Preds Look To Build Off Playoff Success
By Greg Moshopoulos
It’s been 115 days since the ultimate disappointment came over the city as the Predators failed in their attempt at the club’s first ever Stanley Cup. Following Nashville’s shortest off-season, there have been mixed expectations about whether the team is a contender again in 2017.
Part of the reason for the inconsistency is the overall strength of the Central Division.
Chicago- Boy that felt good 6 months ago didn’t it? A sweep of the 3-time former 3 Cups in 6 years Blackhawks. I’m confident Nashville can survive the entire 2017-18 season on memes of befuddled Toews and sad (Saad) Kane alone. The Preds did such a number on the Chelsea Daggerless Hawks that GM Stan Bowman went a little crazy and traded away offensive dynamo Artemi Panarin for the equally expensive Brandon Saad because he felt Nashville just pushed Chicago around in the playoffs. Bowman also traded away underrated defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy because reasons (it only saved $250k against the cap). The Hawks continue to finagle their way under the cap by any means necessary. Thanks to a mysterious skin condition suffered by the now $1M man Marian Hossa, they were able to sneak their way under the cap. No this team isn’t of the same ilk as the Cup-winning teams of recent memory, but they don’t even have near the same talent as last year’s club. The downward spiral for the Hawks began with the sweep, but will go into a full vortex this year.
Colorado- Ok, clearly the Avs are the dumpter fire of the NHL. They finished with the worst percentage of total points this side of the Atlanta Thrashers, but at least they were an expansion team. On top of them being a terrible team, there’s the obvious elephant in the room of Matt Duchene still being on the roster. He’s in purgatory with 2 years left on his deal so nobody wants to overpay for an underperforming #1(?) center without long-term security. At best, he would be a long-ish rental with a full calendar year before an extension is even feasible. You think that’s bad?… Patrik Nemeth, who they just picked up off the scrap heap that is Dallas’ blue line, may be a top pairing d-man in Colorado. Seriously guys?…. Dallas is 2-deep at best back there.
Dallas- Speaking of which, the Stars are the team many pundits have chosen as the chic selection to take the Central. Media darling General Manager Jim Nill made another splash this summer and addressed his blue line that has plagued them for years…except he didn’t. Well, he at least finally got a good goaltender to make up for the lapses in his defense. Or did he? Ben Bishop was a fantastic goalie behind a talented blue line in Tampa, but he will be asked to steal games with the Stars. Sure they have some incredible top talent with the likes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and newly acquired Alexander Radulov. Nill felt comfortable enough signing the 31-year old former Predator to a five year, $31.25M deal after a single season back in the NHL. The forward talent is rich, but I am in the minority in expecting the Stars to be underwhelming. Even with Ken Hitchcock trying to piece together a reasonable defensive unit, stopping other teams from scoring will be difficult.
Minnesota- Did I mention underwhelming? That’s the definition of the Wild in the spring. GM Chuck Fletcher is on the hot seat, but what did he really expect? They’ve consistently failed in the playoffs early and often (to Chicago) so he hires the ultimate regular season coach in Bruce Boudreau. Last season was the first time in his career that Bourdreau failed to win his division. Also of note, like Minnesota, he’s had next to no postseason success. I guess when you think of it that way, they’re made for each other. Their roster has a wealth of overpriced, aging veterans that aren’t living up to their contracts. Although they have some good depth with guys like Granlund, Niederreiter, Spurgeon and Dumba to supplement their age, the Wild ran out of gas the last two months of the season. They also failed to address their need for a legitimate backup netminder which means another season of 65-70 starts for Dubnyk while Alex Stalock gets plenty of towel time.
St. Louis- Remember that downward trend I mentioned earlier with the Hawks? The Blues are already in the midst of it. Injuries are already plaguing the Blues before the puck even drops on the season and for a team that was already going to have to scratch and claw to remain relevant, it doesn’t bode well (last night’s win not withstanding). I’ve heard this team described as a forward group with one 1st liner (Tarasenko) and 11 3rd liners. Now that might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact remains the Blues wasted their chance at an elusive title two years ago and are simply a mid-tier team at this point.
Winnipeg- Boy they started the season with a thud didn’t they? It’s only one game, and the Jets have talent (and cap space) to spare. Obviously we all know about Patrick Laine and how he lit up the scoreboard as a rookie the likes of which Winnipeg hasn’t seen since Teemu Selanne. Nikolaj Ehlers, fresh off his brand new extension, figures to continue growing as a sniper in this league. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little round out their top forwards so they will score aplenty. The question in Manitoba however is whether or not they have enough goaltending to get them back into the playoffs. After an impressive rookie campaign with Columbus back in 2008 when he led the League with 10 shutouts, Steve Mason has had just 2 years since where his goals against was below 2.50. That’s not going to cut it.
Nashville- Finally… the Preds, this is why you’re reading anyway, right? After a glorious run through the playoffs and becoming the darlings of the NHL community, the boys in gold look to build off of that and prove it wasn’t a fluke. The support the city showed during their improbable run in the spring captivated the League and proved without a shadow of a doubt that Nashville has become a hockey town.
It was a busy off-season on Broadway and there’s no question that the Preds lost some key contributors in James Neal, Mike Fisher and Colin W….. As I was saying…. Fisher retiring was more predictable than most think as his game was declining rapidly, evident by the prolonged stretch of playoff hockey with no points. Enter Nick Bonino. Bonino is finally recovering fully from his injury suffered in the Stanley Cup Final and looks to replace Fisher’s spot as the #2 center in the lineup. Bonino will need to boost his offensive production however if fans will accept the hefty price tag it took to acquire him via free agency.
James Neal’s loss will sting, but not as much as most would have you think. He scored 23 goals but just 41 total points last season and was a -10. He was very inconsistent lighting the lamp and went long stretches with nothing to show for it, eventually losing his top line spot to Viktor Arvidsson. Combine that with the fact Kevin Fiala’s bones are made of adamantium as he looks prime to replace ‘The real deal’ on the scoresheet.
I can’t overstate enough how much Ryan Ellis means to this team. Watching him on the ice has been a joy. If you observe closely enough, you realize how high his hockey IQ is. He’s masterful at reading the play, particularly in the offensive zone, and never seems to make a wrong move. The silver lining in his absence from the lineup is that Ellis, for all his greatness, is very much under-sized and he will be well-rested for the 2nd half push towards the postseason. Alexei Emelin’s acquisition will help keep the depth in check on the blue line and looks to be paired with Yannick Weber, at least initially. I say that because of the unexpected roster spot being taken up by 19-year old Samuel Girard. Girard has accomplished all he needs to in juniors and the fact he is still on the roster with this kind of depth, speaks volumes of his abilities.
Where will they finish?
Mock me if you will, but here is how the Central shakes out:
Follow me on Twitter @GreekGoalie35 and tell me what you think. But come strong!