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Off-Season Game Plan: Nashville Predators

Scott Cullen
6/1/2010 12:03:11 PM
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Back in the playoffs, with the franchise's third 100-point season, the Nashville Predators nonetheless couldn't get through the first round of the playoffs once again.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Predators team that has a lot of spots already filled for next season and what they might do to fill in some of the holes.

The challenge that faces Nashville, as much as any team, is that they have to try and maintain this competitive team on a budget that is more restrictive than teams that are willing (and able) to spend up to the salary cap.

With many pieces already in place, it will be a matter of some minor tinkering to make up for potential losses this summer and hoping for internal improvement to lift the Predators to a higher plateau or, at the very least, maintain their position in the standings.

One of the most sought-after unrestricted free agents, defenceman Dan Hamhuis, would seem destined to depart because surely a team with more financial wherewithal will pay what it takes to bring in a top-four defenceman just entering his prime, which will leave the most significant hole on the roster.

Otherwise, the Predators have a sound, if not spectacular, group and a number of veteran forwards who have no-trade and no-movement clauses, so success in 2010-2011 may have to come from continuity on the roster as well as presumed further development from young players like Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and Cody Franson, to say nothing of any rookies that might make the team.

General Manager David Poile was nominated for GM of the Year and Barry Trotz was nominated for Coach of the Year, following an overachieving season, so the Predators should be comfortable with their braintrust.

At the same time, Nashville enjoyed a relatively successful season despite struggling on special teams and that is something that will require either a new approach from Trotz and his staff or new personnel brought in by Poile, or both.

In order to sustain a playoff team, Nashville can't expect to do it with the power play and penalty killing units ranking in the league's lower third.

As long as the Predators are in this tight financial position, their ceiling figures to be limited -- a Stanley Cup contender doesn't appear realistic on this budget -- and that leaves Nashville in a tight spot; if they play well, there is enough talent to possibly win a playoff round for the first time in franchise history.

However, a few bad breaks or underachieving seasons, and the Predators could be on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

GM/COACH
David Poile/Barry Trotz

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Jason Arnott 76.31 $4.5M
Martin Erat 72.54 $4.5M
J.P. Dumont 71.97 $4.0M
Joel Ward 70.93 $1.5M
Marcel Goc 70.45 $775K
Steve Sullivan 70.20 $3.75M
David Legwand 68.80 $4.5M
Colin Wilson 66.84 $1.725K
Jordin Tootoo 66.06 $1.25M
Cal O'Reilly 62.50 $563K
Jerred Smithson 61.47 $763K
Nick Spaling 58.71 $892K
Wade Belak 55.47 $575K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Patric Hornqvist 80.79 RFA $713K
Dustin Boyd 67.65 RFA $650K

35-year-old centre Jason Arnott may be wearing down some, having played fewer than 70 games in three of the last four seasons, but remains a productive player when he's in the lineup. His 46-point season represented his lowest total since 2001, however, so it's tough to count on him as a premier point producer at this stage of his career.

Martin Erat streaks hot and cold like few others, yet the end result is usually quite consistent, as he's finished with between 49 and 57 points in each of the last six seasons; hitting 49 exactly three times, including last season.

The frustrating part is seeing how productive Erat can be when he's on top of his game and waiting for his numbers to hold up over the course of an entire season and it just hasn't happened yet.

Veteran winger J.P. Dumont saw his role reduced as the season went along, and his 14:46 average ice time was easily the lowest in his four seasons with the Predators.

He's still an adequate second-line scorer, but Dumont may not fit in the Predators' top six any more, which would seem to make him expendable, even if he does have a no-movement clause.

Checking winger Joel Ward put up another solid season, working tirelessly against opponents' top lines. The 29-year-old's production dipped in the second half but, overall, he is an effective and reliable performer.

While much of Marcel Goc's first season in Nashville was typically non-descript, the 26-year-old pivot had some moments of suprising production, most notably in December when he moved onto a scoring line and put up ten points in a seven-game span, on his way to posting career-highs of 30 points and plus-10.

It was a nice story to have Steve Sullivan healthy for all 82 games, but the Predators needed more from the 35-year-old. He needed 15 points in the last 17 games to finish the season with 51 points and while that's a respectable total, he also had a 22-game stretch, midseason, in which he scored just one goal.

