Predators: Five Things You Need To Know
By Craig Custance
It was their best shot in franchise history at winning a Stanley Cup. The Nashville Predators had everything last spring. A defensive duo in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber better than any in the league. They had goaltending in Pekka Rinne, who was impenetrable in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings. There was playoff experience and trade deadline additions like Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad, who strengthened Nashville's weaknesses.
"To this point, I thought that was as good a chance as any," coach Barry Trotz told ESPN The Magazine.
They beat the Red Wings in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, so it wasn't a complete failure.
"We sort of slayed that dragon," Trotz said.
But expectations have evolved in Nashville under the careful direction of Trotz, GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton. There's one mandate now in Nashville, and that's to win a Stanley Cup. It made the upset loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round tough to swallow. A summer in which Shea Weber signed an offer sheet to leave and Suter actually left didn't make it any easier.
It brings us to this season and the challenge that comes with falling short of lofty goals and finding the reserve to continue plowing ahead. That's the biggest challenge in Nashville, but not the only one.
1. Roman Josi Replacing Ryan Suter
It won't be a seamless transition to a world without Suter and Weber shutting down the opposing team's best players, but Nashville is optimistic Josi is ready for the extra responsibility. During his rookie season, he had five goals and 11 assists, although he was held without a point during the playoffs. Like all young Nashville players, he's prepared with seasoning in the AHL. He also has loads of international experience in Switzerland. "Roman is comparable to [Suter]'s style of play," Trotz said. "[At the same age], Roman and [Suter] weren't too different in terms of overall effectiveness." It's on a much smaller scale than Suter, but the team will miss the quiet contributions of defenseman Francis Bouillon, who was reunited with Michel Therrien in Montreal.
2. Pekka Rinne Ready For Workload
There were many goalies who opted to wait out the lockout rather than play in Europe, but Rinne kept busy. He played in the KHL, then returned to Finland to train. He led the NHL with 73 starts last season, then played in another ten during the playoffs. Nashville certainly rode him down the stretch, which is what he prefers. "He's a high workload guy," Trotz said. Nashville brought back Chris Mason to serve as his backup and, during a condensed and travel-heavy Western Conference schedule, he'll get time, but Rinne is now the biggest strength of this team, and Nashville will ride him again if it has to. "We're going to go by the seat of our pants a little bit," Trotz said.
3. More Youth Needs To Emerge
At the start of last season, the Predators were one of the youngest teams in the league, and Rinne helped carry the team through some of the growing pains. For the Predators to remain in the playoff mix, one of the young players like Colin Wilson or Ryan Ellis has to emerge as a consistent contributor. Ellis got more seasoning during the lockout in Milwaukee, where he played 20 games, but missed time with a wrist injury. He put up nine points in the AHL, and Trotz singled him out as a guy who was helped by the extra development. "He really benefited from that," Trotz said. There's always one player in Nashville who emerges from Milwaukee to make contributions, and Trotz mentioned Mattias Ekholm, Taylor Beck, Austin Watson and Michael Latta as players who stood out to him at different times during the lockout.
4. Familiarity A Plus
Buffalo's Lindy Ruff is the NHL's longest-tenured coach, but Trotz isn't too far behind. He's created a culture in Nashville in which every single player on that roster knows what to expect and how to play the Predators' way. With no exhibition games and a shortened camp, there's an early advantage for the Predators, who had very little roster turnover from last year to this year. They re-signed two of the players acquired at the trade deadline in Gill and Gaustad, so that further eases the transition. They're also very experienced down the middle with Mike Fisher, David Legwand and Gaustad. While other teams scramble to learn new systems and develop chemistry, that won't be an issue for the Predators.
5. Sneaky-Good Power Play
When you think of the Predators, you don't think of offensive firepower, but Nashville's power play was No. 1 in the league last year, converting at a rate of 21.6 percent. Their PK also snuck into the NHL's top 10, giving them a nightly special teams advantage during the regular season. Now, you can't ignore the departure of Suter, who led the team with 291:46 in total power play icetime during the regular season, but there's obvious chemistry among some of the other regulars like Weber, Patric Hornqvist, Legwand and Martin Erat. "We have everybody back on our two units other than Ryan Suter," Trotz said. "He's a pretty good player and made things happen for us. Hopefully, Josi and Ellis -- they can pick up some of the offense that [Suter] provided."
Craig Custance covers the NHL for ESPN The Magazine.
Experience: Entering 14th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
Moving Up: Pekka Rinne
Sure, Rinne and the Preds lost Ryan Suter to free agency this offseason, but they retained Shea Weber, as well as a young corps of promising talent up front. So why would Rinne actually rise amid the uncertainty? Well, among the elite netminders in his neighborhood of the rankings, he was one of only three who got significant work in overseas leagues during the lockout. Cory Schneider played eight games in the Swiss league, while Tuukka Rask had a similar run in the Czech league. (The only other goalie from the elite group to head overseas was Jaroslav Halak, who appeared in just one game in the German league.) Rinne's work also came in the KHL (for Dynamo Minsk), against the best of what the locked-out hockey world had to offer. This could lead to a fast start for Rinne in comparison to the others. -- Tim Kavanagh
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Predators:
• June 15: Acquired G Sebastien Caron, two 2nd-round picks in the 2012 NHL Draft (37th and 50th overall) and a 3rd-round pick in 2013 from Tampa Bay.
• June 21: Re-signed RW Brandon Yip.
• June 28: Re-signed D Hal Gill.
• July 1: Signed G Chris Mason.
• July 1: Re-signed C Paul Gaustad RW Brian McGrattan.
• July 23: Re-signed LW Sergei Kostitsyn.
• July 24: Re-signed D Shea Weber and C Colin Wilson.
• Aug. 17: Signed D Scott Hannan.
• Aug. 20: Re-signed C Mike Fisher.
• Sept. 13: Re-signed D Jonathon Blum.
• Sept. 14: Re-signed LW Gabriel Bourque.
• Sept. 15: Re-signed D Kevin Klein and C Craig Smith.
• D Ryan Suter (unrestricted free agent, signed by Minnesota)
• D Francis Bouillon (unrestricted free agent, signed by Montreal)
• G Anders Lindback (traded to Tampa Bay)
• C Kyle Wilson (traded to Tampa Bay)
• RW Jordin Tootoo (unrestricted free agent, signed by Detroit)
• D Jack Hillen (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• RW Alexander Radulov (restricted free agent, skating for KHL club CSKA)
• LW Andrei Kostitsyn (unrestricted free agent)