Patric Hornqvist's 30-goal performance was just the latest in welcomed surprises for the Nashville Predators franchise last season.
As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
As we continue out West, we had to Music City and the Nashville Predators.
Key Additions: D Ryan Parent, RW Sergei Kostitsyn, C Matthew Lombardi, C Jamie Lundmark.
Key Subtractions: G Dan Ellis, D Dan Hamhuis, C Jason Arnott, C Dustin Boyd, C Dave Scatchard, C Ben Guite, D Denis Grebeshkov.
Year in and year out the Nashville Predators resemble a team built for mediocrity. Not since their fly-by-night acquisition of Peter Forsberg have the Predators been considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. And yet, nearly every season, the Predators manage to muster up a competitive team willing to give opponents a run for their money. Why should this year be any different?
Nashville started their off-season in more drastic fashion than usual, shipping long-time center Jason Arnott back to the Devils. Then they let go of goalie Dan Ellis in a move designed to solidify Pekka Rinne as the go-to goalie of the franchise. Finally, after keeping him through the trade deadline, the Preds parted with the most sought after defensemen of free agency, Dan Hamhuis.
In short, a decent goalie and two top tier players from the offense and defense were gone with no immediate replacement. Just the way the Predators and Head Coach Barry Trotz like it.
Arnott was one of four centers to leave Nashville in the off-season, a hit most teams wouldn’t be prepared for. Nashville inked the underrated center Matthew Lombardi to fill the void with David Legwand coming back for an extended stay.
Legwand has never been a superstar talent, but if longevity is worth anything, he’s been rewarded for consistently representing the team leadership. He's posted decent statistics while bouncing between the second and third lines. Lombardi should immediately be thrust into the first line role. He posted a career high in points with another under the radar franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes.
Where the Predators are consistently deep is on the wing where youth and experience meet an even balance. Patric Hornqvist emerged as a major player last year by leading the team with 30 goals and 51 points. His efforts will not go unnoticed this season. His early workouts indicate he could hit 40 or more goals this year.
The Preds have also retained Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont, and Martin Erat to continue producing 40-60 points each. Nashville isn’t built with a superstar as the centerpiece. These three confirm such a thought by playing their careers within a more understated system. Others, like Colin Wilson, Joel Ward, and Sergei Kostitsyn may be ready to quietly join the ranks.
Switching gears, you’d think that a team losing one of its most valuable defensemen would be worse off the next year. Since this is Nashville, think again. The Predators still boast one of the best and most invigorating twosomes on defense with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Weber is one of the best offensive defense men in the NHL today and can throw the body as well as anyone. Though his temper sometimes get the better of him, Shea Weber is a spark plug that has value far larger to the team than Dan Hamhuis. Suter, meanwhile, is the up and coming U.S.-born defense men who produces mightily on offense and plays with great heart and determination.
Reacquiring Ryan Parent allows the Predators to stop the bleeding temporarily as losing Hamhuis is still damaging. They’ll also roll out Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein, but the sixth spot may be open for debate (or a tough, young rookie).
After just one complete season, it has become apparent that Pekka Rinne is the future of Nashville goal tending. The Predators have breezed through tenders during their history including names like Mike Dunham, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, and most recently, Dan Ellis. But Rinne brings something that many of them, save for maybe Vokoun, stamina.
Whereas Nashville has been used to seeing goalies burnout, Rinne is showing that he only performs better with more work on his plate. Though he’s yet to play a 60-game season, he most definitely will do it this year without a viable backup competing for the split time.
Finding players who even qualify as a rookie in the Nashville system is a more difficult task than it appears. Several of their youngest prospects have already made a splash in the league. Matt Halischuk, acquired in exchange for Jason Arnott, just barely slips under the wire to be Calder eligible. Halischuk has quietly played well in the AHL and for Canada at the World Junior Championships. And of course, he’s a winger, which fits right in with the norm in Nashville.
On paper, the Predators may have even less name talent than teams ranked lower to start the year, but Barry Trotz has made a career out of proving he can get by just fine. Nashville might just do it again this year, though the odds are against them. Fourth in the Central, 11th in the Western Conference.