If Sullivan's indeed going to be logging first unit power play time, then he needs to finish with more than last season's 17 goals.

In a vacuum, David Legwand is a nice player; good size, speed and a capable checker, but he's grossly overpaid for that checking role. In ten NHL seasons, Legwand has scored 20 goals twice, and more than 50 points once (neither of which happened last season).

Since the contract is already done and has four years remaining, the Predators can at least hope that Legwand can provide consistent two-way play.

A groin injury slowed Colin Wilson at the start of his rookie season and he never got fully in gear as a result, though he did start to show some of his offensive promise later in the campaign. A sturdy forward who can do good work along the boards, Wilson should play a more significant role next season.

Agitator Jordin Tootoo seemed to have calmed down somewhat in his sixth NHL season, but the result was the second plus rating of his career. Having never topped 18 points in a season, his role as a grinder is set.

Cal O'Reilly has been inching his way into the lineup, playing 11 games in 2008-2009 and then 31 last season and though he played a limited role, did show enough promise that he'll be in consideration for next year's squad.

Unheralded checker Jerred Smithson does the little things well, using his big body to hit and block shots as well as being as strong in the face-off circle (54.9%) as any Predator. Like Tootoo, Smithson is still looking for his first 20-point season, but scoring is not exactly an important facet of his game.

Though he didn't score a goal in his first 28 NHL games, Nick Spaling proved to be a very reliable forward, maintaining a plus rating despite minimal offensive production. The 21-year-old may never be a big scorer, but could continue to develop in a defensive role.

Enforcer Wade Belak plays so little, dressing for less than half the games and playing only 4:21 when he does, but he tangles with the super heavyweights of the league when it's deemed necessary.

There isn't an abundance of offensive talent in Nashville, but 30-goal right winger Patric Hornqvist proved to be efficiently productive. Considering that his ice time was still held in check through December, adding a few more minutes per game should give Hornqvist an opportunity to build on his breakthrough season.

Dustin Boyd was a nice addition from Calgary. A 23-year-old forward who can skate and has untapped offensive potential, Boyd tends to play a responsible game, making him easy to fit into the lineup.

With the forwards already listed, the Predators have enough to form next season's linep, perhaps with an extra or two, depending on how confident the team is in the likes of O'Reilly and Spaling.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Shea Weber 78.85 $4.5M
Ryan Suter 71.02 $3.5M
Kevin Klein 60.49 $1.35M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Cody Franson 70.66 RFA $694K
Dan Hamhuis 69.37 UFA $2.0M
Denis Grebeshkov 63.99 RFA $3.15M
Francis Bouillon 63.59 UFA $750K

Shea Weber is the total package: big, hard-hitting, owns a rocket shot and can quarterback the power play, making him a legit No. 1 defenceman at the top of the Nashville depth chart.

25-year-old Ryan Suter is hitting his peak and plays a well-rounded game. Able to play in any situation, Suter led the Predators with nearly 24 minutes of ice time per game, while playing all 82 for the third time in the last four seasons.

Kevin Klein earned a full-time role for the first time, playing 81 games, but it may have been asking a lot to thrust him into nearly 20 minutes per game as he ended up with a team-worst minus-13 rating. Even so, the 25-year-old should be poised to build on the experience he's accumulated.

After a strong showing in a limited role as a rookie, it could be time to take the training wheels off Cody Franson. The lanky defenceman can handle the puck and surely can be expected to handle more than 14 minutes per game in his second season.

Acquired from Edmonton, Denis Grebeshkov was injured for a good portion of the season, but a fresh start in Nashville is a good opportunity for the 26-year-old to establish that he's a viable top-four defenceman, assuming that the Predators are comfortable with his price tag.

If they aren't willing to ante up more than $3-million for Grebeshkov, the Predators will be looking at quite an overhaul on defence since the Predators already have to deal with the prospect of losing the services of unrestricted free agents Dan Hamhuis and Francis Bouillon.

Prospects like Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis may challenge for a spot and more experienced prospects like Alexander Sulzer or Teemu Laakso could land a depth position if need be, but Nashville may need to look to the free agent market to shore up the defence.

Mike Mottau or Brett Clark may be serviceable and relatively inexpensive replacements for Hamhuis, who figures to command a lucrative free agent contract.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Pekka Rinne 81.48 $3.4M

Pekka Rinne was hot-and-cold in his second season, but finished strong, posting a .931 save percentage in March and April, and he's set to be the Predators' starting goaltender from the get-go next season.

