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Off-Season Game Plan: Predators

Scott Cullen
5/8/2009 3:28:30 PM
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While the Nashville Predators seem to be on steadier footing in Tennessee, they couldn't secure a playoff spot last season so there's still plenty of work ahead for general manager David Poile this summer.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Predators' needs and how they might be able to address them.

The most glaring shortcoming for the Predators last season, not coincidentally in the season after winger Alexander Radulov took off to Russia, was a lack of scoring. Nashville tied for 25th in the league with 2.52 goals per game.

"We just went through stretches this year where we were unable to score goals," head coach Barry Trotz told The Tennessean. "That was a real tough time for us because we had to play one-goal games and it's tough to win in this league 1-0 every night."

Scoring came easier late in the season, when Steve Sullivan was back in the lineup and igniting the offence after a two-year absence, but Sullivan is heading for free agency this summer and there's no guarantee that he'll stay in Nashville. While losing Sullivan would be offset somewhat by the arrival of highly-touted rookie Colin Wilson, the Predators would obviously be better off with both in the lineup.

It would be interesting to see what the Predators could do with a little more talent, as Trotz has consistently produced teams that overachieve.

"The heart and character on our team is indescribable," captain Jason Arnott told the Nashville City Paper. "I've played with some great players before, but the way these guys pulled together and really worked made it a lot of fun to be around, especially down the stretch."

Can they build on that strong finish?

GM/COACH
David Poile/Barry Trotz

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Jason Arnott 80.82 $4.5M
J.P. Dumont 74.46 $4.0M
Martin Erat 70.74 $5.25M
David Legwand 70.52 $5.0M
Patric Hornqvist 62.49 $620K
Jordin Tootoo 61.02 $975K
Jerred Smithson 60.25 $750K
Wade Belak 54.76 $650K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Steve Sullivan 73.51 UFA $3.2M
Joel Ward 71.25 UFA $500K
Ryan Jones 66.87 RFA $920K
Radek Bonk 63.43 UFA $1.6M
Scott Nichol 62.24 UFA $750K
Antti Pihlstrom 61.70 RFA $530K
Vernon Fiddler 61.49 UFA $900K

Top Prospects: Colin Wilson (17-38-55, plus-21 in 43 GP; Boston University-HE), Cal O'Reilly (13-56-69, plus-8 in 67 GP; Milwaukee-AHL), Nick Spaling (12-23-35, plus-6 in 79 GP; Milwaukee-AHL), Mike Santorelli (27-43-70, minus-1 in 70 GP; Milwaukee-AHL)

He's getting into his mid-30s, but Jason Arnott remains very productive, scoring 33 goals in just 65 games. He remains Nashville's offensive leader.

Jean-Pierre Dumont led the Predators with 65 points, but he managed only 16 goals, his lowest total since 2002-2003. However, since the Predators (or pretty much any team) aren't in a position to discard players who have at least 65 points in three straight seasons, Dumont will play a big role in the offence again next season.

Though his season was cut short by a broken leg, Martin Erat still put up 50 points. He hasn't been able to take his game up a level, scoring between 49 and 57 points for five straight seasons, but Erat is a skilled (and streaky) complementary scorer.

Another player that hasn't been able to make the jump in production is David Legwand. Despite having rare speed and good size, Legwand has topped 50 points in a season once. Admittedly, with higher quality linemates, Legwand's numbers could still get better, but he's going to be 29 next season so it's not as if there should be oodles of potential still lurking below the surface.

Patric Hornqvist's first season in North American was generally disappointing. He only played 28 games and saw fewer than 12 minutes per game when he was in the lineup. There were hopes that he could be a second-line scoring winger, but if he can't do it, there may not be a regular role for him.

He may be tough and can be difficult to play against, and he's a scrappy player but Jordin Tootoo hasn't proven to be reliable enough to warrant more than a limited checking role.

Hard-working Jerred Smithson adds a physical presence in a defensive role, though he may need to provide more if he's going to be in the lineup for 80-plus games for a third straight season.

Enforcer Wade Belak hardly sees the ice, playing just 5:15 per game, yet he's still a very effective policeman when the situation calls for a heavyweight since he has the size and know-how to do more than just hold his own with any of the league's toughest customers.

Ryan Jones' rookie season saw him spend some time in the AHL, where he scored 13 goals and 22 points in 25 games, but the hard-working winger has shown potential as a two-way forward and should see an expanded role with the big club next season.

