An interesting first quarter indeed for Predators
The Nashville Predators are 20 games into their 2010-11 National Hockey League season, the first quarter mark if you will.
With those 20 games in the books, it's a time when most general managers will sit down with their hockey operations people to get a sense of how things are throughout the organization—a time for people to add the input and see where the team might be heading.
Players' individual play, team play, power play and penalty kill performance are examined. It is also a time for the coaching staff and prospects to be looked at.
The Nashville Predators will finish the first 20 games with a 9-7-4 record and sit tied for 12th in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Wild. Not really anything to write home about, but remember that they are just two points out of a playoff spot and only six points out of first place.
Injuries have played a part in their early season situation, but the lack of secondary scoring and defensive breakdowns have hindered this team's ability to close out games. The Preds are lucky they are not further behind than they are.
In this report card, I held each player accountable, depending on position, to his individual skills and abilities and factored in his performance based on the team structure, line combinations and defensive pairings.
Also taken into consideration was each player's ability to adapt to new linemates, defensive pairing and goaltenders in back-to-back game situations.
Strength of schedule is one item that can factor heavily on these grades. I did my best to provide that insight with each evaluation.
Overall I would grade the Predators as C-plus.
After the Predators' first 20 games, the club is sitting in 12th place, tied with the Minnesota Wild, in the National Hockey League's Western Conference with 22 points.
The Predators are only two points from a playoff position and six points from the conference lead.
Nashville has played division rivals the St. Louis Blues four times, Chicago Blackhawks twice, Detroit Red Wings once and Columbus Blue Jackets once.
Predators have also played the Anaheim Ducks twice, once at Bridgestone Arena to open the season and once at Honda Center.
Nashville will play the Eastern Conference's Northeast Division teams once this season. The Preds have already played the Toronto Maple Leafs (losing 5-4) and the Montreal Canadiens (winning 3-0).
They will host the Ottawa Senators on December 23, Boston Bruins on March 17, 2011 and visit the Buffalo Sabres on March 20, 2011.
Here is a breakdown of the Predators' first 20 games.
Goals for: 48
Goals against: 53
Goals plus/minus: minus-5
Home record: 3-1-4
Away record: 6-6-0
Shootout record: 3-1
Last 10 games: 4-5-1
Man games lost
53 games (Matthew Lombardi 18 games with concussion and Ryan Suter 11 games with lower body). The Predators rank second in man games lost in the Western Conference behind Colorado.
Key Ice Time (ATOI)
Shea Weber plays over 25 minutes a game on average. Season-high 30:25 vs. Carolina on November 20, a 2-1 shootout win.
Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback have combined to form a competent duo.
Rinne is 6-6-3 in 15 games with two shutouts, while Lindback is 3-1-0 in seven games.
Power of schedule
The first 20 games featured three sets of back-to-back games.
The Preds have already played the division rival St. Louis Blues four times with a record of 2-2 with the last two games going to a shootout.
The club has had one West Coast five-game trip (winning one and losing four) and one East Coast road trip (two wins and one loss). The Preds only played four home games in November.
Home: eight games with three wins, a loss and four overtime losses.
Away: 12 games with six wins and six losses. The Predators have no overtime losses on the road.
Timeline of injury return
Lombardi has missed 18 straight games with concussions. There is no timeline for him to return.
The only coach the Preds have had
Before I begin, I'll mention this.
I believe that the Predators have a good coach and general manager. Outside of that, I also feel that there might come a time for change. Sometimes change is good, sometimes not.
Barry Trotz and David Poile are great hockey people who have a great working relationship that stretches back over many years, going back to when the pair worked for the Washington Capitals, Poile as GM and Trotz as his minor league affiliate coach in Portland, Maine.
Despite the fact that this relationship, as well as the other valuable people that make up the Preds hockey operations department, has made good strides over the last few seasons, the Predators are a hockey franchise that is in need of elevating its stature.
However, ownership has imposed an "internal" salary cap that has handcuffed general manager David Poile.
There is a belief that ownership could add salary if the right deal comes along. Don't be surprised if the Preds make a deal to shake this team up now to avoid letting the season slip away either. Furthermore, don't be surprised to see the Preds do something either way come the trade deadline.
