The Nashville Predators reached the second round of the NHL playoffs for the second straight season, with their 104 regular-season points ranking as their highest total since 2006-2007.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Predators team that has a busy summer ahead, with the possibility of some marquee players moving on.
In a summer that effectively has two top-shelf free agents, one of them is Nashville's Ryan Suter, the defenceman who ranked third in the league with 26:30 off ice time per game. Naturally, the Predators would like to keep Suter, but have to be prepared to move forward without him if that turns out to be the way the free agent cookie crumbles.
To the Predators' credit, they have done a fine job grooming young defencemen, so they could give their young blueliners more responsibility, but they also may want to seek out veteran options to provide some stability.
The Suter situation would be enough to deal with for many teams, but the Predators have more issues on the front burner. Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, the curfew-missing pair from their playoff series against Phoenix, appear to be on their way out. Kostitsyn is an unrestricted free agent and Radulov is a prime trade candidate, if he doesn't simply return to the KHL.
It's not as though the Predators can't survive without Radulov -- they have plenty of experience in the matter -- but adding a highly-skilled forward was (at least theoretically) a great fit for the roster, so it would be nice for Nashville to at least recoup some value if they decide to trade Radulov.
GM David Poile will have his hands full with those two issues and that doesn't even address the status of captain Shea Weber, their superstar defenceman who is a restricted free agent and ready for a new contract. Losing Suter would be challenging enough, but failing to get Weber into a long-term deal could be just as troublesome.
It hasn't been an easy fight for Nashville to become a consistently competitive team, one that has reached the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons and how they manage this summer could go a long way to determining whether or not they stay at the same annually competitive level or are forced to take a step back.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
David Poile/Barry Trotz
On a team effectively without offensive stars, Mike Fisher helped out more on the offensive end. For the fifth time in his career, Fisher surpassed 20 goals and, for only the second time, topped 50 points; the 19:18 per game that he played ranked as the second-most of his career too. Fisher plays hard minutes (in terms of quality of competition and defensive zone starts, per www.behindthenet.ca) so it's somewhat of a bonus that he contributed offensively. At the same time, it may be asking a lot to expect a repeat from the 32-year-old pivot.
30-year-old winger Martin Erat hit a career-high with 58 points last season (tying a career-high with 18 power play points), the second consecutive season in which he finished with a double-digit plus rating. Erat is effective with difficult assignments too, but might benefit from more support so that he could be more focused on offensive opportunities.
After a slow start to the season, Patric Hornqvist picked up the pace in the second half of the year, tallying 18 goals in his last 37 games. When he's on his game, Hornqvist is willing to get his nose dirty to score and if he consistently maintains his presence in front of the opposition net, he could have another 30-goal season.
Like Fisher, David Legwand is a strong two-way centre that is required to raise his offensive contributions and Legwand responded, his 53 points counting as the second-highest total of his 12-year NHL career. For years, Legwand has been enigmatic offensively -- there were higher expectations when he was the second overall pick in 1998 -- but a strong finish in 2010-2011 coupled with last season's results could suggest that there are at least a few more quality scoring seasons remaining for the 31-year-old.
Craig Smith made the jump to Nashville after two seasons at the University of Wisconsin and looked like a potential Rookie of the Year through the first third of the season (22 points in his first 27 games), but his role -- and his production -- diminished as the year went along. That's entirely understandable, especially when going directly from college to pro, but Smith's early production offers some indication that the 22-year-old might have more offensive upside than some of the other Predators.
Energy winger Gabriel Bourque made the most of his opportunity once called up, chipping in offensively and faring well in reasonably protected minutes. The 23-year-old may be able to handle more responsibility as he matures, though any offensive expectations needs to be kept in check -- he's scored 52 points in 103 career AHL games.
After a couple of seasons on the fringe of the lineup, Matt Halischuk stepped in for 73 games and scored 15 goals in a limited role.
Centre Nick Spaling, Halischuk's former junior teammate in Kitchener, has more size and is trusted more defensively, but plays a similar bottom-six role. The two of them are versatile pieces that can be mixed and matched with a variety of linemates.
Getting Alexander Radulov back from the KHL brought the Predators their most skilled forward, though it appears that his second stint with the Predators will be short-lived. Despite being relatively productive (13 points in 17 games, including playoffs), Radulov was suspended in the postseason for missing curfew and that appears to be paving his way out of Music City. It's possible that he could return to the KHL, but Radulov can be a 30-goal scorer, so there should be at least a few interested NHL suitors.
Sergei Kostitsyn continued to score on an absurdly-high percentage of his shots (21.1% over the last two seasons is highest among players with at least 30 goals in that time), but he doesn't get a lot of shots on goal for an offensive forward and he hasn't exactly enhanced his reputation with one goal in 22 playoff games for the Predators.
Just when it looked like Colin Wilson was gaining traction, matching his career-high with 34 points at the end of February, he was a frequent healthy scratch late in the year and into the playoffs. The 22-year-old remains a big-bodied forward with some still-untapped offensive upside. At the very least, he should be able to find a spot among the top nine forwards.
There could be some turnover up front for the Predators when free agency begins. Andrei Kostitsyn is likely to move on and Paul Gaustad should generate interest, so the Predators will need to do some shopping of their own to fill the voids.
Of course it would be nice to find more scoring forwards, but the free agent crop is thin so if that type of player doesn't come in a trade for Radulov, the Predators could target veteran checkers like Daniel Winnik, Travis Moen, Radek Dvorak or Adam Burish to help fill in some of the holes further down the depth chart, while giving Colin Wilson and Craig Smith bigger offensive roles.
