Barry Trotz must be the best coach in the NHL because he finds a way to get a diminishing Nashville Predators roster into the playoffs, both last season and, according to prognosticators, this coming season.
I’m not a believer. Not at all. In fact, I’m counting on the Predators being the NHL team that falls the most in 2008-09.
The Predators have established themselves as the strongest and most consistent on ice performers of the last four expansion teams, ahead of Minnesota, Atlanta and Columbus. Nashville has four straight playoff berths and an excellent track record of drafting and developing talent.
The Preds had a breakthrough season before the lockout with 91 points in 2003-04. They followed that up with highly impressive seasons of 106 and 110 points. Then the budget was slashed in 2007 and the outlook appeared bleak. Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Tomas Vokoun were moved. That’s five solid pieces gone with no immediate return, just draft picks.
But Nashville surprised the critics in 2007-08, making a late surge and qualifying for the playoffs with 91 points. Hats off to Trotz for spearheading that run.
Looking ahead to next season, many hockey observers – at least most everyone in our office – expect the Predators to be right in the thick of things again, pushing for and making the playoffs.
But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nashville fall to among the bottom two or three teams in the Western Conference. Here’s why.
The goaltending position is extremely unsettled. They got rid of Vokoun because Chris Mason was supposed to be the heir apparent. Now Mason has been shuffled off to St. Louis because of the strong play of Dan Ellis last season. What if Ellis and his 45 games worth of NHL experience can’t repeat? The backup is Pekka Rinne. The Preds have among the league’s least palatable goaltending tandems going into next season.
With super-crafty Alexander Radulov playing in Russia by all accounts next season, the top line has Jason Arnott, Martin Erat and a job opening – maybe rookie Patric Hornqvist. That does nothing for me from a No. 1 line perspective.
The only other serious scoring threats are J-P Dumont and David Legwand. And Legwand has averaged just 15 goals a year during his eight NHL seasons.
The defense is young, strong and impressive, but the loss of Marek Zidlicky hurts. Shea Weber is a real keeper and Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Ville Koistinen are multi-dimensional. In the system, Cody Franson and Jonathan Blum are part of the next wave.
But for now, the Predators look like an average team that got worse in the off-season. Several teams that finished behind Nashville made significant additions and are on the upswing, namely Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix. And I’m putting lots of virtual money on Vancouver and Columbus making the jump over the Preds as well.
So at best I see the Predators facing an uphill battle with Colorado, Los Angeles and St. Louis for 12th in the West.
And maybe 14th or 15th isn’t out of the question at the end of the day.
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