Preface: So I just played NHL 09 for the Xbox 360 tonight.
Granted, I own a PS2 so unless I go out and buy a PS3 I know it won't be that great, but it was still awesome.
Go out and buy it. Now. If you're reading this article, then you aren't playing enough NHL 09.
EA Sports. It's in the game.
So with the preview of the St Louis Blues out of the way, we move our way over to the most underrated team in the Central Division, and perhaps the most over-looked, consistently-in-the-playoffs team in the league, the Nashville Predators.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Jason Bukala—a Predator's scout—and he told me that the Preds are going to be better than the prognosticators think.
Although I agree, realistically, before the games start, I can't believably place them above the "big three" in this division.
But because we don't know about the massive sophomore slump that could overtake the Chicago Blackhawks, or the fact that Columbus may have another year where they don't gel as a squad, or Detroit could suffer a debilitating injury, I wouldn't be shocked to see Nashville hop up into the top three of the division and the playoffs once again.
I'm just saying...don't forget about the Nashville Predators.
Roster Additions: Tristan Grant-F (Trade), Ryan Jones-F (Trade)
Roster Subtractions: Martin Gelinas-F (Free Agent), Jan Hlavac-F (Free Agent), Josh Langfeld-F (Free Agent), Janne Niskala-D (Trade), Darcy Hordichuck-F (Trade), Chris Mason-G (Trade)
How did 2007/08 go? 41-32-9, 91 points, eighth in conference, second in division
2008/09 Goal: Return to playoffs, 5th-7th in conference
Let's break'er down...
Who expected the Nashville Predators to make the playoffs last year? Seriously. I should see no hands raised in this classroom, because we all thought they were done.
Then again, the first ten years of a franchises existence, it seems to be really hard to take them seriously because of the novelty of them being the "new team".
Well if we're counting playoff appearances as gold records, then the New Kids on the Block have four gold records. The first time they make it past the 1st round? We'll call that Platinum. After that? Who knows.
The only people that seem to believe in this team though, are the players themselves, the management, and the fans. I guess anonymity comes in handy, especially when you're the most unpredictable team in NHL history.
This year’s tender is…
As a single person, you have to have the guts to play Russian Roulette and risk your own life. As an NHL franchise, you may as well be playing it when you continually switch your starting goaltender.
Two years ago, Tomas Vokoun was shipped to the Panthers after leading the team to the playoffs and a 110 point season. If any other team did this, it would make news. Then again what other team would do something like this.
Once it got closer to the season, people began to wonder if Chris Mason could carry the load.
Well, after getting his shot in 2007/08, it appeared as though Mason couldn't. After facing trouble with minor injuries and inconsistency, Mason ended up splitting time with Dan Ellis, and the Predators returned (however unlikely) to the playoffs for a fourth straight season, only to be dispatched by Detroit.
For the third straight season however, a new starter will grab the rains in the city where Catfish litter the ice at playoff time.
If the waning moments of last season and the playoffs are any indication though, Ellis may be in the ‘Ville for the long haul.
Ellis’ stats are eerily similar to those that Mason posted the year before (when he was dubbed Vokoun’s successor), as he won 23 of 44 games with a .924 save percentage and a 2.34 goals against average. If it was even possible though, Ellis got even better come playoffs, against the league’s best team.
In a herculean effort, Ellis stiffled Detroit’s offense, as he only allowed more than four goals in a game once after facing 40 shots in the final three games and 39 and 38 shots in games one and two respectively.
It won’t be easy for Ellis though, as looking over his shoulder is Pekka Rinne who is 45-25 in his AHL career, with a goals against average of 2.34 and a save percentage of .920—yet another Nashville goalie you can’t count out.
Fishing out of the blue…
A few years ago, the only way I would have figured out who played on Nashville's defense would be to collect the hockey cards. Then again, I'm not sure Topps or anyone else is aware of the surprisingly stout blueline in Nashville, which features power-play point man Dan Hamhuis, Shea Webber, and Gary Suter’s nephew Ryan—all three of which can utilize their offensive skills on the power play, while using their size (all are around the 6′1/200 lbs mark) to clear out their own end.
Hamhuis is still working on adapting his offensive game to the NHL, but he's consistently shown up for the Preds, and if he has a Hamhuis kind of year, he could edge the 40-point barrier, and knock in as many as 50.
