The Nashville Predators have made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons but last season, for the first time, they won a round, defeating the Anaheim Ducks.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Predators' roster and what might be done this summer as they try to keep their spot in the Western Conference playoff mix.
General Manager David Poile and Head Coach Barry Trotz have done a remarkable job with the Predators, consistently getting better-than-expected results, a function of Poile continually providing a steady flow of players into the system and Trotz maximizing his players' contributions relative to their skills.
It doesn't work in all cases but, more often than not, the Predators have succeeded because they make savvy personnel decisions and, running a team on a budget, they have no other choice if they want to be competitive. That means less margin for error when it comes to making big moves, but as the organizational depth continues to evolve, it's easier to find replacements.
For example, one of last year's big acquisitions, Matthew Lombardi, suffered a concussion in the second game of the season and didn't play another game all year. Yet, Cal O'Reilly and Marcel Goc filled in admirably, until they were both hurt as well, but by that point the Predators knew they were in playoff contention and made a trade to acquire Mike Fisher.
With a deep crop of prospects, the Predators could afford to use draft picks to acquire Fisher and they also know that he can play in any situation, the kind of versatility that will help Nashville set their lineup with strength down the middle around which they can build.
Lately, the common strategy for contending teams is to build through goaltending, defence and centre ice. While the Predators could use a higher-end scorer down the midde, if Lombardi's healthy next season, he would certainly add some of that desired offence. Goaltending is also a strong suit, with Pekka Rinne ranking among the league's best.
That leaves defence, which is a rather strong group, but also the top priority for the Predators this summer and that is getting Shea Weber signed to a new contract.
A restricted free agent, Weber has superstar talent and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, so he's going to due for a big raise on a new long-term deal. Even if the Predators are adamant about keeping Weber, by matching any offer, it's easy to take that position before an offer (hypothetically) of $9-million crosses the desk.
To avoid making that sticky decision, it would be best for Nashville to get Weber's deal done. The organization is deep enough that they wouldn't necessarily collapse without him, but if the Predators would like to advance further in the playoffs next season, it's going to be awfully hard to do if they don't have their best player.
One more personnel issue to consider for the Predators would be the possible return of Alexander Radulov from the KHL. Radulov has been the MVP in back-to-back seasons, totalling 143 points and a plus-71 rating in 108 games with Ufa Salavat Yulayev over those two seasons, but with his team reportedly experiencing financial troubles, perhaps the Predators could add a game-breaking goal-scorer without even leaving the organization.
Maybe that's dreaming in technicolour, but as long as Weber is back, the Predators should be poised to surprise everyone by making the playoffs again next year.
David Poile/Barry Trotz
Martin Erat has scored between 49 and 57 points in each of the last seven seasons, but his 50 points in 64 games last season represented the second-highest points-per-game of his career and his plus-14 rating was the best of his career.
Throughout his career, David Legwand has been reliable checker though disappointing offensively, but he went on a point-per-game run in March, when he was playing more than 21 minutes per game.
Legwand continued to produce in the postseason, scoring six goals in 12 games, so it would be easy to go into next season with expectations that he can be counted on as a scorer but, at 30-years-old, it would be a tad optimistic to think that he's going to experience an offensive breakthrough over a full season.
Patric Hornqvist's production dipped from his 30-goal season in 2009-2010, but 21 goals and a double-digit plus rating is nothing to dismiss so easily. He struggled in the postseason too, but Hornqvist has a knack around the net and a willingness to go to the front of the net to score the dirty goals.
Acquired from Ottawa, Mike Fisher brings a steady two-way presence down the middle for the Predators and the fresh start worked in Fisher's favour too -- he was enduring a terrible season with the Senators before the deal.
A concientious veteran like Fisher, who is a four-time 20-goal scorer, should assimilate easily into any lineup, able to take on tough defensive assignments or play in an offensive role, if needed.
Colin Wilson played in all 82 regular season games, but found his role reduced late in the season before he was a healthy scratch for all but three playoff games. He's a strong forward who works well along the boards and has good offensive instincts, so the 21-year-old should rise into a more prominent role as he matures.
