On to our last division of the Western Conference, it's time for the Central Division.
2008/09 Record: 40-34-8 188 points, 10th in West
Additions: Ben Quite—F (FA), Marcel Goc—F (FA)
Subtractions: Scott Nichol—F (FA), Ville Koistinen—D (FA), Vernon Fiddler—F (FA), Greg Zanon—D (FA), Radek Bonk—F (Russia), Antti Pihlstrom—F (Sweden), Greg DeVries—D (FA)
The Predators are in a great spot, which may be a surprise for most people.
Looking at the offseason departures, what the Preds lost were a lot of fringe, role, and bench players as they were able to retain all of their big-timers for another year and re-sign the key pieces.
What’s even better for fans of the Prehistoric Cats is that the vacated roles are going to be filled with young, talented players that should thrive in the immediate future.
Lather, Rinne, Repeat…
Last year Pekka Rinne was one of the most pleasant surprises in the NHL.
After trading starters Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason in previous seasons, it was expected that Dan Ellis would be able to shoulder the starting load.
Although Ellis played moderately well in the game action he saw last year, he did little to prove that he was more than a backup, thrusting Rinne into the spotlight.
And from that thrust, Rinne never looked back.
Entrenching himself firmly as the starter, Rinne set up a great rookie campaign, earning 29 wins along with a tidy .917 save percentage and an impressive 2.38 goals-against.
The latest success story out of now-goalie factory Finland, Rinne used a very big frame to his advantage, helping to prove that the AHL career he crafted for himself was no fluke.
Looking at him technically, there’s no reason to assume Rinne would have lost a step, and at 26 he’s just entering the prime of his career—which is great news for the Predators, as it gives them a bit of an advantage over their Central Division opponents who have to answer questions about their tender rotation.
Speaking of which, here are those questions I'm thinking of: Whether Chris Osgood will just turn it on in playoffs again, how good can a 33-year old Chris Mason be, and possibly Christobel Huet—although he'll be better as a straight-up starter but we'll get to that in their preview.
Kanye: You know what? Those are some great questions and I respect them, but I have to say: LARRY KING HAS THE BEST QUESTIONS EVER!! WOULD YOU EVER NOT ANSWER A MAN NAMED LARRY? NO. 'CAUSE HE'S THE BEST!!
BT: Why do you even feel like this is necessary?
Then again, once rookie Chet Pickard has established himself and become “elite” at the AHL level, there could be a few goaltending questions of Nashville’s own to answer.
Fortunately, that’s only crystal ball material as Rinne will have it locked down this season.
Does it Suter you? Like a spider spinning a Weber it does…
The Predators (and Rinne) are also fortunate to feature one of the strongest defenses in the league as well.
Of course at the top of it all is the multi-faceted Shea Weber, whose physicality, size, awareness, and offensive ability all amount to one of the best defensemen in the league, whose able to play in any and all situations.
Matching up alongside him is Ryan Suter, who is the perfect compliment to Weber.
While Weber features the big blast from the point on the power play, Suter can not only find his man with a crisp pass, but he can also unleash a huge point shot of his own. Defensively Suter seemed to struggle a bit last season (posting a putrid -16), but history may prove that to be little more than an aberration.
Dan Hamhuis will also be back for the Preds, as he went to the Team Canada orientation camp alongside Weber which says a lot about the consensus thoughts of Hamhuis.
A good offensive presence from the back end that can move the puck, Hamhuis relies on his vision to make that first pass out of the zone. He’s buoyed by the fact that Weber and Suter protect him from being a “feature player” on the back end, eliminating some pressure as both eat up a little extra ice time.
From there, we start to see the effect the losses of Greg Zanon and Greg DeVries would have on this team. While Zanon was an excellent penalty killer, DeVries may be missed more as the Preds will now lack that true veteran presence from the back end.
Alexander Sulzer may be able to fill one of those roles, while bringing more offense to it than his predecessors. Although a more physical defenseman may be ideal on the penalty kill (there’s also the consideration that Sulzer’s season was cut short by a shoulder injury last year), Sulzer adds yet another offensive weapon to the team.
Another defenseman looking for an expanded role is Kevin Klein. Although all of the defensemen that the Predators look to be employing have that offensive after touch, Klein’s instincts have always helped him in his own end, and if he adds a bit of muscle he should be able to handle the energetic forwards the Central brings to the table.
But, like always, there’s a wild card with the Predators.