I know I said St Louis had the best up-and-coming blueline combo in Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Johnson, but not far behind them are Webber and Suter. If Weber can stay healthy, then he easily grabs 40 points—this year it could even be 50—and Suter has also been looking strong in his first two NHL seasons, and he too could exhibit a 40-point presence.
Providing a bit of depth will be the Gregs, de Vries and Zanon. ‘Zanon the Cannon’ built his reputation last season by doing the dirty work of block shots, and play tough shifts against some of the gritiest grit opposing teams could throw at the Preds. de Vries meanwhile brings the much-needed and highly valued aura of experience when the calender reads April and the Predators are hoping to eye some playoff hockey.
That means that, for the two final spots on the blue line, Ville Koistinen, Kevin Klein, Cody Franson, and Alexander Sulzer will be expected to provide some "hot ’n heavy" competition on the back-end—some with their offense, and others with their defense.
To Russia with love…
Alexander Radulov is now where his heart is—at home in Mother Russia. What that means for the Preds though, is that they’ll have to look towards other names within the organization to replace the younger Radulov's 58 points, as well as his potential.
Despite the loss, it’s hard to expect more from J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott—the team’s highest scoring forwards with 72 points apiece last year—as Arnott is getting older (but he’s still a quality leader), and Dumont will just continue to reproduce numbers in the 60-70 range unless surrounded with high-level talent.
Although it may be too late in the game to expect this, Radek Bonk is a player who could potentially alleviate the offensive stress. Although Bonk is used more in a defensive mindset now, he does have a history on the offensive: There were eight seasons when Bonk was with the Ottawa Senators that he played in 60 or more games. Four times (all within his last five years) he tallied 50 or more points (his final season in Canada’s capital he netted 44).
Since Bonk left Ottawa? Well, in those three seasons, Bonk was a bust, never collecting more than 30 points. For Nashville this season, 35 would be ideal—just don’t count the chickens before they hatch.
Two of Nashville’s other elder statesmen will be looking to rebound from off years however, as both David Legwand and Steve Sullivan are hoping for better showings—that is if one of them shows up at all.
Entering last season, David Legwand had high expectations. In 2006/07 he set a career-high with 63 points, and seemed primed to break through the 70-point barrier. However, Legwand stalled and ended the season with 44 points, his lowest total—overlooking the injury shortened 2005 season—since his 30 point 2001 campaign.
Sullivan meanwhile, will just be looking to be able to get on the ice after being sidelined for the past season and a quarter with back troubles. Before the injuries, Sullivan was a quick, feisty scorer capable of putting up 60-70 points in a season. Now the question is how effective the former Leaf can be if he comes back.
The supporting cast in Nashville carries a bit of familiarity with it.
Predators' fans recognize the names of Jordin Tootoo, Martin Erat, and Vernon Fiddler, and they know what to expect. The ever-evolving Erat has turned into a consistent 60-point threat—that is if he can stay off the injured list long enough to get to sixty—while Tootoo will offer an annoying, grating presence on the ice.
However, Fiddler, Tootoo, and Jerred Smithson may want to consider putting up a few goals and assists this season, as the Preds are going to need some secondary scoring if they expect to tango with the Conference’s best once again this April.
So what does it all mean?
The Nashville Predators aren't impressive—that is to say that there’s really nothing that blows me away about them. That being said, they aren't a team that needs to blow someone away, they just need to continue to be their old, hard-working selves, and take advantage of the breaks as they get them.
No one knows how they do it, but it could be just as simple as Head Coach Barry Trotz having his players do the little things right in the powerhouse Western Conference.
Going into the season, there doesn’t seem to be enough skill on this roster to compete with the likes of the revamped Columbus Blue Jackets, or the Chicago Blackhawks (Suddenly everyone's favorite), but by no means, as we've learned, does that mean Nashville is done.
If I truly believed that the Predators weren't going to challenge in the playoff race this year, I'd say I would eat this article if they did. Fact is, I believe they can make the playoffs. But before the season, I guess you got to put everyone somewhere. Just don't quote me on fourth.
These cats are dangerous though folks. You can quote me on that.
Fourth in Central Division
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. If you want to check out some of his previous work, you can do so in his archives.