Nashville Predators: Looking for the rebound
The Nashville Predators missed the playoffs last year for only the second time in nine seasons and it didn't take deep analysis to find the reasons. The team tied for dead last in the NHL in offense, got hammered by key injuries and didn't get the normal standout performances from their top two stars Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber. It all added up to a frustrating season.
"We were faced with a lot of adversity and we didn't come through," Weber, the captain, told ESPN.com. "When it comes down to it, goaltending wasn't good enough, defense wasn't good enough and the forwards weren't good enough. I don't know how you can win a lot of games with all three aspects of your game not being good enough. We know we need to be better this year, and we will."
Veteran GM David Poile didn't sit on his hands, that's for sure. He aggressively hit the free-agent market July 5 and added forwards Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks while cutting ties in the offseason with forwards Brandon Yip, Matt Halischuk, Bobby Butler, Sergei Kostitsyn, defensemen Jonathon Blum and Hal Gill, and backup goalie Chris Mason.
Oh, and stud 18-year-old blueliner Seth Jones fell in their lap at the draft when Nashville picked him fourth overall, the player the Preds would have taken first overall had they had that pick. So yes, lots of change in Nashville, particularly up front where something had to done to help kick-start a moribund offense.
"What it does is give us a few more options, a few more weapons," head coach Barry Trotz told ESPN.com. "I look at our offense right now, we've got 15 NHL forwards."
Trotz pointed to Cullen's skill and experience as a versatile center, and also had high hopes for Stalberg, likening him to Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg as a skilled and speedy winger who could take the next step in Nashville with more ice time than he was afforded in Chicago.
"I think we're harder, I think we're faster and I think we're deeper up front," Trotz said.
On defense, well, you know what everyone in Nashville is excited about.
"I'm impressed at how mature he is at his age. It's phenomenal," said Trotz of Jones. "It's been a joy to watch. He carries himself with a lot of poise for an 18-year-old man. I'm excited as I've ever been about a player."
The strength of the Predators, of course, starts with Rinne in goal and Weber on defense, and overall team defense has always been Nashville's staple. Expect bounce-back years from both Rinne and Weber to lead the way in that respect. Rinne, for starters, battled a hip issue last season that eventually needed offseason surgery.
"He's got the hip injury out of the way. He feels great," said Trotz. "He's on pace, everything is tracking really good. I think he's going to have a really strong year for us."
Trotz also takes issue with people saying Weber had an off-year last season. Fact is, Trotz said, he was as good defensively as ever, shutting down the other team's top forwards night in and night out. Offensively Weber struggled early on but actually finished with 28 points (9-19) in 48 games, which, over an 82-game schedule, would have put him around 48 points, basically his norm. It might well be that Weber bore the brunt of his team's overall disappointing season. Still, in the first half of that season at least, it did appear that Weber was wearing that massive new contract around his neck (an offer sheet signed with Philadelphia in the summer of 2012 and matched by the Predators). Whatever the case, Weber seems more relaxed as the 2013-14 season beckons, and people around him believe he'll be a monster once again.
When you finish dead last in the NHL in offense, there's no way to go but up. The free-agent signings, it is hoped, will help, as will being healthy. The Preds were crippled by key injuries last season (losing Stalberg for up to four weeks with a shoulder injury isn't an indication that their luck is changing), including to key forward Colin Wilson. Now he's healthy again after shoulder surgery and Trotz believes the sky's the limit for him.
"I think Colin is going to have a breakout year, I really do," Trotz said. "We've brought him along slowly, every year he's been better. His confidence level is really good. I think he's going to have a real good year for us."
Rookie winger Filip Forsberg is an intriguing player as well. He's only 19, but big things are eventually expected of him.
"I think he's the top-six forward Nashville has been looking for, for a long time," Weber said. "Not putting too much pressure on him, but he has time to develop into that role. Just seeing him through the 4-5 games he played last year, you see there's something there. He sees the game a step ahead. He's got a great set of hands."
Another potential weakness on this team is the lack of experience on defense. Aside from Weber, Roman Josi and Kevin Klein, the rest of the defense corps has barely any NHL experience. That's OK, said Trotz.
"On the back, we're younger, but give us a little bit of experience and we may be as talented as we've ever been back there," Trotz said.
"Give those kids time, they're going to be really good," said Trotz.
It's bittersweet for the Preds to lose Detroit as a divisional rival. The Red Wings packed the joint in Nashville, so from the business end it's not a great thing to see them go east. On the flip side, the Predators no longer have to compete with the Wings to make the playoffs, and the Western Conference has two fewer teams than the East with the new alignment, all things that the Preds should welcome. The new Central Division also means the Preds and their fans get to see former Preds defenseman Ryan Suter and the Wild a bit more often.
LeBrun: My surprise pick in the West, I like the Predators to bounce back and place third in the Central Division.
Burnside: Third in the Central Division.
Custance: Seventh in the Central Division.
Melrose: Third in the Central Division.
Strang: Fourth in the Central Division.
2013-14 Season Preview
Coach: Barry Trotz
Experience: Entering 15th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Predators:
• April 30: Re-signed RW Patric Hornqvist.
• May 22: Named Phil Housley assistant coach.
• June 10: Re-signed D Roman Josi.
• July 5: Signed RW Viktor Stalberg, C Matt Cullen, LW Eric Nystrom, C Matt Hendricks and G Carter Hutton.
• July 17: Re-signed LW Rich Clune.
• July 25: Re-signed LW Nick Spaling.
• C Chris Mueller (unrestricted free agent, signed by Dallas)
• D Jonathon Blum (unrestricted free agent, signed by Minnesota)
• RW Brandon Yip (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• RW Matt Halischuk (unrestricted free agent, signed by Winnipeg)
• RW Bobby Butler (traded to Florida)
• D Hal Gill (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Sergei Kostitsyn (unrestricted free agent)
• G Chris Mason (unrestricted free agent)
If Jonathan Quick was the most disappointing fantasy goalie in 2013, Rinne wasn't too far behind: also thought of as an elite option heading into the season, the Predators' franchise netminder finished No. 24 among goalies on the Player Rater, with ratios that fell off considerably (2.43 and .910) from recent seasons, and only 15 wins in 42 starts (a .357 winning percentage, compared to .597 and .516 the two seasons prior). The good news for Rinne (and Nashville) is that the top defenseman prospect in the draft -- Seth Jones -- fell to them at No. 4, and he should bring help to the unit right away, hopefully helping to put 2013 out of mind for Rinne. He may be downgraded a bit based off of last season, but another elite campaign is certainly right around the corner.