NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Making the playoffs has become so automatic for the Nashville Predators that they didn’t react well to finishing below .500 for the first time in a decade.
They went shopping in a very big way hoping to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The Predators opened free agency signing five of the seven players they added on the first day. Right wing Viktor Stalberg from Stanley Cup champ Chicago is the key addition, and they also added Eric Nystrom, and Matt Hendricks and centre Matt Cullen, who helped Carolina win the Stanley Cup in 2006.
“It shows all the commitment,” captain Shea Weber said. “They made those moves, and they addressed the needs we have. They filled some spots, and obviously everyone’s going to see what those guys are capable of. And we’re going to see what they can do in the locker room as well.”
Nashville will be looking for its eighth playoff berth in a decade this season trying to bounce back from a 16-23-9 record that put them 14th in the Western Conference.
“We feel like we’re back to having the depth and the pieces to do what we need to do,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.
The Predators will need scoring from the new players.
They averaged just 2.27 goals per game last season, tying Florida for the worst scoring average in the NHL. Stalberg is expected to be the biggest addition if he can prove that all he needed was more playing time after struggling to find ice time behind the offensive stars in Chicago. He tied for fifth in goals in Chicago despite ranking 20th in minutes per game last season.
“All the guys in the locker room expect us to be back in the playoffs this year and to make a run,” Stalberg said. “We got what it takes in here. It’s a matter of putting it all together and finding a way to win hockey games.”
Here are five things to watch this season with the Predators:
ALL HEALTHY NOW: The Predators took advantage of not being in the playoffs to heal up a roster decimated by injuries. Colin Wilson had surgery to fix both of his shoulders after a season-ending injury March 9, and Paul Gaustad had a shoulder repaired as well. Wilson was leading Nashville in scoring with 19 points when he got hurt.
PEKKA’S HIP: The Predators plan to give their two-time Vezina Trophy finalist the occasional day off this season to make sure he stays healthy after Pekka Rinne had surgery May 9 to repair his hip. Rinne played through discomfort last season and still tied for the league lead with five shutouts. The 6-foot-5 Finn tied for second in the NHL with 43 appearances, tied for fourth with 42 starts and was sixth in minutes played. His 152 wins since the 2008-09 season rank sixth in the NHL in that span, and a strong start might help him earn the Olympic spot he missed in 2010.
YOUNG Defence: Sure, the Predators have Weber, a two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy. Kevin Klein has plenty of experience too. But Nashville will be depending on a pair of very young defencemen. Roman Josi has exactly 100 games in the NHL, though he did rank sixth last season with 18 points. Seth Jones, who turns 19 the day Nashville opens the season at St. Louis, will be learning on the job as the fourth overall draft pick. Helping his transition is his size at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds.
TICKETS ANYONE: The Predators have done a much better job getting fans in the seats since the local owners took over. But Jones is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, a native of Dresden, Tenn., who played at Murray State. That gives the Predators the kind of local ties they haven’t had since Blake Geoffrion’s stint with the franchise.
LEGGY’S FUTURE: David Legwand is the original Predator as the first draft selection by this franchise back in 1998, and he’s the all-time leader in points, goals, assists and has played 894 career games. But he goes into the final season of his current contract coming off a season where he scored only 25 points. His career-best came in 2006-07 when he scored 63 points. While a strong two-way centre, Legwand just turned 33 and the Predators have to decide if they want to keep him after this season.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker