A year ago, the Nashville Predators were a franchise in a state of flux but now, with their ownership situation settled, there is reason to be optimistic.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the rise of this quality team and how the Predators, with greater financial commitment, may be able to take the next step as a team.
Predators general manager David Poile has done a tremendous job building a team that can be consistently competitive, even when faced with a bare-bones budget, as he did in 2007-2008.
Now that the Predators have committed local ownership, and all indications are that they will spend significantly more money going forward, there is a sense that the Predators are on more stable footing, both on and off the ice.
"I know we are going to be better and stronger in so many ways next season," Poile told the Nashville City Paper. "We have a stable ownership. That is a necessity for us to do our jobs. We have a much more normal situation. I feel bullish on our future."
With a good mix of young homegrown players combined with savvy free agent signings, the Predators rode into the playoffs on the cheap in 2007-2008 and gave the Red Wings a competitive six-game series. By keeping the core together, and signing several important players to long-term contract extensions, the Predators obviously like their current direction.
They will still face challenges in spite of the increased financial commitment. The goaltending situation is up in the air now that Dan Ellis is an unrestricted free agent. Defencemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are attractive restricted free agents. Additionally, the Predators could use more scoring depth, particularly if the return of Steve Sullivan isn't imminent.
Of course, given where the Predators were as a franchise a year ago, it's refreshing to have these simple hockey problems to address and Poile has proven to be adept in handling these personnel matters.
David Poile/Barry Trotz
Top Prospects: Patric Hornqvist, Antti Pihlstrom, Nick Spaling
A big guy with a heavy shot and soft hands, Jason Arnott is coming off one of his best pro seasons, with 72 points representing the second-highest mark of his career.
30-year-old J.P. Dumont earned a four-year contract extension after putting up career-highs in goals (29) and points (72). He's a strong skater with a nose for the net and a strong enough scorer to play a prominent role.
Perhaps the biggest game-breaking talent on the club, Alexander Radulov isn't yet a consistent performer and, as a result, is still fighting for minutes. The 22-year-old is making nice progress, however, and may not be too far from a 40-goal season.
Martin Erat is another Predator who earned a new contract and the 26-year-old skilled winger should just be hitting his prime.
Speedy centre David Legwand dropped off after his career season, battling a series of injuries, but he's developed enough in recent years to be a solid second-line centre.
Scott Nichol is one of the more agitating players in the game, but he's added a dose of discipline to his relentless style and even managed a career-best ten goals in 2007-2008.
It took a while for Vernon Fiddler to stick in the NHL, but the 28-year-old has proven over the last couple of seasons to be an effective two-way player and notched a career-high 32 points in 2007-2008.
Jordin Tootoo gets a lot of pub for a fourth-line pot-stirrer, but he's making progress, scoring a career-best 11 goals.
While he has good size and is useful enough in spot duty, Jerred Smithson has 45 points in 241 career games, so his value is limited to a fourth-line role.
Hard-working winger Jed Ortmeyer is another fourth-line type who has trouble staying healthy in recent years, missing 72 games over the past two seasons.
14-year NHL veteran Radek Bonk was asked to do too much and, while he managed a respectable 29 points, his minus-31 rating was the league's worst. The 32-year-old may have some value in a depth role, but it appears that regular third-line duty is more than he can handle.
Brandon Bochenski is with his fifth team in three NHL seasons and he appears to be just good enough to keep drawing interest. Bochenski has enough offensive instincts to be a 20-goal scorer, but only if he can earn enough faith from the coaches to get a regular role.
Rich Peverley has worked his way up the ladder and the undrafted free agent showed well in 33 games with the Predators last season. He may be able to squeeze into a roster spot next season.
The one wildcard among the Predators forwards is Steve Sullivan, the talented winger who missed the entire season with a back injury. If Sullivan can play, it gives Nashville a much-needed point-per-game player but, given his current injury situation, it's tough to count on him.
In an effort to score more, the Predators may hope that they have 2005 seventh-round pick Patric Hornqvist, who has 41 goals in 102 Swedish Elite League games in the last two seasons and is coming off a strong World Championship, in the fold. Another option could be to shop a defenceman in order to acquire a more proven scorer.
Otherwise, the Preds may need to dip into free agency for one more proven scoring winger. Vaclav Prospal, Cory Stillman or possibly the return of Jan Hlavac would help.
Top Prospects: Cody Franson, Jonathan Blum, Alexander Sulzer, Teemu Laakso
Marek Zidlicky resumed a more offensive role after his production slipped in 2006-2007 and the mobile blueliner racked up 25 of his 43 points with the man advantage. He's a valuable puck-moving defenceman, either for the Predators or as bait for a blockbuster deal.
25-year-old Dan Hamhuis is the workhorse of the unit, logging more than 22 minutes per game and he's only missed five games in his four-year NHL career. His production has declined in the last couple of seasons, but Hamhuis is still a valuable piece on the blueline.
Veteran Greg de Vries has played for seven NHL teams for more than a dozen seasons in total so you know what you're getting: a big, strong veteran guy who is reliable in his own end.
Unheralded Greg Zanon performs selflessly on the defensive end, but is limited otherwise. As part of the third pairing, and in a penalty-killing role, he's a piece of the puzzle.
Shea Weber's rise to stardom hit a roadblock when he suffered a knee injury in the first game of the season and he never got totally back on track. Nevertheless, he's just 23 and has a rare package of size, skill and toughness. A team could test the Predators' new ownership with a significant offer sheet, projecting Weber to be their number one defenceman, but Nashville would probably be better off clearing other salaries before letting Weber walk due to financial concerns.
23-year-old Ryan Suter continues to make progress, though he was a healthy scratch at times last season, and he may be the most vulnerable of the Predators restricted free agents. Considering the money the Preds have already earmarked for other blueliners, it could be tough to retain both Weber and Suter, but the Predators would naturally prefer to keep both.
Ville Koistinen made a smooth transition to the NHL. Even in a limited role, his mobility and puck-handling skills were assets on the blueline and would earn him regular minutes virtually anywhere else.
Perennial prospect Kevin Klein could only muster 13 games with the Predators and it may be time for a fresh start somewhere else. With such a deep defence corps, and more quality prospects on the way, there just may not be the right fit for the 23-year-old who is due for a legitimate shot at regular NHL employment.
Free Agent Goaltender
Top Prospects: Pekka Rinne, Jeremy Smith
Chris Mason found that there is a substantial difference between being a solid backup and being 'The Man' between the pipes. Handed the starting role when Tomas Vokoun was traded, Mason was wildly inconsistent and was supplanted by Dan Ellis as the starter late in the season.
Virtually unknown entering the season, Dan Ellis had played one NHL game in the preceding four seasons, but then finished with a league-best .924 save percentage. An unrestricted free agent, Ellis could justifiably look to cash in on his outstanding season, which would leave the Predators in the lurch since Mason's ability to handle the number one job is clearly in doubt.
If the Predators can't get Ellis re-signed, prospect Pekka Rinne may finally be worth a shot since he would have to clear waivers to get sent down again next season.
9th - Cody Hodgson, Colin Wilson, Tyler Myers, Mikkel Boedker
15th - Michael del Zotto, Zach Boychuk, Thomas McCollum
The Predators have approximately $40-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, starting goaltender
What I said the Predators needed last year: Three top nine forwards, two defencemen
Who did they add? Radek Bonk, Martin Gelinas, Jed Ortmeyer, Ville Koistinen, Greg de Vries, Dan Ellis
Marek Zidlicky, Ryan Suter, Kevin Klein
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com