It has been 16 years since the NHL expanded to include the Nashville Predators in 1998. Fifteen seasons have been played and the club has made the playoffs seven times. From 2003-04 to 2011-12 they made the playoffs seven of eight seasons. The end of last season marks the second consecutive year that the team has failed to make the playoffs.
Coincidentally, they have not made the playoffs since Ryan Suter signed a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild. While it is obvious that most of the blame for the lack of team success was put on head coach Barry Trotz who was fired this summer, Trotz was likely not the cause for the team’s poor performance. If anyone is to blame it would have to be a combination of ownership and general manager David Poile. With Nashville being a small market team, the franchise has financially strict guideline and that won’t change anytime soon. Poile has always done his best to work around that. He has often resorted to short-term solutions to try to keep the team in the playoff hunt.
Trotz was the only coach the Predators ever had and he will be greatly missed by Predator fans. His firing is a bit of a head scratcher and you can’t help but think that Poile is trying to hold onto his job by redirecting blame on the former head coach. Starting out with an expansion team is tough but it only took six seasons for him to lead the Preds to their first playoff appearance. It took the Atlanta Thrashers who were added to the NHL in 2000 seven seasons to reach the playoffs. More importantly that was the only playoff berth the Thrashers ever had and to this day the existing Winnipeg Jets have not made this playoffs since then. It is more than safe to say that Trotz did extremely well with an expansion team. Trotz will be succeeded by Peter Laviolette who has had six playoff appearances in 12 seasons and was a Stanley Cup winning coach with the Hurricanes in 2006.
It has been a frantic summer for Poile.
“We’ve taken a big leap in the right direction getting our team back on path, and that path is towards the playoffs,” said Poile after he fired Trotz and hired Laviolette in early June.
It is well known that Poile missed out on landing Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler. Both players used their no trade clauses in their contracts to block a move to Nashville. Poile started to throw band aids at the roster to try to fix a group of centers that included the likes of Olli Jokinen, Matt Cullen, Paul Gaustad, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and young prospects Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok. Throw Mike Fisher who is out for 4-6 months with a ruptured achilles onto that list of centers. Barring everyone’s health the Predators have eight NHL caliber centers and arguably none of them are top line centers. The cenetrs added to try to stop the bleeding were Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero.
There is a strong case to be made for Ribiero being the best centre on the team at the moment and Roy could be only a couple lines behind him. Poile got great value for both players paying them just over two million combined. While it seems as though he has added too many centers to the roster, Roy and Ribiero’s contracts are only one year so the negative impact that these signings could have on the team do not pose long term risk. Trading one of their centers for a winger is a possibility. It would be difficult to use all ten centers in a lineup, however Poile seems comfortable with the current roster.
It is likely that a few centers will be slotted in on right wing where the Predators are extremely weak in terms of having NHL calibre players let alone talent. Matt Cullen has played on the wing before and is the most likely centre to make the transition to wing. Craig Smith is also likely to play most of the season on the wing. He quietly put together 52 points in 79 games. Colin Wilson is another centre that is likely going to play wing. This leaves Jokinen as the first line centre until Mike Fisher returns, Ribeiro as the second line centre, Roy as third line centre and Paul Gaustad as the fourth line centre.
There is no problem with letting Cullen, Smith and Wilson play wing for the season but this still leaves Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg out of the equation. It’s possible that Forsberg stays in the AHL playing for the Milwaukee Admirals but the same may not be true for Jarnkrok. Expect Jarnkrok to get more games than Forsberg. He is three years older (22) and in the final year of his contract that will make him a restricted free agent next summer.
Assuming that Peter Laviolette is able to manage a surplus of centers, the Predators will be deep at forward. It is possible that their top three lines could all be of equal talent, however that may not be as great as it sounds. While they will have depth up front they are missing high end talent on the top line aside from James Neal.
Poile’s best move of the offseason was addressing the need for high end talent up front and an obvious need for goals. Poile acquired winger James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal had 27 goals in 59 games last season. Neal is a natural goal scorer but it seemed as if the Penguins weren’t pleased with his behaviour or his unwillingness to play aggressively as he had a tendency to float. Expect Neal’s style of play to become slightly grittier for the Predators. He will play on the top line and the top power play unit but will miss the absence of an all-star centre like Evgeni Malkin.
On defense Poile added Anton Volchenkov with a one year deal worth one million dollars. Volchenkov was bought out by the New Jersey Devils, he had two years remaining that would have carried a cap hit for $4.25 million per season. Volchenkov brings a little toughness on the back end. He is a good hitter and shot blocker. In 56 games last season he had 129 hits and 91 blocked shots. He averaged just under 17 minutes of ice time per game last season. He will likely battle for a spot on the second defense pairing with Mattias Ekholm. The 24 year old Swede played 62 games for the Predators last season.
At the moment Ryan Ellis is a restricted free agent and it is uncertain when he and Poile will reach an agreement but with Shea Weber, Seth Jones, and Roman Josi the core of the Predators defense is looking solid.
A major reason the Predators were unable to make the playoffs last season was due to Pekka Rinne missing 51 games due to a hip injury that required surgery. Rinne was healthy by the end of the season and played in a total of 24 games with a record of 10-10-3. Rinne had a 2.77 goals against average and a .901 save percentage.
With the addition of James Neal, a hopefully healthy season for Pekka Rinne, and the additions of Jokinen, Ribiero, Roy and Volchenkov the Predators should be in better shape than they were last season. They finished 10th in the western conference, just three points out of a playoff spot. While they have improved so have Dallas and Phoenix who finished in 8th and 9th respectively. As of right now it seems as though the Predators will not be making the playoffs but they are taking steps in the right direction. It will be interesting to see if Laviolette can improve on the 88 points the Predators had last season. He should be able to considering he has a better team and a healthy goalie.