is Jarnkrok, who has shown creativity and a nose for the net in his brief NHL appearance last season. Jarnkrok is adept at distributing the puck and creating space with his speed and puck handling and could be an exceptional fit with Neal.
The other question surrounding Neal is his sometimes stupid play that has resulted in several suspensions.
Time will tell if he has moved past his sometimes reckless play, but I believe the move to the Predators will be good for him. With the Penguins, Neal was not in a leadership role and with Sidney Crosby and Malkin in the line up, was not "the man" on the ice. He will be with the Predators, and I think this will lead to more responsible play.
The Predators also signed Olli Jokinen and Anton Volchenko to one year deals. Both were good signings for the team.
Jokinen brings a veteran and consistent presence to the Predators. Although he is in the twilight of his career, Jokinen has shown that he can be a proven scorer and is hungry to get back to the playoffs. He has 740 points (317G-423A) in 1169 games and his veteran presence will benefit the younger forwards on the roster.
Jokinen signed a favorable one year deal for $2.5 million and I would project him as centering the third line.
Anton Volchenkov was signed to a one year, $1 million deal. The 32 year old blueliner has played 650 NHL games for New Jersey and Ottawa and is a rugged, stay at home defenseman. He will probably slot in on the third pairing, and while not an offensive threat, can play a physical game.
The signing of Jokinen is particularly fortuitous with the announcement that Mike Fisher ruptured his Achilles tendon during off season work outs. He is expected to miss between 4-6 months while recovering, which could translate to as little as 10 games to possibly 40 games if he takes longer to recover.
This is a significant loss for the Predators as Fisher is a leader and strong locker room presence and was potentially slotted to be the number one center. While a loss, it does open the door for Wilson or Jarnkrok to step into an increased role. The problematic aspect of this injury for Fisher is that it is a difficult one from which to recover, especially late in his career. It remains to be seen how effective Fisher will be on his return.
There are questions surrounding this team. Which player on the current roster will step up, or will the Predators attempt to plug holes in their roster via trade?
How those questions are answered will determine the success of this team.