Rejuvenated blue line brings hope for the Preds in 2013-14
Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Bryan Rodney, Viktor Stalberg.
Jonathan Blum, Bobby Butler, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Jeremy Smith, Brandon Yip.
Last year: The Predators entered the 2013 season with a big exhale.
They lost one franchise pillar in Ryan Suter when he agreed to a long-term deal with Minnesota and nearly lost another when captain Shea Weber signed a mammoth 14-year offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers.
They matched it quickly and Weber stayed in Nashville without his long-time defence partner.
The Preds kicked off 2013 well and kept games close enough to keep in contention in the West. Despite winning just four times in regulation through the first two months of the season, they found themselves fourth in the West at the end of February.
The back half of the schedule was unkind, however. They won just twice in April and just one road game over the last two months of the season. The result was a steady freefall down the standings, from fourth to 12th in March and then even further, spending the end of April in 13th and 14th in the West.
This Year: While last season was largely spent looking at the Suter-sized hole on the Preds’ blueline, this season may be about a competition to see who wants to be the next great Nashville rearguard.
Seth Jones should step immediately into the lineup and while it’s rare to see a rookie defenceman immediately emerge as an NHL stud, it’s also rare to find a 6-4, 18-year-old son of a former NBA player with the size and on-ice mobility he possesses.
The other weapon off the blue line is recently re-upped Swiss defender Roman Josi.
Josi had a nice year in Nashville setting a career-high in points despite the shortened season. He then shouldered a giant load for the Swiss national team at the 2013 Worlds, chipping in nine points in 10 games, leading Switzerland to its first silver medal in almost 80 years in international competition and claiming MVP honours in the process.
The effort helped net him a seven-year, $28 million extension. Along with Kevin Klein, the Predators' defence might soon be fearsome once more.
As for the rest of the roster, they may have to learn once more to grind out victories.
The Predators are devoid of a truly frightening forward option and so must get the most out of two-way talent like Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson and Viktor Stalberg while hoping a healthy Patric Hornqvist can once again find 30-goal form.
The road back to the playoffs begins at the blue line, but if a young player like Wilson, Taylor Beck or Filip Forsberg has a breakout year, it’ll make the task all the easier.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Predators' performance after a shortened season?
If the Preds play like a team out to prove they are much better than the fourth-worst in the league, a long season could be fruitful for them.
The team’s core is on the right side of 30 and those that have been around long enough will be anxious to prove that they’re still the team that was good enough to beat former Cup-winners like the Wings and Ducks in the playoffs.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Predators make to get themselves back in cap shape?
Nashville’s nestled right near the middle of the NHL’s payroll heading into this season.
They cut Hal Gill via compliance buyout this summer, though the 38-year-old was owed just one more year at $2 million.
With David Legwand as their only pending UFA and Rinne and their top four defenders locked down for the next few years, the Predators weathered the salary cap storm easily and comfortably.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Predators after realignment.
It’s a trade most teams in the league would make.
You remove the Detroit Red Wings from the division and in their place you receive three teams that missed last year’s playoffs and a fourth that scraped into them on the last day of the regular season.
If the Predators can rebound they might be in good shape to push around their new divisional rivals from Winnipeg, Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota.
Granted, they still have to deal with being in the same division as the Cup champs, but even an aging Red Wings team was still a solid Red Wings team. The Predators are probably not too broken up about seeing them head east.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Viktor Stalberg, LW - A winger with good size and speed, Stalberg has scored 52 career goals, all of them at even strength. He was in a complementary role in Chicago, playing 14 minutes per game over the past couple seasons, but there could be an opportunity for a bigger role on a Predators team that doesn't have as many proven scorers on the roster.
It's not as though moving to Nashville is the impetus for an offensive breakthrough, but more consistent ice time, including time on the power play, should present a good opportunity for Stalberg to produce for a team that needs more consisent offensive production.
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Pressing Question: Should the Predators better protect Pekka Rinne?
Make no mistake: Pekka Rinne is the future of the Predators in net.
There are no blue chip options in the system. First-rounder Chet Pickard is pretty well done after toiling in the ECHL and Sweden’s lower divisions over the last few years.
Last year’s back-up, Chris Mason, started a total of six games for the Preds and opted to play in Italy for the coming season.
The expected back-up this season is Carter Hutton, who has one career NHL game to his credit.
Now, there’s something to be said for letting a star goalkeeper – and Rinne is undoubtedly a star goalkeeper – play as many games as he wants to and is able to.
That said, there’s also a large scale risk in having absolutely zero contingency in place for if that star gets hurt.
The Preds dealt Anders Lindback while his stock was high last summer. But if Rinne expects to see nearly 90 per cent of the Preds’ 2013-14 starts - in addition to possibly seeing some time in the Finnish net at the Sochi Olympics – the Preds can ill-afford to roll the dice and not properly back him up.
- Nashville Predators Preview by Shane McNeil, TSN.ca