Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Preds in the playoff hunt
By EJ Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
Last spring, the Nashville Predators played host to the NHL draft. This spring, the sixth-year expansion club hopes to host some Stanley Cup playoff games.
"People are getting a little excited down here," said coach Barry Trotz, whose team has gotten off to a best-ever 12-10-1 start as they begin a three-game road trip in Carolina on Wednesday. "We know it's a marathon, but I think our guys are tired of being just OK. They want to win."
Last year, after management issued a "playoff pledge" to their season-ticket holders, the Preds stumbled out of the gate like a late-night patron of one of the city's several honky-tonks. Despite a 2-10-4-4 record in their first 20 games, GM David Poile opted to stay the course with his long-time coach. A 25-15-6-1 run lifted them into the playoff mix, but they couldn't sustain the pace. A combination of injuries and perhaps a bit of burnout resulted in a 0-10-3-2 season-ending slide.
That Jekyll-and-Hyde season led to one question: Who are the real Predators?
"I really think we're the team that played so well during the middle of last season," Trotz said. "This year, we've tried to build off that success."
Veteran forward Scott Walker, among the few 30-year-olds on the roster, figures last season's small taste of success has wet the appetite of the club's many young players.
"You can't underestimate experience," said Walker, who, along with linemate Greg Johnson, is one of just two remaining original Preds remaining on the roster. "I think a lot of the guys -- especially the younger guys -- found out (during that mid-season stretch) that we can be successful if we're willing to commit to the system.
"There's definitely one thing about our team, it takes all 20 guys for us to be successful."
And is shows in the stats. Through 23 games, eight players have posted double-digit point totals. Four others have eight or nine points.
"Everybody has been chipping in," Trotz said. "We've been getting offensive production from three lines and our fourth-line guys have been strong and provided a lot of energy.
"Our defensemen are doing a good job of moving the puck, and we've been getting really good goaltending from Tomas Vokoun."
Actually, "really good" might be an understatement. An 11th-round pick of the Canadiens in 1994, Vokoun emerged as club's top stopper last December when Poile shipped Mike Dunham to the New York Rangers for a package of players. Vokoun played in 57 of the team's final 58 games, starting the last 38. He finished with 25 wins, three shutouts, a 2.20 goals-against average and a sparkling .918 save percentage.
This year, Vokoun's goalkeeping has been the single most important element in the club's recent 8-2 run. His performance is more impressive considering he's working behind a faster and younger defensive unit. Veteran blueliners Andy Delmore, Cale Hulse and Bill Houlder have been replaced by 26-year-old Czech-born newcomer Marek Zidlicky, rookie Dan Hamhuis and journeyman Jamie Allison.
Zidlicky, acquired from the Rangers in the Dunham trade, has made the biggest impact, replacing Delmore as the club's power play quarterback. Through 23 games, he leads the team and ranks third among all NHL defensemen with 17 points, 13 of which have come on the power play.
Zidlicky, a top player in the Finnish Elite League for several seasons, was picked in the sixth round of the 2001 draft by the Rangers. However, Zidlicky was reluctant to try his luck with the them because they haven't shown much of a desire to play young defenders. After his rights were dealt to the Preds, Zidlicky figured the time was right for a move to the NHL. A clever puck-mover, Zidlicky has been paired with Allison.
The club's top defensive unit remains anchored by underrated Kimmo Timonen, who's currently paired with Mark Eaton. The Finnish-born Timonen, 28, plays a team-high 25:04 minutes per game and has been a regular with the Predators since their first season.
"He's not as big as some defenseman, but he plays bigger than his size (5-foot-10, 195 pounds)," Trotz said. "He's got great instincts. I think he's been a big part of why Zidlicky has done so well for us on the power play. He had that kind of impact on Andy Delmore, too."
The club's third pair features Hamhuis, 20, and veteran Jason York. The 12th overall pick in 2001, Hamhuis was expected to spend another season with the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. But a rash of injuries resulted in an early promotion.
"He's been pretty steady so far," Trotz said. "He's not overly big, but he plays with a physical edge to his game. I think, down the road, he can be a guy like Wade Redden, who's good in all areas of the game."
Up front, the line of young North Americans David Legwand, Scott Hartnell and Adam Hall has been a nice complement to the European trio of Denis Arkhipov, Vladimir Orszagh and Martin Erat. The six forwards, who've combined for 30 goals and 75 points, make it difficult for opponents to focus on one line.
"We've wanted those guys to step up this year and they have," Trotz said. "We've been getting ahead in games and getting timely goals. That makes a difference."
