The Nashville Predators are one of the National Hockey League’s youngest franchises, but in a way they’re throwbacks.
Nashville is more like a pro sports team from the mid to late 1900s, before free agency became all the rage. With only a few exceptions, Predators’ fans don’t need to spend the first few weeks of the season trying to figure out “Who are these guys?”
When Nashville opened the season Saturday at Dallas and plays at home for the first time Thursday, it will do so with David Legwand, now 29 years old and in his 10th NHL season, all with the Preds. Also back is forward Martin Erat, a mainstay since 2001-02 who has scored between 49 and 57 points each of the last five seasons.
The organization’s most significant free agent acquisitions in recent history — Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont — are now each in their fourth season here.
All but one of the seven defensemen on the roster at the end of training camp were drafted and developed by the Predators.
Then, of course, there is general manager David Poile, coach Barry Trotz and associate head coach Brent Peterson, all of whom have been around since the earliest days of the franchise.
So what, if anything, will make the 2009-2010 season different?
“We need (guys) to push it to the next level,” Trotz said. “I ask that of the older guys, I ask that of the guys who are sort of in the second tier of age, and I ask that of the young guys.
“You have to be better. If you’re not getting better than you’re probably getting worse, and that means you’re not going to be here.”
As of now, though, many familiar faces have returned.
So for those who are not familiar with the Predators’ roster as well as those who would like a refresher course, The City Paper offers the following look at practically everything you need to know about the 2009-10 Nashville Predators.
A player whose greatest contributions often get overlooked:
Ryan Suter was the first defenseman selected in the 2003 draft and the first of six chosen by Nashville that year.
Shea Weber, with his booming shot and formidable physical presence, has garnered most of the attention.
Quietly, though, Suter has flourished in a lot of subtle areas of the game as evidenced by the fact that he led the team in ice time last season. He reads the play and sorts out his responsibilities in the defensive end better than any other Predators’ blue liner. Offensively, he affects the play with unpredictability — passes, fakes or quick shots.
His assist and point totals have gone up every season, as have the number of hits he has delivered and the number of shots he’s taken. But he still needs to add a little strength, but the real strength of his game comes from — and always will — his brain, not his brawn.
Time to shine
A player whose future with the team likely depends on his performance this season:
Jordin Tootoo is in the final year of his contract and needs to convince management to give him another one.
He played more games and more minutes than ever in 2008-09, yet his goal and point production both dipped from the previous season. Not only that, he recorded a career-low minus-15 rating.
OK, so maybe he never will score the 15-20 goals that coach and management often predicted he would in recent years (he had 11 in 2007-08), but he needs to be more discerning in all aspects of his game – when to shoot, when to deliver a hit, when to incite the opposition.
Tootoo is a rare commodity but not an irreplaceable one.
Players who most prove that their 2008-09 performances were not flukes:
1. Joel Ward, forward. At 28 years old he finally established himself as an NHL player following four years of junior hockey, four years of Canadian college hockey and three years in the AHL.
He was a revelation with 17 goals and 18 assists and was rewarded with a nice contract (two years, $3 million).
A groin injury caused him to miss virtually all of training camp, which must have management sweating that investment at the moment.
2. Ryan Jones, forward. One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2008 training camp, he earned a spot on the season-opening roster and eventually played in 46 NHL games in his first season out of college.
The team gave him an NHL contract that will pay him just under $1 million each of the next two seasons. Then, he again was one of the surprises of training camp … but for the wrong reasons this time.
The contract affords him the opportunity to overcome his slow start, but overcome it he must.
Three rookies who likely will get a chance to make a name for themselves this season:
1. Colin Wilson, center. Team officials get utterly giddy when they talk about the team’s top pick in 2008 draft. He dazzled in his one preseason appearance before a groin injury derailed him in training camp. He’ll spend a little time in Milwaukee once he gets healthy, but don’t expect him to stay there for long.
2. Alexander Sulzer, defenseman. He was expected to make the NHL roster out of training camp but did not. Still, he’s a solid two-way player who should be the first recall if (when) injuries hit the defense. If he plays well enough when he gets the chance, he might be in the NHL for good.
3. Mark Dekanich, goalie. Trotz compares him to former Nashville goalie Chris Mason because of his work ethic. Dekanich was recalled a couple times but never played last season when Pekka Rinne or Dan Ellis was sick or injured. Under similar circumstances this season, he almost certain will get an NHL audition with the idea that he will be the Predators’ backup in 2010-11.
Three Predators who could help your fantasy hockey team:
1. Pekka Rinne, goalie. Given that 2010 is an Olympic year and the NHL schedule is condensed, it’s not likely Rinne will play 73 games and win 34 as Tomas Vokoun did back in 2003-04. However, if he beats the sophomore slump and plays like the guy who went 12-5-3 down the stretch last season, he will have lots of value.
2. Shea Weber, defenseman. With his booming shot, he is a force on the power play. He put up career-best numbers in 2008-09 (23-30—53) but a mid-season foot injury limited him to just eight points from Dec. 8 through Feb. 19. In other words, he can go higher. Just don’t expect a great plus-minus rating because of the number of points he’ll get on the power play and the fact that he’ll play against the other teams’ top line every night.
3. Jason Arnott, center. With more than 20 goals each of the last 10 seasons, including a franchise-record 33 last year, he’s the closest thing Nashville ever has had to a sure thing when it comes to offensive production.
Given the number of times Nashville has surprised hockey analysts all across North America in the past, it’s impossible to say this team won’t make the playoffs.
It’s pretty clear, though, that the challenge might be more difficult than ever just based on the strength of the Central Division.
Detroit will not falter. Chicago is one of the most improved teams in recent years and will continue to get better. Columbus will benefit from the experience of finally getting over the hump and reaching the postseason in the spring, and St. Louis not longer will be the doormat it was for two or three years recently.
The best the Predators can hope is to stay competitive within the division. If they do that, they’ll again be in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots during the final week of the season.