An agitator who has never scored more than 18 points in a season and has missed 59 games in the last two seasons, Jordin Tootoo showed a new dimension to his game late in the year, scoring seven points in seven games to wind up the regular season before adding six points in 12 playoff games.
With more disciplined play, Tootoo should be counted on to play a more significant role than his standard fourth-line gig for much of his career.
After scoring 37 points in 45 AHL games as a rookie pro, Blake Geoffrion got the call to Nashville, where he contributed six goals in 20 games, despite getting minimal ice time. He plays a solid enough game to hold his spot in the lineup, but has shown the scoring ability that could earn him a higher spot on the depth chart.
J.P. Dumont has fallen out of favour with the Predators, playing a career-low 11:11 per game and scoring just 19 points in 70 games last season. He has one year remaining on his contract, at a $4-million cap hit with a no-movement clause, but those terms make it possible that Dumont could be bought out this summer, though the benefits of buying him out aren't quite as apparent for a team on a budget like the Predators.
Checker Jerred Smithson had put up between 13 and 16 points in each of his six NHL seasons, but he continues to play a bigger role, anchoring the Predators' penalty killing unit, playing a career-high 14:50 per game and continuing his stellar work in the faceoff circle.
Speedy centre Matthew Lombardi was expected to provide offence, but suffered what turned out to be a season-ending concussion in the second game of the season. If Lombardi can play next season, the Predators ought to be better for it, but that remains an uncertain proposition given his health.
Sergei Kostitsyn couldn't sustain any level of consistency in Montreal, but he found the right fit in Nashville, leading the Predators with 23 goals and tying for the team lead with 50 points. He's a restricted free agent, which means a new contract is coming but, considering his spotty track record, there is reason to be cautious about inking a long-term deal.
Cal O'Reilly started the season well, putting up 18 points in 27 games before going 11 games without a point then suffering a broken leg. O'Reilly's a responsible player, with playmaking skills, though it could be difficult for him to fit in a suitable centre role if the Predators are healthy.
Picked up from New Jersey last summer in the Jason Arnott deal, Matt Halischuk went back-and-forth to Milwaukee several times, but fared well enough in 27 regular-season games with the Predators to earn a spot for all 12 playoff games.
A junior teammate of Halischuk's, with the Kitchener Rangers, Nick Spaling played a substantial checking role throughout the regular season, playing both centre and wing and killing penalties. He managed just 14 points in 74 games, but added six more points in a dozen playoff games.
Unrestricted free agents Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan and Marcel Goc could all be difficult to retain. Ward, a playoff star, should draw interest from several teams and Sullivan's production won't warrant the same pay grade; Goc has proven to be versatile and should help one of the many teams in need of improved depth down the middle.
Though he's overshadowed by Shea Weber, Ryan Suter continues to improve and the 26-year-old is one of the game's better all-around blueliners, ranking in the top ten in the league in time on ice, at 25:12.
Suter has put up more than 35 points for three straight seasons and was a career-best plus-20 in 2010-2011; while he's not at Weber's level as an all-around player, Suter may be the more reliable of the pair defensively.
The Predators were patient with Jonathon Blum, letting him spend 134 games in the AHL before calling him up in the latter stages of last season. Not surprisingly, with that grooming, the 2007 first-rounder was ready to step in an contribute, putting up eight points and a plus-8 rating in 23 games.
Blum can still get physically stronger, but his smarts and passing ability ensure that he'll be a valuable part of Nashville's defence going forward.
Cody Franson plays protected minutes, only a little over 15 per game last season, but he's productive. He's one of nine defencemen in the entire league to have at least 20 points and a double-digit plus rating in each of the last two seasons.
While Franson's been eased into his role with the Predators, Kevin Klein has been pushed to a top-four role in the last couple of seasons, setting career-highs in points (18), plus-minus (plus-9) and time on ice (20:48) last season.
Veteran Francis Bouillon played well in 44 games before suffering a season-ending concussion. He'll be 36 early next season, so it may not be easy for Bouillon to come back, but if he's not able to return, that will create an opening for a defensive defenceman that can eat up 20 minutes per game.