There is a certain leap of faith required in giving Rinne the outright starting job, particularly considering that title hasn't worked all that well for Predators goaltenders in recent seasons.

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Dan Ellis 69.27 UFA $1.75M

30-year-old Dan Ellis is one of the game's better backups and could be looking for a starting job, or at least a chance to compete for the starting job, elsewhere as a free agent.

The Predators have strong goaltending prospects on the way, making it conceivable that Mark Dekanich could get a shot at the backup job so that Chet Pickard can handle a starter's workload in the AHL.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Jonathon Blum D Milwaukee (AHL) 11-30-41,+17, 80 GP
Ryan Ellis D Windsor (OHL) 12-49-61,+38, 48 GP
Chet Pickard G Seattle (WHL) 16-34-12,3.09 GAA, .914 SVPCT, 62 GP
Taylor Beck LW Guelph (OHL) 39-54-93,+19, 61 GP
Blake Geoffrion LW Wisconsin (WCHA) 28-22-50,+13, 40 GP
Roman Josi D Bern (SUI) 9-12-21,+5, 26 GP
Andreas Thuresson RW Milwaukee (AHL) 14-19-33,+13, 50 GP
Alexander Sulzer D Milwaukee (AHL) 7-23-30,+13, 36 GP
Mark Dekanich G Milwaukee (AHL) 27-16-4,2.33 GAA, .914 SVPCT, 47 GP
Michael Latta RW Guelph (OHL) 33-40-73,+18, 58 GP

Jonathon Blum could very well be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season after a strong first pro campaign in the American Hockey League. Blum's not big or physical, which could present challenges for him, but he's skilled, smart and savvy.

Undersized 19-year-old defenceman Ryan Ellis may not have anything left to prove in the OHL, winning back-to-back Memorial Cups with the Windsor Spitfires and scoring 214 points in 139 regular season and playoff games over those two seasons.

Even though Ellis can run a power play better than many NHL defencemen, and the power play was a major problem for the Predators, Nashville doesn't typically rush their prospects, so expectations for Ellis next season ought to be tempered.

20-year-old Chet Pickard took some lumps in his first AHL season, but the 2008 first-rounder has plenty of time before he's going to be expected to challenge for a position in Nashville.

A third-round pick last summer, Taylor Beck had a breakthrough season in the OHL. His combination of size and skill makes the 19-year-old an intriguing power forward prospect, particularly if he can improve his skating as his game matures.

Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion had a tremendous senior season before scoring two goals in three playoff games with Milwaukee. Given the Predators' depth up front, some seasoning in the AHL is likely in the plans for the 2006 second-round pick.

Swiss blueliner Roman Josi is ready to take on the North American game after another productive year on the international scene. Once he gets used to to the grind of the pro game, the Predators will have a better idea how close the puck-moving blueliner is to competing for a spot.

22-year-old two-way winger Andreas Thuresson has been making steady progress since coming to North America and could challenge for a checking role next season, as he got into 22 games with the Predators last season.

Alexander Sulzer hasn't been able to stick in a regular role with the Predators thus far, but he excelled in the AHL last season, perhaps earning consideration to provide more immediate help, giving Nashville's younger defence prospects more time to develop.

24-year-old Mark Dekanich has put together a couple of solid seasons in the AHL, following a stellar career at Colgate University. If there isn't a veteran brought in to complement Rinne, Dekanich might be ready for the backup job.

Tenacious winger Michael Latta continued his steady improvement in his third junior campaign. The stocky forward plays with an edge and is showing offensive ability too. With some time to develop, he could be an intriguing prospect.

Nashville doesn't lack for organizational depth, as they have players like Mike Santorelli, Teemu Laakso and Robert Dietrich on the fringe of the NHL roster along with recently inked European goaltenders Anders Lindback and Atte Engren.

Power forward Zach Budish, a second-round pick last summer, is at the University of Minnesota, but has time to round out his game before looking to turn pro.

DRAFT
18th - Emerson Etem, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Predators have approximately $42.0M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 17 players.

Needs: One top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Predators needed last year: Four top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two other defencemen.

Who did they add? Marcel Goc, Colin Wilson, Francis Bouillon, Cody Franson.

TRADE MARKET J.P. Dumont.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 



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