With the start of the NHL regular season just over a month away, there will be previews upon previews trying to gauge how the Wings are going to fare next season as they start their quest for Stanley Cup number 12. You're going to hear every Wing blogger, beat writer, and national columnist give their opinion on the Wings' moves this offseason as they try to predict how the Wings will do in 2011-12.
However, the Wings aren't going to be playing their games in a vacuum, as they have 29 teams standing in their way as they begin their journey toward the ultimate goal. Therefore, it's important to know how the rest of the NHL spent their summers, so we're going to be breaking down every single Red Wing opponent.
Today we bring you a team that has given the Wings fits for years and who took a historic step as a franchise last year, doing something they had never done before (and I'm not talking about that God-awful "Yellow Out" or whatever it was). Follow the jump as we analyze the Nashville Predators.
Last year was a big one for the Predators; they were 1 point away from 100, good for second in the Central Division and 5th in the West, they also won a playoff series for the first time in franchise history, defeating the Anaheim Ducks in 6 games. They were unable to get past the Vancouver Canucks in the second round, but it was a giant step for a team that until 2009-10 had never won a road playoff game. They took some hits to their roster, but the Preds were able to hold on to their captain and best player for at least this season, giving them a legitimate shot at competing for the division.
Pertinent Stats from 2010-11:
Points: 99 (10th NHL, 5th West)
Goals For: 213 (22nd NHL)
Goals Against: 190 (3rd NHL)
Power Play: 15.2% (26th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 84.9% (5th NHL)
Offense: The Preds have always been a team that has had some trouble scoring goals, relying on their defense and goaltending to win them games. However, their ability to keep up with the big offensive teams in the West took a serious hit with the loss of Sullivan, Lombardi and Dumont, although the first 2 have been too injured to make an impact on the team, and Dumont was pretty much an afterthought for most of the year. Nashville will rely on Martin (Elbows of Steel) Erat to once again be one of their offensive threats, but Sergei Kostitsyn will be hoping to duplicate his 2010-11 season when he led the team with 23 goals and tied with Erat for the team lead in points at 50. To put that 50 points in perspective, there were 3 defensemen (Kris Letang, Dan Boyle and Christian Ehrhoff) who all hit that mark, which would have allowed them to tie for the team lead in scoring.
Patric Hornqvist topped 30 goals as a rookie, but he "slumped" down to 21, and will be expected to get back to his first season's form. Besides the 3 players mentioned, the offensive threats for the Predators include Mike Fisher, David Legwand, and Colin Wilson, so saying Nashville is offensive challenged is an understatement along the lines of "Shea Weber can grow a decent beard" or "Carrie Underwood is not ugly".
However, the Preds can count on offense from their blueline, as Weber and Ryan Suter finished 4th and 6th, respectively in team scoring. Suter led the team with 35 assists last year, and Weber had 6 PP goals, tied for 2nd on the team.
Defense: The Predators have always been known as a team that is hard to score against. The pairing of Weber and Suter ranks among the best in the NHL, and if the Preds can get both signed to long-term contracts, will be the anchors of the team for many years to come. They can do everything at both ends of the ice, including play a very physical, punishing game. The trade of Franson was to get Lombardi and his contract off the books, but the Preds lost a talented defender who has offensive upside.
However, the Preds are able to find and develop defensemen the way the Wings cultivate European forwards. Currently, Nashville has 2 players who are either expected to get in the lineup and contribute next year or be very close to doing so: Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis. Blum's technically still a rookie as he only played in 23 games last year, and he's expected to play on the second pair with Kevin Klein. He's got offensive upside but isn't relatively big, standing only 6'1" and 190 lbs. Ellis was the 2011 OHL Player of the Year and is an offensive dynamo, finishing 4th in OHL scoring with over 100 points. He says he models his game after retired Red Wing Brian Rafalski, so one can imagine he's got good vision with the puck and is a quick decision-maker. He may get a shot at the big club this year, but they may also want him to develop in Milwaukee.
Goaltending: The running joke has always been that if you wanted to know who the Predators' starting goalie was going to be, just figure out who the backup goalie was at the beginning of the year. However, that trend has stopped with Pekka Rinne. Were it not for Tim Thomas' spectacular season in 2010-11, Rinne would likely have walked away with the Vezina Trophy based on his performance. He finished third in the NHL in GAA (2.12), second in SV% (.930), tied for sixth in shutouts (6), and fourteenth in wins (33). With Weber and Suter in front of him, they should induce the most nightmares for opposing forwards in the division. If Rinne can come close to duplicating what he did last year, he will keep the Preds in games and give them a chance to win every night.
The Skinny: We're not going to do any specific predictions about where the Preds will finish, but once again this is a team that is going to be very hard to play against. In Weber and Suter they have a defense pairing that can do almost anything on the ice, and if their young defensemen can come in and live up to expectations, they will be very hard to score on. They are going to struggle to score goals on a given night, so don't expect to see them in too many 6-5 games. However, Barry Trotz obviously has Jedi powers because he can convince the Preds that they are productive members of an NHL team and not players that belong riding a horse-drawn carriage in the heart of Russia (Hi, Radulov!) Truth be told, I could see the Preds challenging for the division or struggling to make the playoffs, but I think they end up right where they always do: smack-dab in the middle of the West.