Finnish winger Antti Pihlstrom plays a sensible game but, with seven points in 53 games last season, hasn't yet done enough to lock down his spot in the lineup.

There are several holes up front and at least a few of them will need to be filled by prospects.

A decent late-season audition could give Cal O'Reilly a chance heading into next season though, barring some position changes, he may have a hard time cracking the depth chart at centre.

The most promising Predators prospect is Colin Wilson, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft who won the NCAA Championship with Boston University last season. The 19-year-old has a pro-style game and could be an early contender for Rookie of the Year.

If the Predators are going to get back into the playoff hunt, however, they need more scoring up front and the potential departure of Steve Sullivan in free agency only serves to double-underscore emphasize that point.

Given Nashville's financial situation, it would be shocking to see them suddenly go after one of the big-name free agent scoring wingers, but there are other players that could add complementary scoring.

Some free agents with 20-goal potential that wouldn't necessarily break the bank include Jason Williams, Mikael Samuelsson, Mike Knuble, Petr Sykora and Chad LaRose. Getting a couple players of this calibre would go a long way towards boosting Nashville's attack.

Of course, convincing Sullivan to stay would minimize the need to pay for scoring help elsewhere.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Shea Weber 85.31 $4.5M
Dan Hamhuis 72.80 $2.5M
Ryan Suter 71.42 $3.5M
Kevin Klein 64.91 $800K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Greg Zanon 72.13 UFA $750K
Ville Koistinen 67.90 UFA $700K
Greg De Vries 58.21 UFA $2.75M

Top Prospects: Jonathan Blum (16-50-66, plus-53 in 51 GP; Vancouver-WHL), Cody Franson (11-41-52, minus-1 in 76 GP; Milwaukee-AHL), Alexander Sulzer (8-26-34, plus-8 in 48 GP, Milwaukee-AHL)

Rising star Shea Weber is the cornerstone of the Predators defence corps, if not the entire franchise. He finished second on the team with 23 goals and led the Predators in ice time, shots on goal and power play goals. Weber can still tighten up some defensively and, if he does, he'll be a Norris Trophy contender for the next decade.

Dan Hamhuis is a durable top-four defenceman. He's not a standout in any one aspect of the game, but does just about everything well while handling the toughest defensive assignments.

While Ryan Suter has improved his point totals in each of his four NHL seasons, he can't put up another season with a team-worst minus-16 rating. It was the first minus season of Suter's career, so it's

Kevin Klein didn't see a lot of action, but at least established himself as an NHL defenceman. With three unrestricted free agents on the blueline, Klein could be in line for more action next season.

Naturally, the Predators will try to address their shortcomings on a budget, so one or two of prospects Jonathon Blum, Cody Franson and Alexander Sulzer could make the squad. Blum, coming off a dominant junior season, may have the most potential, while Franson had good size and a couple of years of AHL seasoning in his favour.

Ideally, the Predators would be able to find a moderately-priced free agent to play in their top four. Perhaps someone like Johnny Oduya or Jordan Leopold would be a good fit, while Philippe Boucher, Darryl Sydor (traded for each other last season) or Kent Huskins might have some appeal for a team sticking to a budget.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Salary
Pekka Rinne 86.37 $725K
Dan Ellis 61.03 $2.0M

Top Prospects: Chet Pickard (35-12-3, 2.28 GAA, .921 SVPCT in 50 GP; Tri-City-WHL), Mark Dekanich (15-10-2, 2.09 GAA, .923 SVPCT in 30 GP; Milwaukee-AHL)

As it now seems to be an annual occurrence in the Predators' crease, the number one goaltender at the start of the season wasn't the number one by season's end. Last season, it was Pekka Rinne, the lanky 26-year-old Finn who finally landed in the NHL after three seasons in the AHL.

The year before, Dan Ellis was the surprising sensation in goal for the Predators, and he struggled somewhat under the weight of the starting job. Nevertheless, the tandem of Ellis and Rinne gives Nashville a strong and economical goaltending situation.

The organization has terrific depth in goal as well, with prospects Chet Pickard and Mark Dekanich in the pipeline.

DRAFT
11th - Jordan Schroeder, Dmitry Kulikov, Scott Glennie, Ryan Ellis.

FREE AGENCY
The Predators have approximately $33.5-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Four top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two other defencemen

What I said the Predators needed last year: Two top nine forwards, starting goaltender

Who did they add? Joel Ward, Ryan Jones, Patric Hornqvist, Pekka Rinne.

TRADE MARKET
David Legwand, Martin Erat, Alexander Radulov.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 




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