27-year-old Kevin Klein scored a career-high 21 points during the regular season, but showed a little offensive flair in the postseason as well. If Ryan Suter doesn't return, the Predators will need improvement throughout the lineup to make up for the loss, but Klein may be ready to take more responsibility.
Undersized defenceman Ryan Ellis was protected after he was called up from the AHL, playing in more offensive situations against weaker competition (www.behindthenet.ca), but his relative success in that time suggests that he may be able to handle a bigger role going forward.
Another blueliner called up from the AHL last season, Roman Josi played a more significant role -- nearly 19 minutes per game. Josi has good size and puck skills, so his role can continue to evolve, potentially with more power play time and more minutes, depending on who else is competing for time on the blueline.
One of the game's premier blueliners, with an ideal mix of talent and toughness, Shea Weber could be tested if it he ends up losing his ever-relaible partner, Suter, to free agency. Over the last four seasons, Weber has scored 74 goals, most in the NHL among defencemen (Washington's Mike Green is second, with 61) and his offensive contributions are vital to the Predators' attack.
Jack Hillen is a serviceable depth defenceman. He's on the small side, but moves the puck well and didn't play a lot even when he did get into the lineup. At number seven on the depth chart, he makes sense, particularly considering the other changes that could be coming.
Certainly, Suter's ptoential departure is the big issue for the Predators, but if Francis Bouillon and Hal Gill also depart, that will require Nashville to address some needs. From within, they do have Mattias Ekholm and Jonathon Blum in the system and adding another veteran free agent -- maybe a veteran like Sami Salo or Sheldon Souray? -- could still leave the Predators with a decent defence corps.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
By signing Pekka Rinne to a long-term deal, the Predators have committed long-term to their 29-year-old goaltender. Over the last two seasons, his 137 games played and .926 save percentage are tied for third in the league, so if you're going to cast your lot with a goaltender, he's at least one of the better ones.
Anders Lindback is more than capable as Rinne's backup, to the point that he could be trade bait for a team seeking a starter if the Predators can get quality in return. If Lindback goes, the Predators could look to a free agent backup, like Jonas Gustavsson or Scott Clemmensen, if they aren't ready to elevate Jeremy Smith from the AHL.
||Brynas IF Gavle
||9-8-17, +1, 41 GP
||25-43-68, +2, 61 GP
||16-24-40, -2, 74 GP
||4-22-26, -11, 48 GP
||14-13-27, +8, 51 GP
||12-9-21, +9, 40 GP
||12-23-35, +20, 43 GP
||31-19-2, 2.17 GAA, .922 SV%, 56 GP
||Vastra Frolunda (SEL)
||2.60 GAA, .904 SV%, 17 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||13-27-40, +48, 58 GP
6-foot-4 rearguard Mattias Ekholm started last season in Nashville, playing a couple of games before returning to the Swedish Elite League, where he garnered the Salming Trophy, awarded to the league's best defender. Whether Suter returns or not, Ekholm should be in line for a spot on the Predators' blueline next season.
There remain questions about the ceiling of lanky Austin Watson, who seems a safe bet to make it as a pro, but if his offensive game doesn't develop, he may be a solid third-liner, which is fine, if not altogether exciting.
A third-round pick in 2009, Taylor Beck has a chance to pay off if he can develop some consistency to go with his combination of size and skill. He had a solid first year in the AHL, which could set him up to prove, with a better second season, that he's ready for a look in the NHL at some point in 2012-2013.
Heady defenceman Jonathon Blum fared well in his first look with the Predators in 2010-2011, but when he started last season in the lineup, the results weren't so positive (seven points, minus-14 in 33 games), earning him a ticket back to Milwaukee. He could get stronger, but as long as he makes smart decisions with the puck, he has a chance to help the Predators.
Gritty centre Michael Latta missed significant time in his first pro season due to a broken wrist, but his aggressive play could earn him a look for a fourth-line spot in the not-too-distant future.
A second-round pick last summer, Miikka Salomaki continues to improve, adding more skill to a hard-hitting, blue-collar package.
Injuries have plagued 2009 second-round pick Zach Budish, but he's a huge winger with the upside to be a power forward in the league. If not, his physical presence can be an asset further down the depth chart too.
23-year-old Jeremy Smith has a .922 save percentage in 84 AHL games over the last two seasons, so he could get a look in a backup role any time. It shouldn't hurt Smith to spend another year developing in the AHL, but the 2007 second-round pick is progressing nicely and, as usual, the Predators are patient.
A long-term prospect in goal, Magnus Hellberg was a second-round pick last summer and has standard Nashville goaltender size, standing 6-foot-5. It should be several seasons before he's under any consideration for an NHL spot.
After five years in the QMJHL, puck-moving defenceman Charles-Olivier Roussel is ready for a new challenge and he'll find that the AHL isn't quite as easy to handle as the Q was this past season with his dominant Saint John team.
Forwards Jack MacLellan, Chase Balisy, Josh Shalla and Juuso Puustinen, as well as Finnish blueliner Joonas Jarvinen all add to Nashville's overall prospect depth.
No first-round pick
According to www.capgeek.com, the Predators have approximately $32.1M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 12 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Predators roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top-six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen.
What I said the Predators needed last year: Scoring centre, depth defencemen.
They added: Craig Smith, Niclas Bergfors, Brian McGrattan, Jack Hillen, Jonathon Blum.
TRADE MARKET Alexander Radulov, Sergei Kostitsyn, Anders Lindback.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.