The Season Preview will be a running column on questions and thoughts for the upcoming season. Individual teams will be highlighted in each post. CLICK HERE for the full list of Season Previews.
Nashville was a textbook case of consistent overachiever, to the extent where they probably didn’t even deserve the title of overachiever. They were just a solid team. Maybe they weren’t anyone’s favorite to win it all (aside from the last season with the Suter/Weber duo and the return of Alexander Radulov raising expectations), but Nashville always managed to be a good team and to be a threat in a usually strong Central Division. Except last year.
It could be said that the Predators sacrificed their identity to make a run at the cup in 2011-12. And at times it seemed a little desperate, a little too risky. They brought in Andrei Kostitsyn, and aside from stereotypical anti-Russian jingoist comments, he wasn’t that big of a floater and he had legit offensive upside. Let’s just say that having a name that sounds like it’s right out of Hunt for the Red October tends to get your back-check unfairly overanalyzed. They also allowed Alexander Radulov to come back and quickly rid himself of the last year he owned the Predator, hoping that his offensive potency would take them over the top. I’ll admit, I was sold on them being a contender, especially after they ousted the Red Wings in 5 games.
Then it all imploded rather suddenly. Radulov and Kostitsyn went out drinking. Head coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile decided to take care of a locker room issue publicly, and benched two of their best offensive players for two critical games. To the surprise of almost no one, the offense vanished and the Predators were bounced in 5 games (they scored 1 goal in their final two games). It was their best chance to make a serious push for the cup, to go further than they’d ever gone in the playoffs, and it ended in drama, another early playoff exit, and the departure of Andrei Kostitsyn, Alexander Radulov, Jordin Tootoo, and Ryan Suter.
Whether or not the playoff drama led to the exit of some of the franchises biggest names (and Weber was almost among them if Nashville hadn’t matched Philedephia’s offer), what was perhaps the biggest illusion shattered was the view of Barry Trotz having complete control over his locker room. Prior to this, Trotz had maintained a tight, disciplined brand of hockey, that was not only undone by the additions of some more free flowing players like Radulov and the elder Kostitsyn, but also by the odd way to manage disciplinary issues. Trotz’s best chance was spoiled by his own roster choices and his team looking apathetic and unprepared for the first time in a long time. The big question is whether or not last season was an extension of that loss of identity in the locker room, or just a result of the loss of talent.
It can certainly be said that at least a few guys were tuning him out last year:
Regardless of the answer to that, the team decided to part with another veteran star. Longtime Predator Martin Erat was shipped off to Washington for prospect Filip Forsberg. It was a great move for Nashville, but one that won’t pay dividends for another year or two (Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time a guy named Forberg was a steal in a trade). Sergei Kostitsyn was also bought out, for…well, looking like he wanted to be bought out. These moves would have made it easy to write off the Predators for a few years and think they were going into a full rebuild, if they didn’t have an aggressive offseason. They added recent Stanley Cup champion Viktor Stalberg. They also picked up NHL veterans Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks, and Matt Cullen, which will add grit, depth, and leadership. The Predators may have also found their next dynamic defenseman to partner with Weber. 4th overall pick Seth Jones should be a future 1st liner, though cementing him on the top line may be several years away. Oh, and let’s not forget, they still have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Pekka Rinne.
However, what Nashville lacks for this coming season and beyond is top end scoring. They don’t have it in the minors, and they don’t have it in the NHL either. It’s a problem when your top scorer (Shea Weber) is a defenseman. The trio of Patric Hornqvist, David Legwand, and Mike Fischer will be heavily relied upon to provide a lot of the team’s scoring, which is a bit troubling when each of them max out around 50 points on a good year. Nashville was bottom of the league in goals per game and shots per game last year. They also had a mediocre powerplay. So, while their defense and depth have improved, they aren’t going to be winning a ton of games without any offense. And I have a real hard time figuring out where they expect it to come from. Even if Filip Forsberg is ready for top 6 minutes, and Viktor Stalberg has a strong offensive year, this team’s success is dependent on getting scoring out of all 4 lines.
But hey, a deep team with a clear philosophy, coupled with hard work, good goaltending, and a no big name (at least on offense) brand of hockey has worked in Nashville before… Maybe Trotz and co can make it can work again.
Optimism rating (out of 5): 3.0