The club's third line, Walker, Johnson and Rem Murray, also has provided some offensive support while handling most of the checking assignments. Walker and Johnson each have six goals, while Murray has three goals and six assists.
Meanwhile, rotating fourth liners Jim McKenzie, recently acquired Jeremy Stevenson and rookies Jordin Tootoo and Wade Brookbank have been more than willing to set a physical tone when called upon.
With more than two-thirds of the season remaining, the Predators are a long way from playing some serious spring hockey.
"In the past, we've been a streaky team," Trotz explained. "To make the playoffs, we've got to stay out of those long winless streaks. We can't go six or eight games without getting points."
Around the Hrink
|Tomas Vokoun's stamina will be a major issue for the Predators in the playoffs.|
In doing a round of interviews in conjunction with the release of the XBOX video game, NHL Rivals 2004, Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman talked about his desire to be a general manager when his playing days are over. "I want to be a GM, not play GM," joked Yzerman, when asked about different aspects of the video game. Figuring that Yzerman would likely pursue his second career in Hockeytown, current GM Ken Holland would probably like to keep Yzerman in skates for as long as possible. Holland, 48, has done a great job since being promoted to the position in 1997. At some point in the future, if Yzerman were to join the club's management team, Holland could succeed Jim Devellano as the club's senior vice president. For now, Yzerman seems very happy on the ice, where he's enjoying a strong comeback season after serious knee surgery. In 24 games, the 38-year-old has 10 goals and 19 points.
When it comes to speaking his mind, no one will ever confuse quiet Avs captain Joe Sakic with opinionated Wings right wing Brett Hull. But, after Sunday's nationally televised 1-1 tie with the Devils, Sakic couldn't contain his disappointment with the state of the game. "That was one of the 10 most boring games I've been a part of," Sakic told the Denver Post. He didn't stop there, taking the referees to task, as well. "Anytime you have a 2-0 lead, the refs don't call anything unless it's against you. Gotta keep it tight. That's what the league wants, I guess. Tight games." Clearly, if a don't-rock-the-boat type like Sakic feels a need to speak out, there's a need for change. A good start might be to enforce the rules as they appear in the rulebook on a consistent basis. In today's game, hooking and slashing have become commonplace. So much so, that it's taught on every level. Until the league instructs its officials to call every violation -- which will make for several weeks of boring hockey -- the game will remain bogged down in its current state and fans will be deprived of seeing players like Sakic perform at their full potential.
Should he stay or should he go ... back to junior? That's been the question when discussing Penguins rookie goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 4-8-2 with a 3.08 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 16 NHL games. The club must decide by Dec. 11 if they are going to loan Fleury to Team Canada for the upcoming World Under-20 Championships in Finland. After that, the Pens will have to decide whether they're going to take Fleury back on the big club or reassign him to his junior club in Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. If they keep Fleury at the NHL level, the Penguins will be on the hook for $3 million in easily attainable bonuses once he plays a minimum of 25 games. If they don't, they risk alienating their future franchise goalie. That's why they would have been better off sending Fleury back to junior in October. Now, no matter what they decide to do, they've exposed themselves to some risk.
Finally, I must offer an apology to the New Jersey Devils. On Sunday's edition of NHL 2Night, I stated that GM Lou Lamoriello had scheduled a mandatory 5 p.m. team meal on Thanksgiving to scuttle the player's planned trip to the Dolphins-Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium while the club was in town for a Friday game against the Stars. Since then, I've been informed that the Turkey Day meal has been a long-standing tradition for the club when they're on the road. He says it was planned well in advance of the road trip and that the team re-scheduled the dinner to allow the players to attend the game.
Bargain or bust?
BARGAIN: Mark Eaton, D, Predators ($400,000)
Originally signed as a free agent by the Flyers in 1998 after one season at Notre Dame, Eaton has found a home for himself on the Predators' blue line. Coach Barry Trotz is giving the 6-2, 208-pound defender nearly 20 minutes of ice per game. "He's done a nice job for us," Trotz says. "He's been among our most consistent players." In 21 games, Eaton has just one goals and five points. More important, he has a plus-3 rating. That's more impressive when considering he's often on the ice against an opponent's top forwards.
No question this week. But, rather, here's my favorite response to last week's Thanksgiving column. It comes from Doug Drake, from Marquette, Mich. His Thanksgiving Day guest list included: Rick Middleton, Cam Neely, Dave "Tiger" Williams, Chris Chelios, Ron Greschner, Tony Esposito, Don Cherry and Ron Caron.
Mr. Drake clearly has Bruin tendencies. But with Cherry and Caron at the same table, no one else would get a chance to speak.
E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.