The team was the subject to much pre-season hype after off-season additions such as Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont were added to an already talented core. Imagine their surprise when the season started with an 8-6 loss to Chicago, a 6-5 defeat to Minnesota and another 3-1 loss to the Blackhawks.
Head coach Barry Trotz was concerned.
“A little bit,” he said Wednesday from Nashville. “We came out of the gates and there was a lot of talk about the offence and I think we got carried away with it a little bit. I didn’t think Tomas (Vokoun) was very good for us in the first few games. It really exposed us to a lot of (bad) decision-making that we were making not getting the goaltending. It hurt our penalty kill. It really put us back on our heals a little bit.”
But sitting at 0-3-0 after all the hype before the season also may have benefited the team, Trotz figures. It reinforced their bread and butter, solid defensive play.
“What a great coaching moment for us and a team moment for everybody to recognize that ‘Hey, we have to play a certain way because there’s good teams and you have to respect a lot of things that go on in this league,”‘ said Trotz. “It got focus on the areas that we needed focus on.”
They’ve since only allowed nine goals in five games.
A 4-1 home victory over Phoenix on Oct. 14 set up a nifty three-game sweep of the New York area with a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders, a 3-0 blanking of the Rangers and another 4-3 shootout win over the Devils.
“We had a lot of urgency,” said Trotz. “We had some pressure on us to perform. And we responded pretty well.”
An overtime loss to Vancouver last Saturday gave the Predators nine out of a possible 10 points in their last five games. A true test of where the Predators now stand comes Thursday night with a home game against the powerhouse San Jose Sharks.
“I’m trying not to make too much of it but they knocked us out of the playoffs last year and a lot of the changes we made were because of the fact of some of the holes that we felt were glaring in that series,” said Trotz. “We made steps to try and correct them. It’ll be interesting.”
Notably, the Preds felt San Jose’s 1-2 punch of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau mauled them down the middle. So Nashville acquired the 6-4, 220-pound Arnott to be its No. 1 centre and also traded for 6-5, 214-pound Josef Vasice, who will miss Thursday’s game with a hip injury.
Another new face since last spring is rookie Alexander Radulov, the recently recalled winger who will appear in his second career NHL game Thursday. The 20-year-old Russian has tons of offensive talent but Trotz is taking a cautious approach.
“There’s a lot of high expectations for Radulov to produce numbers here. I just want him to play solid, two-way hockey to start so he can get his confidence.”
He’ll play on the third line with centre Vernon Fiddler and winger Scottie Upshall on Thursday as well as take the occasional shift with Arnott and Paul Kariya on the top line. He’ll also play on the second power-play unit with Dumont and Scott Hartnell.
“I want him to score but I think he has to earn trust,” Trotz said of Radulov, who tore up the Quebec junior league last season for 62 goals and 91 assists in 62 games. “I was the one who pushed for him to go to (AHL) Milwaukee. He played well enough in camp to make our team but I really believed that he wasn’t going to play substantial minutes ahead of Kariya, Sullivan, Hartnell, Erat, Dumont, Vasicek, etc…
“Where does he fit in? I’m a big believer in young guys, especially a guy like Radulov who needs the puck a ton, I’d rather him play 30 minutes a game at Milwaukee then 10 minutes a game in Nashville. And what’s going to happen because it always does is that someone’s going to get hurt like a Steve Sullivan got hurt and now Radulov comes up and he’s put in the right role.”
The Predators did the same with rookie defenceman Shea Weber last season, keeping him in Milwaukee for most of the season despite the fact he probably could have played in the NHL. It’s a luxury the Predators now have because of their depth at the NHL level but in their expansion years that wasn’t an option.
“If we could have done it years ago with (David) Legwand and Hartnell their development would have been quicker than it has been,” said Trotz. “I’m a big believer in that.”