In the end, the Predators' ownership as well as their fans want a Stanley Cup, but in a competitive Western Conference, the Preds can't afford to take nights off.
Coach Barry Trotz: C
With a 2-1 shootout win in Carolina, Barry Trotz moved passed Scotty Bowman for fifth place in wins with one team at 420. Trotz is currently 11 wins shy of former Montreal Canadiens legendary coach Dick Irvin for fourth place.
With the first 20 games being the roller coaster that they were. I questioned Trotz's ability to get his message across to his players. This team went through streak after streak, first winning and then losing.
Right now the club is on a two-game losing streak, but this pattern can't continue. Their losing streak earlier in the month might cost this club the chance to get back to 100 points at season's end. For all intents and purposes, it will likely take 96 points to make the top eight in the Western Conference.
With free agent Matthew Lombardi and defenceman Ryan Suter out of the lineup for long periods of time to start the season, the Preds have not managed to close out games.
The fact that the Preds are in a very tight and competitive conference doesn't help them either. Four games against division rival St. Louis resulted in a bright light, winning two of those games.
Trotz has a great ability to get his players to re-focus after a bad loss, but with the fact that the Preds lost three games in a row in October and another five games in a row from late October through mid November (these losses were bookends to a mini two-game winning streak), the Preds need to be more consistent.
The best part is that if Trotz's messages are still being heard by his players, the Predators should do well when it is all said and done.
Trotz might still be able to get players like Sergei Kostitsyn to contribute. Kostitsyn has had some chances in the early going due to injuries. However, the enigmatic Belarusian has not been able to take advantage of his newfound opportunity.
Likewise, veteran players like J.P. Dumont and David Legwand need to continue to support new captain Shea Weber, who at times looks to be doing too much.
The trade that brought over Shane O'Brien seems to be helping both O'Brien and the Preds. He has played some poised games for the Preds since coming to Nashville from Vancouver.
General Manager David Poile: B-minus
Poile has done a great job promoting from within.
This season alone, with key minutes missing so far this season from Suter, Martin Erat, Marcel Goc and free agent signee Matthew Lombardi, the Preds have been able to use defenceman Alexander Sulzer and forward Nick Spaling to help fill in the gap. Although they might not be ready for everyday NHL duty, this experience will contribute to their development.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances of Lombardi's concussion just two games into the season, this free agent signing was a gem of a deal for Poile and the Preds.
Lombardi's skill set fits into the pattern that the Preds have built under Poile.
In fact, 14 current Predators where drafted by Poile, including a successful 2003 entry draft where defencemen Weber, Suter, Sulzer and Kevin Klein were all drafted.
In 2005 entry draft, after Cody Franson (79th overall), late gems like Cal O'Reilly (150th overall) and Patric Hornqvist (230th overall) have made their way through the organization and are two-thirds of the Preds' current top line with veteran Steve Sullivan.
Poile will be watched closely during the next few weeks. If this team continues to play without its top free agent from last season (Lombardi) and missing key minutes from established players like Suter and Erat, Poile could be forced to make a move or two.
Pekka Rinne and newcomer Anders Lindback have formed an admirable duo in the Nashville nets through the first 20 games. The problem, however, seems to be that neither of these goalies is getting results from his hard work.
Rinne shut out the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 on November 18 only a day after being lit up for five goals—four on the power play alone in the third period—during a 5-4 loss to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs.
While his teammates didn't seem to be so helpful during the third period of the Toronto game, which the Preds were leading 4-1, they certainly were during the win against Montreal. At times they were winning loose puck battles and reducing their puck gap by finishing checks and working hard on the back check.
In a nutshell, welcome to the Nashville Predators goaltending world.
This team went undefeated in its first eight game not really playing the best hockey, but the last line of defence was there to help them through...but two minor losing streaks and all of a sudden the Preds were sliding in the tough Western Conference standings.
Not getting the best help when needed and not being able to help their teammates when they need it, the goaltending has been up and down at stretches this season.
Thankfully right now, it's up. Here's hoping for a more consistent next 20 games.
Pekka Rinne: C-plus
After being injured in the season-opening win vs. Anaheim, Rinne has been battling the puck. His play over his last three games shows promise that Rinne might be back.
Since the "collapse," when Toronto scored four times on the power play in the third period on November 16, Rinne has come back with a shutout vs. Montreal, a 2-1 shootout win vs. Carolina on November 20 and a loss 2-0 at the hands of the high-flying division rival Columbus Blue Jackets.
Lack of scoring again strained the situation as they lost 2-1 in yet another shootout against divisional rival St. Louis.
A shutout, shootout and another shutout (for the other team) and shootout have forged Rinne again. During the last four games he looks more comfortable, and his confidence seems to be back.
A consistent Rinne will be needed if the Preds are to gain any ground over the next 20 games in the Western Conference.
Anders Lindback: B
Not a bad start for a rookie goalie that nobody really saw as the backup to Rinne to start the season.
Lindback, who suffers from Adult Still's disease (arthritis with joint pain and high fever) and takes daily injections to control the symptoms, was the Predators' seventh-round selection during the 2008 entry draft.
The Swede has appeared in seven games and pitched in to help the Preds after an injury to Rinne early in the season.
Lindback, who is only 22, hasn't played since November 7 vs. Anaheim, a 5-4 loss to the Ducks.
Projected to be a future starter, look for the Preds to either use Lindback more as the season progresses or acquire another veteran backup to allow Lindback to return to Milwaukee (AHL) to further his development.
Overall, Lindback is making good use of his time in the NHL.
Captain Shea Weber and Cody Franson celebrate
Overall, the loss of Ryan Suter has placed a strain on the Preds' top six defencemen.
Team captain Shea Weber has played a lot of key minutes so far this season and seems to be trying to do too much, while newcomer Shane O'Brien has added adequate help on the back end.
Francis Bouillon and Keven Klein have also stepped up their games. Bouillon was named an alternate captain in Suter's absence earlier in the month of November.
Alexander Sulzer has added to the top six depth during these opportunities due to injury, and young Cody Franson has been adding to the offensive by contributing on the power play.
Average defence pairings through first 20 games
Weber and Bouillon/Suter
Franson and O'Brien
Sulzer/Bouillon and Klein
Shea Weber: C
New captain is leading by example with his hard work. The fact that he was trying too much earlier when Suter was first injured led towards having to change his focus. Has played better lately while paired with vet Bouillon.
Francis Bouillon: B
Former Montreal Canadien on his second tour with the Preds has helped stabilized a defence without Suter. Being named alternate captain during Suter's injury in early November was a nice touch by Coach Trotz to boast vet's confidence.
Ryan Suter: Incomplete
Injuries have plagued one part of one of the league's better defence pairings. Congrats on the birth of the Suters' first child. Brooks William was born on November 21. Mom Becky and little one are doing fine according to team reports.
Cody Franson: B-plus
Franson has all the tools to be a very nice NHL defenceman. Size, skill and hockey sense are three very good qualities to have. He has displayed all three at various times during the first 20 games. Leads Preds defencemen with eight points and has a plus-4 rating.
Kevin Klein: C-plus
Klein has played well enough to help offset the loss to Suter but still has potential to become a top four defenceman. Needs to work on his gap control and transition play in the neutral zone. Should progress as the season moves along.
Shane O'Brien: B
Quietly—yes I said quietly—O'Brien has come to Smashville and played a very nice two-way game. O'Brien's work ethic is one of the nicer changes in his game since being acquired from Vancouver at the beginning of the season. Should he continue his play, he could be another steal for GM Poile.
Alexander Sulzer: C
Asked to jump in when Suter became injured, has played up and down at times, but this experience will suit him well in the future. Coach Trotz not afraid to use Sulzer where needed.
The line of Cal O'Reilly, Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan has been a blessing for this Nashville Predators club.
These three players have been together basically since game one, but too many times they have been asked to handle the offensive chores for this club.
O'Reilly has been a great story himself. Coming into training camp looking for a job, injuries to free agent Matthew Lombardi and Marcel Goc have allowed O'Reilly to come in and display his worth.
Not only has the 2005 draft pick been good, he and another 2005 draft selection, Patric Hornqvist—the Preds' breakout player last season—have created great chemistry with vet Steve Sullivan.
