Continuing the "Meet the enemy..." series, we've sent five questions over to Dirk Hoag, head honcho at On the Forecheck to get a better background prior to the first game of the season against the Nashville Predators.
1. Nashville is 8-2-0 in the last 10 games after starting 4-6-1. Where has the turnaround come from?
Dirk Hoag: The biggest factor there is probably health; early on, the Preds have constantly had one or more key players out of the lineup, and are finally healthy. It took a few weeks for Barry Trotz to sort out defense pairings that worked well also, but the rotation has been steady for the last 10 games or so.
2. Who is the unsung hero (or heroes) of the season so far?
Hoag: The unsung hero would have to be Francis Bouillon; signed to a tryout contract late in training camp, he's quickly assumed a solidifying role on the 2nd defense pair at even strength, and sees a decent amount of ice time both on the power play and killing penalties. He doesn't rack up a ton of points, but he is, in my mind at least, an upgrade over the departed Greg Zanon due to his versatility. He's plays a solid stay-at-home game, but isn't shy about jumping up if the chance presents itself.
3. On the opposite side, who has been a disappointment so far this year?
Hoag: The biggest disappointment, by far, has to be Martin Erat; the highest-paid Predator at $5.25 million this season, he's only mustered two goals and four assists through 18 games, and most of that production has come only recently. As I've said to others, if you brought a friend to a Preds game who was unfamiliar with the roster, there's no chance they would pick Erat as the highest-paid player on the team. While his defensive efforts are sound, Erat simply doesn't assert himself offensively.
4. Joel Ward burned the Red Wings in a game last year. So far, he's off to a pretty good start. What can the team expect out of him this year and further down the road?
Hoag: I don't think it's reasonable to expect more in terms of scoring, but if Ward can bring what he brought last year, he makes a great addition as a shutdown winger and penalty killer. He's great at protecting the puck using his body and wins more than his share of battles along the boards. I doubt he'll ever score 20 goals as an NHL'er, but he doesn't have to.
5. What does this team need to do to get back into the playoffs this year? Is about offense coming together or the defense and goaltending solidifying?
Hoag: The defense and goaltending are there, but the missing piece remains offensive depth up front. The Arnott line is dangerous, and David Legwand's line with Ward and Jerred Smithson is setting up as a good shutdown-type group, but the next line with Erat on one side, and Patric Hornqvist often on the other, needs a center that can threaten other teams offensively. So far, Mike Santorelli and Cal O'Reilly haven't provided much in that area, and rookie Colin Wilson has struggled through injuries. If the Preds can resolve that weakness, they should definitely slot somewhere in the 5-7 range in the Western Conference.
Thanks again to Dirk Hoag for answering our questions!