Originally written January 18, 2013 on The Predatorial:
Photo Credit: sportsnet.ca Coming out of the NHL lockout, there’s a lot of unknowns.  Some are of the general variety, and can be applied to all 30 teams.  Will there be rust?  An increased amount of injuries?  Will teams employing a particular style have an advantage, the way the 1995 dead-puck Devils did? Will teams that had a substantial amount of players active in other leagues hit their stride quicker? Of course, individual teams will have their own unique questions to answer.  Will this be the year that the talented-but-inexperienced Oilers boil over into a force?  How will the addition of high-profile free agents affect the Minnesota Wild?  Will the Canucks pass the torch to Cory Schneider, and if so, are they willing to let more time pass on the Roberto Luongo situation? Like other teams, the Nashville Predators will need to answer their own questions, and have only a hectic 48 games to do so. Let’s look at this in three categories: offense, defense, goaltending. The forward group for the 2013 Nashville Predators is largely unchanged from that which opened the 2011-12 season.  Jerred Smithson was shipped off to Florida last season due to the growth of more well-rounded players like Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk and also the addition of perennially-exceptional faceoff guru Paul Gaustad.  Jordin Tootoo is gone, but Rich Clune was picked up to play that pest role. This stability is the biggest reason that I think the forward group for this season is in good shape.  It feels somewhat alien to say that, honestly.  On January 1st, we say “Happy New Year!” On Halloween, we say “Trick or Treat,” and at the beginning of hockey season, we customarily say “Ugh, how are we going to score goals this season, we need a top-six forward.”  This has been the mantra for the past several years, and so it feels strange and delightful to go into the season feeling differently. While it’s true that EVERY team would like to add a top six forward, and while it’s also true that the Predators let their top two playoff scorers, “The Scottsdale Twins” Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Radulov, seek grayer pastures in Mother Russia, most of the group that propelled Nashville to top ten in goals-for is intact.  Craig Smith is a year older and already looks improved in training camp (I could just be saying that because I haven’t seen him try to roof a puck into an empty net and miss, this year). Colin Wilson is taking a bigger, more engaged role in the offense, according to Coach Trotz.  The growth of these two players, in addition to consistent contributors like Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist should ensure that the Predators score enough goals.  To reiterate, and I have to see these words printed on the screen for it to sink in: I think the offense will be just fine. Now, Martel likes to frequently point out that Debbie Downer, Negative Nancy, and Susie Bluesy are waging a never-ending war for control of my archetypal hierarchy.   As such, I would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to rain on some parades.  What better way than to examine the defense of the Nashville Predators? If trumpeting the Predators’ offense is a color that I’m not used to wearing, the following scrutiny of the defense is polka-dots, checks, and stripes, to borrow a phrase from beloved children’s troubadour, Raffi.  The Predators have always been typified by compensating for anemic scoring with a fearsome tandem of goaltending and defense.  This season at least, there are some stark questions hanging over the defensive unit. I don’t want to get too deeply into the loss of Ryan Suter again–it’s been beaten to death.  However, there’s no denying what his departure means: 26 minutes of all-situatations icetime formerly occupied by an elite defenseman now has to be filled.  Early reports are that this will be predominantly accomplished with a mixture of Roman Josi, Scott Hannan, and Ryan Ellis.  I’m a huge believer in Josi in particular, and I like the roles that Hannan and Ellis are going to fill.  However, I have serious concerns with the three of them combining to fill Suter’s skates.  As I mentioned, I think Roman Josi’s upside is absolutely enormous.  I believe that his offensive game may already be better than Suter’s was.  However, his defensive game is considerably weaker.  That’s not a criticism of Josi, but a testament to just how good Suter is in that area.  I can’t emphasize enough that I do think Josi will continue to improve, and I think his upside is incredible.  However, he’s 22 years old and averaged 18:23 time-on-ice in the 52 games he appeared in.  Is he ready for a 6-8 minute spike?  I’m just not so sure, especially when you consider the risk of a sophomore slump, such as the one that befell Jonathan Blum last season.  Scarier still is that if Josi falters, there really isn’t another candidate to play with Weber.  Scott Hannan? Kevin Klein? Yikes.  The margin for error is so thin here, it makes going “all in” on Josi as a viable replacement for Ryan Suter pretty risky.  Fun fact: if Jonathan Blum makes the roster as the 7th defenseman as expected, three of those seven will barely combine to equal a full season of NHL experience. COMBINE.  Again…yikes. So what can be done?  Well, I’ve been beating this drum since the day Suter left, and offered some possibilities in a previous blog HERE .  The free agent market has dried up, but there are still some intriguing options out there via trade. My concern is that David Poile and Barry Trotz typically like to feel their roster out, and then adjust on the fly or at the trade deadline.  In a 48 game season, there isn’t much time for trial and error.  If Josi as a top-two defenseman doesn’t work, by the time it’s realized it may already be too late. As for the rest of the defense, I actually sort of love it. I think Scott Hannan is a much better player than many are giving him credit for, and that this was an underrated pickup. I’m the rare Kevin Klein fan, and I think Hal Gill is the perfect complement to Ryan Ellis.  It all rides on that top pairing: can Josi elevate his play beyond his 22 years, while avoiding the second-season hangover?  Can  Shea Weber elevate HIS game even further, and compensate for the void left by Ryan Suter, overcoming previous struggles when familiar number 20 was out of the lineup?  These are questions that will need answers, if the Predators are going to be successful in the short season. Finally, and I saved the easiest for last: goaltending. It’s hard to be overly concerned when you have Pekka Rinne carrying the bulk of the load.  While some look at his poor showing in the KHL as cause for concern, I’m not particularly worried.  By all accounts, he was playing for a very bad team that employed a wide-open system that Rinne isn’t accustomed to.  There’s also been talk of a groin injury, the same one that caused him to eventually bail and head back to Finland.  According to Troz, this injury is healed and he’s 100 percent to start the season.  I wouldn’t place too much stock in the KHL numbers.  Rinne will remain one of the main strengths for the Predators. As for Chris Mason–I called his signing, both because it’s so “Poile” and because I think it’s the perfect fit.  Chris loved Nashville while here, didn’t particularly want to leave, and the team and coaching staff loved him back.  He’s been a “1b” starter since leaving Nashville. He started far more games in St Louis and Atlanta\Winnipeg than he will here, and I think he provides a steady, reliable presence when he’s called upon.  He’s not Pekka Rinne, but he’s about as good of a backup in the NHL. QUICK HITS: Wade Redden and Scott Gomez are UFA.  Despite reports from The Fourth Period that the Predators are interested in Gomez in particular, I don’t see a fit.  He was truly awful in Montreal, and I don’t like giving him icetime at the expense of any of the forwards currently penciled in.  No thanks. Glad to see that Saturday’s game sold out well in advance.  There was a lot of doom and gloom predicting fan revolt during the lockout, but it hasn’t come to pass. I remember the last lockout too clearly.  It’s easy to be angry and make dramatic overtures about how you’re “done” with NHL hockey when it’s not available to you, but all that passes when you get the chance to satiate your appetite for your favorite NHL team once more. Kind of bummed about the 5 PM start time for Monday’s game.  MLK Day is a workday for a pretty good number of people.  The “Buy Saturday, Get Monday Free” presale will probably ensure that there’s a decent number of butts in the seats, but for me personally it’s going to be tough to get there on time. Check out the Predatorial staff predictions HERE , and see what I think all of this will amount to.  Then heckle me. As always, feel free to drop me a follow on Twitter: @PredatorialJN -JN
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