Sullivan, after two major back surgeries, is another great story. His determination alone is inspiring.
Martin Erat and the aforementioned Goc have been in and out of the Preds' top six so far this season. At various times this season already the Preds have had almost a complete line injured.
Hard to compete when key injuries take that offensive bite out of the lineup.
Forward lines have been, on average:
Wade Belak has been a healthy scratch, and Nick Spaling has platooned at center on the fourth line.
Cal O'Reilly: A-minus
Making the most of his opportunity to play in the NHL, O'Reilly is the Preds' leader in assists and points after 20 games. Consistently hard-working, Cal currently has zero penalty minutes through his first 20 games.
Patric Hornqvist: B
Team leader in shots on goal and tied for the team lead in goals (five) after 20 games. Playing with O'Reilly and Sullivan, Hornqvist has a chance to be more productive. Preds will need a more consistent effort from their breakout player of the 2009-10 season.
Steve Sullivan: A
Missing players Ryan Suter, Martin Erat, Marcel Goc and even Pekka Rinne for stretches through the first 20 games, Sullivan has logged big minutes up front and is doing his best to ease the burden placed on the shoulders of new captain Shea Weber. Played inspired hockey through the first 20 games—not bad for a player coming back from two major back surgeries.
Marcel Goc: B
Goc, who has helped the Preds this season by being their shootout go-to-guy, has continued his strong play since coming back from injury. One of the leaders in plus/minus with a plus-five rating.
David Legwand: C
Playing most of the early part of the season with Joel Ward and Colin Wilson, Legwand has not provided the secondary scoring the Preds desperately need. Only 10 shots on goal through his first 17 games.
Colin Wilson: C-plus
Much has been made of the impact Colin Wilson would provide to this Predators team in need of secondary scoring. So far Wilson has played well through the first 20 games but has been used at both center and wing at various times due to injury. Was one of the Preds' leaders in plus/minus after the first 10 games (plus-five), but finishes with a plus-two rating after the first 20 games and ATOI of 12:13 per game.
Sergei Kostitsyn: C-minus
With a new environment, SK74 (as he was known in Montreal) has shown, somewhat limited, his ability to play in the NHL, but his inability to play a solid, consistent game has hampered him and the Preds from seeing the real Sergei Kostitsyn contribute. Increased ice time during a West Coast trip provided Kostitsyn an opportunity to contribute when the Preds needed it the most.
Martin Erat: C
Injuries took Erat out of the Preds lineup through the first 20 games, but Erat has struggled at times when in the lineup. A big component of the Preds' offensive attack, Erat has only has one goal in 13 games.
Joel Ward: B
You can't help but notice Ward on the ice. His hustle and drive combined with his hard work make Ward a favorite of Coach Trotz. Playing on different lines and situations, Ward can play all forward positions. Played in all 20 games to start the season.
Jordin Tootoo: B
Tootoo has played some great hockey at times during the first part of the season. Known for his bone-rattling hits, Tootoo has added eight points during his first 20 games along with a plus-two rating. Preds the need same effort from Tootoo moving forward.
Jerred Smithson: B
Smithson has been consistent in the faceoff circle for the Preds with a 56.5 percent faceoff winning percentage. Playing on the fourth line most nights, Smithson has been counted upon to provide a spark during the games. Has ability to play more minutes. Hard-working player looking to provide more as the season moves along.
J.P. Dumont: C-minus
Dumont is one of the offensive spark plugs for this club but has struggled at times already this season. Playing on all four lines at different times already this season, the Preds winger is usually supporting the Preds offense playing with Legwand and Ward. With eight points in the first 20 games, Dumont is doing the small things to help the Preds. Leads team in plus/minus with plus-seven rating.
Nick Spaling: B
Spaling has played in 13 games filling in for injuries and has played in all situations with various linemates. The center has one point in those 13 games and a minus-three rating.
Matthew Lombardi: Incomplete
A concussion suffered in his second game of the season vs. Chicago has stopped Lombardi in his tracks since signing as a free agent this summer. There is no timetable for his return. This is Lombardi's second major concussion of his career.
Wade Belak: Incomplete
Playing in only four games this season, Belak has not played since November 7 vs. Anaheim.