Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Nashville Predators. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take!
Regardless of how high expectations were for the Predators at the beginning of the summer, they took a decided boost on August 3 when Shea Weber's arbitration award was announced. The Norris Trophy-nominee received a record $7.5-million contract after being taken to arbitration by the club and while that number may set the Predators back when it comes time to re-sign other key pieces, a year without Weber would have been catastrophic for the team.
The team now goes about building on its franchise-best second round exit in 2011 and making the jump from perennial playoff qualifiers to serious playoff contenders.
Here's a look at what's in store for this season.
Prospect Report: The Predators boast one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey, led by pint-sized Canadian golden boy Ryan Ellis. While he may not be as NHL-ready as some of the team's other prospects, Ellis possesses a raw offensive skill-set that is coveted by just about every NHL team. If he can overcome his size disadvantage, he and Weber (if he stays longer than this season, of course) may one day form a scary power-play combo.
Beyond Ellis, there's a wealth of top-end talent in the organization at almost every position, from players that enjoyed limited action with the team in 2010-11 like Jonathon Blum, Blake Geoffrion, Matt Halischuk, Cal O'Reilly and Linus Klasen, to developing threats like Taylor Beck, Roman Josi and Chet Pickard.
Breakout Player to Watch: With the trade of Cody Franson to Toronto, some prime power-play minutes just opened up on the Predators' blue line. The guy who looks to be the prime beneficiary of those minutes is Jonathon Blum.
The 2007 first-rounder notched eight points in 23 games with Nashville last season after being recalled from Milwaukee in February. Though Weber and Ryan Suter will continue to eat up the big-time minutes and power play time, the Predators obviously believe in Blum, who averaged more ice-time per game than Franson last season and could fill in the 29 points he took with him once given a full season with the team.
Marquee Match-Up: Feb. 9 at Ottawa - Capital Concern. Mike Fisher makes his first-ever journey to Ottawa as a member of the opposition. With the Senators in a full-on rebuilding stage and Fisher settled in Nashville, how will the fans greet their former hero?
Other Dates to Watch: Oct. 20 at Vancouver - The Predators make their first trip to Rogers Arena since the Canucks bounced them from the playoffs in the second round.
Reason to Get Excited: The cavalry is coming. Nashville let a lot of their veteran players walk in the off-season, which may seem like a bad thing for a team trying to make a push to the next level. But the good news is that those departures should mean a promotion for a lot of prospects and young NHLers from within the organization.
Blum should be able to fill in for Franson, but beyond that, they've already seen what players like Colin Wilson, Blake Geoffrion and Cal O'Reilly can do at the NHL level. The departures of players like Sullivan, Dumont, Ward and Goc opens up minutes for the young crop. That, in turn, frees up cash to potentially lock up key elements like Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne for the long-term.
Home Hardware: Few NHL coaches have consistently done more with less than Barry Trotz. That's not to undercut the talent level of the current Predators squad, but Trotz has shepherded the team from expansion to the playoffs to contenders over the past decade largely without the benefit of a star-studded line-up.
Perhaps winning a division title might get him a sniff at the Jack Adams Award. However, that's easier said than done when you're fighting off the Red Wings on a yearly basis. Still, if he hasn't done enough to win one already, who knows what it will take?
On The Hot Seat: General manager David Poile has done well to assemble a competitive team through the draft. Stage 2 of the Predators' plan is keeping those pieces together. He played his hand with Weber the best he could by taking him to arbitration and got scorched to the tune of $3 million more than he was offering (and $1 million less than what Weber wanted).
Now he's faced with the task of re-signing Weber, Suter and Rinne before July 1 next year. The team has a wealth of cap space, but the Predators just aren't a spend-to-the-cap organization. Further complicating matters is that while Weber still has one more year of restricted free agency after his current deal expires, Suter and Rinne are headed to unrestricted free agency. If Poile can't get most of the leg-work done on those three deals over the course of the regular season it may force either a painful rebuild, uncomfortably high off-season contract numbers or a single-season, go-for-broke playoff push.
It's Your! Call: Nashville certainly served notice last season that they are a force to be reckoned with after they sent Anaheim packing in the playoffs and pushed Vancouver to six games before bowing out.
So have they spoiled the element of surprise that may have forced other teams to underestimate them?
Nashville now has a Norris nominee and a Vezina nominee, but no top-tier scoring threat up front. If teams clamp down on the Predators and try to beat them at their own game, will they be able to post a record good enough to stay afloat in the high-powered Western Conference?
Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn's 50-point output was third worst amongst team-leaders in the NHL last season ahead of only Edmonton and Florida. The team then jettisoned 49 goals from last season's squad through trades and unsigned free agents while acquiring only 17 goals in replacement players.
The team has a lot of young talent, but leaning on players yet to play a full NHL season is a risky strategy for a traditionally low-scoring team.
If the team is unable to be amongst the NHL's stingiest defences, will they be able to overcome their lack of fire-power?