While there are solid pieces in place on the Nashville defence, the cornerstone is Shea Weber, who is a restricted free agent. As one of the game's best on the blueline -- he's a Norris Trophy finalist -- Weber is in line for a hefty raise, one that could wreak havoc on the Predators' budget if he ends up getting an offer sheet after July 1.
Why wouldn't teams line up to take a shot at Weber? He's 25-years-old, owns one of the most dangerous point shots in the game, has the size and disposition to play a physical game and he's missed a total of four games while playing more than 23 minutes per game (25:19 last season) over the last three seasons.
Even if the Predators get Weber re-signed and Bouillon returns, there will probably be room to add a depth defenceman. Ryan Ellis is a fantastic prospect but, given the Predators' patience with their young defencemen, he may get some time in Milwaukee first.
28-year-old Pekka Rinne is coming off the best season of his three years in the NHL, posting a .930 save percentage that would have stood out even more if not for
Rinne is one of seven goaltenders, over the last three seasons, to have played at least 150 games and record a save percentage of at least .920, so he's comfortably among the league's elite at the position.
Anders Lindback provided a superb backup for Rinne, filling in effectively and showing that he might have the ability to be a starter in his own right.
||24-76-100,+24, 58 GP
||42-53-95,+3, 62 GP
||34-34-68,-38, 68 GP
||6-34-40,-7, 69 GP
||34-55-89,-4, 68 GP
||19-24-43,-3, 41 GP
||2.02 GAA, .931 SV%, 43 GP
||Brynas IF Gavle (SEL)
||10-23-33,+10, 55 GP
||2-4-6,+1, 7 GP
||5-25-30,+17, 59 GP
While Nashville hasn't typically taken defence prospects straight from junior without time in the AHL, perhaps Ryan Ellis could be an exception.
The challenge that Ellis needs to overcome, his lack of size, isn't going to change with a year or two years on the farm, and his OHL production (314 points, plus-145 in 226 regular season games; 88 points , plus-39 in 62 playoff games) is so off-the-charts, that the 20-year-old's playoff appearance in Milwaukee could be the only AHL time he needs.
A power forward in the making, Taylor Beck has been very productive, particularly over the last two seasons, in the OHL and is ready to build on his late-season audition in Milwaukee. A full year in the AHL should give him an opportunity to refine his game and establish his offensive credentials at the next level.
It was a tough season, with a brutal Peterborough team, for Austin Watson, but the lanky forward got better as the season went along. He needs time to fill out his 6-foot-3 frame, but there's no rush for last year's first-rounder.
21-year-old Swiss defenceman Roman Josi arrives in North America and didn't miss a beat, leading Milwaukee defencemen with 40 points. His minus-7 rating was also worst on the team, so there's room for improvement, but a lot to like nonetheless.
Sturdy forward Michael Latta improved steadily throughout his junior career and added some bite to his game the last couple of years, racking up 315 penalty minutes, to go with 162 points in 126 games.
Craig Smith followed up a strong sophomore season at Wisconsin with an impressive showing at the World Hockey Championships, scoring six points in seven games, raising his stock higher than your standard fourth-round pick from the 2009 draft.
Goaltender Mark Dekanich is blocked by an impressive pair of goaltenders in Nashville right now but, after a .931 save percentage in the AHL last season, the 25-year-old is surely ready for a look, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Another fourth-round pick from 2009, lanky Swedish defenceman Mattias Ekholm has signed and will play in North America next season following a strong year in the Swedish Elite League.
His sophomore season was cut short by a knee injury suffered in a moped accident, so power forward Zach Budish has some catching up to do, but his size gives him that tanalizing power forward potential.
Charles Olivier-Roussel's production dipped in his fourth year of junior, but he's well-rounded and could use some time to develop in the AHL.
Check out a roster for next season on www.capgeek.com, with lots of implied question marks, here: http://bit.ly/iQY6yy
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Predators have approximately $40.8M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: Scoring centre, depth defencemen.
What I said the Predators needed last year: One top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: Sergei Kostitsyn, Cal O'Reilly, Matthew Lombardi, Shane O'Brien, Anders Lindback.
TRADE MARKET J.P. Dumont, Cody Franson.
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.
Off-Season Game Plan Archive
Off-Season Game Plan Archive