Last year the Nashville Predators finished in 10th place in the conference and 6th place in the Central Division. The also had some awfully tough luck and still finished only 3 points shy of gaining a playoff spot. After putting on a late season push they came up short as they had decided by the trade deadline to become sellers rather than buyers. Not bad for a team that lost their superstar goalie for most of the season. In the off season the team was active in picking up complimentary players and let go of the only coach the team has known since they were an expansion franchise. Their GM manager has a good reputation and has developed a culture for the team and was last years USA Olympic team GM. That all being said, this appears to be a major shake up year and change in culture transformation time for the Preds.
Assessing the ownership that has remained stable and hands off to the teams GM David Poille, has been a blessing to this team over the years and at times they have been successful in making the playoffs. Since the new CBA came along a year too late to help them face some of their future problems, some struggles have been forced upon Poille to move forward and hold onto some players as they achieve free agency. They have a loyal fan base but can't seem to break out of the second round of the playoffs because of the strength of some other teams in their division and conference. They also have a team in a mostly unnatural region for hockey culture and while that has proved challenging at time, so far they have succeeded in selling it on the bye and bye. I believe ownership in the last three years and Poille have detected an under current that shows support for the team may be weakening and slowly evaporating. I think that has been what changed the status quo in this years approach and the realization that the team when healthy is very thinly poised for success and making the playoffs. This team must have general success and make the playoffs to remain viable moving forward and profitable for ownership.
Surprisingly the team let Barry Trotz as Coach go after last season and he was the longest tenured coach in the NHL at the time. Frankly with what he has had to work with the last two seasons and the restrictions financially that the team has fielded of players for him to coach, I'm not sure if any other head coach could have done more and gotten more out of any other team. I'm not saying Poille hasn't done a good job, he has, but the coach wasn't the weak link. This team currently is a two star team and has some budding talent that may emerge to become stars in the future. The problem is that when budding stars reach maturity and free agency in franchise like this, they look to greener pastures for one reason or another and fondly reflect on how they got their starts in Nashville. Players that have real talent all have one thing in common. They want to get paid their due and play along side as many good other players so they can win. At best, Nashville will almost always be a 2-3 star team and need exceptional coaching and a defined system to play within to be competitive. We see the type of team that Nashville hopes to be in St. Louis and their window is closing as you can only remain there for 3-5 years before finances catch up with you.
So on to the team and what did in the Preds last year. Frankly Pekka Rinne catching an unusual infection in his left hip and closing down his season early doomed the Preds. He might easily have been able to steal if healthy 7-20 more points for the team just by being in goal. His under experienced backups played well behind a top ten defensive core, but with limited scoring, the team couldn't rise above his loss. So as we analyze what or where the team goes this year, it starts with Rinne and his ability to come back and recapture the form he has had prior to last years injury. If he can't, and there are some questions about his lingering healthy, this team may be equally challenged right from the get go. They still have inexperienced and unproven depth in goal and they may be up to the task, but it's uncertain right now. Look for the promising Carter Hutton to get 15-20 starts if Rinne is healthy and more if they have to slow down the reintroduction of Rinne early in the season.
The Defense is solid if not especially deep. Shea Weber is the other true elite start on this team and it's captain. He is also now one of the primary reasons that holds the teams development back. Back before the start of the 2012-13 season as a restricted free agent, Shea was signed to an offer sheet of 14 years with a salary cap hit annually of greater than $7.8 million. Some additional money was bonus money in the early years making actual yearly payoffs in excess of $14 million and additional $13 million in bonus money this year. He is in fact receiving $27 million dollars from the Preds to be on the team. This is ridiculous but he is their key skating star and no where can you replace a Shea Weber around the league. The good news is that to field the team only $7.8 million counts against the salary cap. The bad news is that with the teams profit margin, it really can't afford any other real elite stars for another 7-8 years. That means as Seth Jones grows into elite status they may lose him to another team and Roman Josi may go find his payday elsewhere in the future. This might also have effects on future budding stars like Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg in 4-5 years as well. In the mean time Weber with Josi and Jones form the core of a strong defense and they brought in reliable but aged Anton Volchenkov to steady the top four of the defense. Victor Bartley and Mattias Ekholm with be the bottom pair and could benefit in the short term from the top three mentoring moving forward making a constant merry go round of the defensemen in future years.
The forwards on this team have been anchored the past three seasons by Mike Fisher, who will start the season on the disabled list. Not known for his scoring but his total three zone play and physical presence. In the past a forward squad built around defensive responsibility has limited the offense and strengthened the defense and allowed the team to compete nightly and given the fans a lunch pail bucket core of players to root for. The have played tirelessly and hard for the fans and they are appreciated. But now with a new head coach in Peter Laviolette and some aging offensively gifted players coming on board via free agency and trade, the focus will probably change to trying to play a more upbeat transition style. The bottom 6 forwards will still play that high energy, bump and grind style, but the top 6 will now include Olli Jokinen, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy. I expect Laviolette to add Forsberg and Jarnkrok to these players to achieve some fast strike speed. Here are my concerns, Jokinen is way past his prime and been in decline for the last 5 seasons. He is not a possession stat guy winning face-offs very well anymore. Derek Roy is on the small and prone to injury stature part of his career. Ribeiro has a recent history of not living up to his paycheck and being a cancerous personality in the dressing room. James Neal without elite talent like Evgeny Malkin to center him may have significant drop off in goal scoring and he has a reputation as a guy who gets ticked off and takes cheap shots at vulnerable players. I find Neal, Jokinen and Ribeiro to be the worst kinds of selfish professionals for various reasons and the idea of all of them under Laviolette who is very cerebral and discipline oriented, seems a disaster waiting to happen. On the other hand the core of this team is selfless in focus and approach to the game and Weber and Fisher may be able to coax those three into line if they develop a good relationship with Laviolette.
My outlook here is 5th or 6th in the Central Division and out of the playoffs. They could manage to crawl up a spot or two if they remain injury free to key players and if aging players relight the fires within them.
Until Next Time !