The winds of change blow through Nashville

What a week it’s been for our Nashville Predators. Approaching this holiday weekend, most Predators fans were focused on the draft, yearning for more information on the players that could be available around the 18th selection, which the Predators own. Instead, the fan base gets surprised with lineup moves within the existing roster that suggest a shift in reliance towards the younger core players on the team.

Earlier in the week, Pred-heads everywhere rejoiced as it was announced that defenseman Francis Bouillon had been signed to a 2-year extension worth $2.7 million ($1.2 in 2010-11, $1.5 in 2011-12 for a cap hit of $1.35 per season). Bouillon quickly became a fan favorite during the past season, his first full season with the team. While short in stature at 5’8″, Bouillon plays a tenacious game with a willingness to defend against even the biggest forwards in the league while remaining effective at the position. In some ways, Bouillon is symbolic of the Predators, who have garnered a reputation around the league of “doing less with more.” Bouillon is known as a stay-at-home defenseman, a player who takes care of his own end first. Bouillon is not a significant contributor on the scoresheet nor does he see much time on the power-play, but last year he proved his worth with this club in a shut-down capacity and a worthwhile contributor to the penalty kill.

On Saturday, word came out that the Predators had shipped the rights to D Dan Hamhuis, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, and a conditional 7th-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for D Ryan Parent, who will be a restricted free agent. While the majority of fans are saddened to see Hamhuis gone, most had also mentally prepared themselves for the next season’s roster not including Hamhuis, who will almost certainly be able to earn a larger contract with another team than the Predators would be willing to budget. Hamhuis, who had been with the team since he was drafted 12th overall by the Predators in the 2001 NHL draft, became a fan favorite early in his tenure with the team due to his physical nature and his skill in the lost art of the hip-check. Parent, who was highly thought of within the Predators organization up to the moment he was traded to the Flyers in the unfortunate Forsberg deal, epitomizes the stay-at-home defenseman, rarely contributing to the scoresheet but focusing on keeping the puck out of his own zone and eliminating the oppositions scoring opportunities. Parent’s play will moderately resemble Hamhuis’  but with a more conservative approach. Parent was a cap hit of $855k in the 2009-10 season, but with only 102 career NHL games, it stands to reason that he will be extended for a minimal raise. My guess would have him earning around $1m on a new deal across 2 years.

While Twitter and the Predators blogging community was still buzzing over the Hamhuis trade, Poile made what I would consider his first SIGNIFICANT roster move since the Foppa debacle. In exchange for a 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft and minor-league forward Matt Halischuk, the Predators shipped team captain Jason Arnott back to the New Jersey Devils.  Halischuk has enjoyed moderate success at the AHL level, but has little NHL experience on his resume, so it is difficult to set expectations for him. To be honest, I’m still trying to work out the shipping off of Arnott. When the Preds first signed him, I was amped. I got an Arnott jersey shortly after he selected #19 and he quickly became my favorite player. He had the tall task of captaining the team through the tumultuous 2006-07 season, leading his team to the playoffs in spite of the off-ice turmoil. So from a sentimental standpoint, I’m saddened to see him go. But from a team growth standpoint, I like the move. His struggles with injury and multiple concussions have hindered his contributions to the team and it was all but guaranteed that the 2010-11 season would have been his last season with the Predators. His $4.5m frees up a lot of salary space to dedicate to another player with more youth and possibly durability.  I think the most significant part of this trade is the message that it sends to the existing roster, as if it almost symbolizes a passing of the torch to the younger players who will become to new core of this team. As if to say “Weber,Suter, Wilson… it is now your time.”

I would also suggest a review of On the Forecheck’s angle on the financial implications the extra salary room allows. It’s a given that the Predators are not done. So what do you think, fair reader, of the moves made by the Preds today. That’s what the comments link is for. Hit it up. – Big Kev

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The pending free agents: Defense

Hello again everyone. Thanks to both of you for returning. I realize it’s been a long time since I last posted, but I’ll be honest, I’ve still found myself frustrated with the ousting the Preds suffered in the opening round and haven’t felt much like discussing the team. Don’t take me wrong, my love for this team hasn’t wavered. I just didn’t want to talk about it, but that’s my shortcoming and I’ll deal with that. My wife and I were having a meal with a good friend and fellow Preds fan tonight, and my friend asked about the state of the 2010-11 Preds. So begins the next few posts discussing the Predators roster and the various players that will be free agents this summer. These first few posts, we’ll look at the position most significantly affected this summer: the D-corp. Eklund has assured us that the entire Predators blue-line will be traded to Philadelphia for Dan Carcillo: and per his completely logical and iron-clad rating system, has been upgraded to E-pi squared, so why am I bothering? (Casual reader, don’t worry if you don’t understand that last line.)