Not only is the drafting of Ryan Ellis an interesting one (although if he makes the team out of training camp it will surprise even Kanye up there), but also Jonathan Blum and Cody Franson are fighting for a roster spot in the Music City.
Although Blum saw outstanding offensive growth last year in the WHL and he’s one of the smartest prospects in the system, Franson has gotten the AHL seasoning and is considered ready to take the jump as well.
The hulking frame (6’5/214 lbs) helps the case for Franson, as does his 50-point AHL season.
Either way, there will be at least one young, promising defenseman making his debut for the Predators this season.
Getting a Legwand up on our competition Arnott (Is not?) our main concern…
Late last season injuries derailed the Predators offense.
With his season cut short by a fractured cheekbone suffered in practice, David Legwand was denied the opportunity to break the 50-point barrier. Although that was an unlikely circumstance with 42 points in 73 games, Legwand would have easily surpassed the 44 points he accumulated the season before.
While Legwand has a big frame and plenty of speed, he hasn’t quite been able to put it together at the NHL level, although he should be good for 20 goals and 50 points this season.
One of the reasons why Legwand gets a little shadowed in Nashville is because Jason Arnott is holding down the number one center spot. Although Arnott is getting older, he brings a ton of experience to the team, as well as offensive ability. Arnott missed much of March last season with a concussion, but he’ll be back and healthy this year alongside two linemates who are expected to be the same.
Everyone knows that Steve Sullivan missed a ton of time due to injury last year (and the last few years) but the more impressive thing is that after so much time way, Sullivan missed just one game after coming back—and that was a pre-determined absence.
Sullivan has dynamic play-making ability, and after getting back into the swing of things last year Sullivan may very well be back to that 60- to 70-point plateau if given a full season.
Across from him on the first line will be Jean-Pierre Dumont. Despite being banged up last year, Dumont was able to play in all 82 games, as he and Jerred Smithson were the only two forwards to do so. J.P. will be able to slide the puck all over the ice to Arnott and Sullivan, and if they're able to finish them off,they'll bump up the fourth-lowest goal total in the West from last season.
Suffering a broken leg late last year, Martin Erat was another forward who wasn’t able to finish the season. Erat should have been able to retain his speed and agility while rehabbing from his injury, and could easily be in line for his fourth-straight 57-point campaign if only he finished last season.
The Preds also have some very hard-working forwards in Jordin Tootoo and Ryan Jones. Jones plays with a ton of jam, as well as being a good defensive presence. Because of that, Jones could be in line for a 25-point season this year, while Tootoo is widely regarded as a pain to play against, and with sometimes.
Surprise of the year Joel Ward will also be back in Nashville, although another 35-point season may be questionable. Ward still brings the attitude of a construction worker to the rink and doesn’t give up, so scoring or not he’ll be valuable to the Preds—much like the aforementioned Smithson.
From there, veterans Marcel Goc and Wade Belak are going to have to battle for playing time on the lower lines while youngsters Cal O’Reilly and Colin Wilson look to make an impact.
Wilson is an early candidate for the Calder Trophy as he brings a full, well-rounded package to the ice, while O’Reilly could be right there with him if his five points in 11 games is the true interpretation of his NHL skills and comfort level.
From there, Patric Hornqvist will have to bounce-back from a disappointing initial NHL campaign if he’s going to earn the faith of the Preds’ brass, while Michael and Mark Santorelli and Peter Olvecky will have to scratch and claw their ways into consistent roles.
So what’s it all mean…
The Predators need to score this year to be competitive—that’s all there is to it.
The defense will be better this year as will the goaltending, because all of the young contributors have another year under their belts, and the youngsters like Blum and Franson won’t be in feature roles unless they’re able to earn them.
A full year from Steve Sullivan and consistent production from the veterans as well as solid efforts from O’Reilly and Wilson up front will be what keeps Nashville in games.
If they can do that, then they can at least jump into fourth ahead of tomorrow's team.
Kanye: You know what? Don't do tomorrow's team. Do the Preds. AGAIN! 'Cause they're the best!! That's right y'all I'm a Preds fan!
BT: Do you realize that you're probably the most self-indulgent celebrity ever?
BT: Do you also realize that every time you open your mouth it's either ridiculously awkward (George Bush hates black people) or unnecessary (Flashing Lights)?
Kanye: But...I'm the GREATEST OF ALL TIME!!!
BT: Go eat a fish stick.
5th in Central
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.