NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Predators are coming off their first Western Conference semifinal appearance and sticking with the same approach that took them farther in the playoffs than ever before.
Nashville has once again replaced aging or pricey veterans with young talent acquired through the draft in what’s called the Predator Way.
They unloaded so many veterans this off-season that fans feared another fire sale similar to 2007 before the team was sold. Gone are Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, Cody Franson, Steve Sullivan and Shane O’Brien.
“Drafting has been good, the young players really have some good potential and upside,” general manager David Poile said. “We were happy with our team last year, but with all due respect, we didn’t win the Stanley Cup and our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. I really think with this group of players, and I am talking about a group of at least 30 deep here, we putting ourselves in a position to be more competitive for more years.”
Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games to open the playoffs, then took Vancouver to six games before losing in the semifinals. The core is back led by captain and Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber, awarded $7.5 million for this season in arbitration, Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne and defenceman Ryan Suter.
“We were all disappointed last year,” Weber said. “Obviously we were close to being in the third round. Our goal wasn’t to get to the second round, so it was disappointing that we lost. So I think guys have got to realize we have to get off to a good start, and it’s going to pay dividends later on in the season.”
Revamping the roster started when the Predators bought out Dumont’s contract after the 33-year-old veteran had just 19 points before being a healthy scratch most of the playoffs. Franson left as a free agent along with Goc. Ward got a four-year deal worth $12 million from Washington, a big reward for seven post-season goals after just 10 in the regular season.
Sullivan signed with Pittsburgh, a 36-year-old forward limited to 44 games by injuries. O’Brien went to Colorado.
“Those were all thought out with the belief and hope that some of these younger guys could play as well and hopefully better given the opportunity,” Poile said.
Nashville convinced forward Craig Smith not to return to the University of Wisconsin for his junior year thinking he can make the roster out of training camp. The 98th pick overall in 2009 is working with the top power-play unit while Mike Fisher finishes his recovery from off-season shoulder surgery.
Defenceman Ryan Ellis, the 11th pick overall in 2009, is pushing for a roster spot before the season opener Oct. 7 in Columbus. Other defencemen expected to play in Nashville sometime this year include Teemu Laakso (2005 draft pick) and Mattias Ekholm (fourth-round in 2009).
Two-time Jack Adams Trophy finalist Barry Trotz has coached Nashville from the beginning, and he said they are very used to plugging in new players.
“We’ve got a good program where our young guys, we have a good sense of when they’re ready for the most part,” Trotz said. “We’re quite patient with our young guys and when they come up, there’s not much of a transition period. They step in and get the job done. For them, it’s just getting a little confidence at the next level.”
The Predators set a franchise record with 194 goals allowed, third-fewest goals in the NHL last season. They need more offence, and that likely will come from a handful of 20-somethings that helped the Predators have the fifth-youngest roster in the league late last season.
Sergei Kostitsyn got a US$2.5 million deal for the season after scoring a team-high 23 goals and finishing with 50 points last season. Matt Halischuck, Blake Geoffrion, Colin Wilson and Nick Spaling are among those who will have a chance to join Kostistsyn.
“That’s been this team’s kind of biggest thing in the past,” Rinne said. “We always have someone to kind of have a breakthrough year … Obviously, we’re going to need that kind of effort from some of the players.”