DAN HAMHUIS: As the trade deadline loomed at the beginning of March, there had been lots of speculation that Dan Hamhuis would find himself dressing with another team considering his pending free-agent status, especially when the Preds acquired Denis Grebeshkov from the Edmonton Oilers the day prior to the deadline. Hamhuis, or “Hammer” as he is affectionately known by Predators fans, was a cap hit of $2 million (actual salary $2.5m) in the 2009-10 season, but the general consensus was/is that he will be able to earn $4+ million when offered a deal for next season. It was common knowledge during the course of the season that the Preds and Hamhuis had discussed an extension but had been unable to come to an agreement, considering the budget that Nashville operates within. Whether due to being unable to get what he deemed face value in return for Hamhuis, or more just a general faith that a deal can still be reached, Predators General Manager David Poile opted to hang on to Hamhuis. The team was rewarded by Hamhuis as he elevated his game to a level that I felt like had been missing for the better part of 2 seasons, playing much more responsible hockey in his own end while seemingly taking on more of a leadership role with the team. Finishing the regular season with 24 pts (5g,19a) and a plus-4 rating (Hamhuis had been a minus-4 each of the two seasons prior), the team and fans alike hoped that a deep playoff run would generate the extra revenues needed to compensate the young defenseman in better accordance to his expectations. Sadly, the Predators were eliminated in 6 games by the Blackhawks, likely too early to have generated the funds necessary to seal the deal with Hamhuis. Bottom line: unless Hamhuis has a change of heart, and offers a “hometown discount” to the Preds, we’ll likely see Hammer in another sweater next season. With Shea Weber becoming a restricted free agent in 2011, and Ryan Suter an unrestricted free agent in 2012, Poile will be sure to keep the piggybank full to try to lock-up his 2 premier defensemen when the time comes.

FRANCIS BOUILLON: When shot-blocking specialist Greg Zanon departed for the Minnesota Wild and sparsely-used Ville Koistenen went to the Florida Panthers during last summer’s free agency, the assumption by Predators fans was that the vacant defense positions would be filled from within the Nashville system, bringing up players from Milwaukee. To the surprise of many, David Poile instead went out and brought Francis Bouillon back to Nashville, who had been a Predator for only 4 games in the 2002-03 season. As Preds radio voice Tom Callahan often says, we picked up Bouillon for a “ham sandwich,” with him agreeing to a $750,000 contract. This became one of  the best deals in the entire league with Bouillon quickly asserting himself as a key cog in the Predators machine, playing regularly during penalty kills and other key moments of games. Short in stature but not in heart, Bouillon was one of the teams most reliable players while also helping rookie Cody Franson and Kevin Klein, who was expected to take a much more prominent role during the season, in their development. Bouillion finished the season with 11 points (3g,8a) in 81 games and a plus-5 rating, the trust of the coaching staff and the appreciation of Preds fans. Bottom line: it’s hard to imagine that the Preds don’t make a legitimate offer to Bouillon to have him return next season. Again, he was such a bargain this season, that a player at twice his salary would still likely have been viewed as having had a fair salary, so my expectation is that we will see Frankie B again in 2010-11.

In the next post, I will be looking at defensemen Cody Franson and Denis Grebeshkov. My intention is to have that post up in the next few days but in the meantime, my hope is that you will contribute your thoughts in the comments section below. Until next time, Big Kev.

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East vs West – my thoughts on parity

Guess what Pred-heads. The playoffs start in a week. We’re down to those last few games and thanks to Colorado’s shootout win at Vancouver in addition to the Calgary loss at home to San Jose, the 8 teams that are going to the dance in the West are known. Really, the Eastern teams are known as well. Does anyone really think the Rangers are gonna claw back into it?All that remains to be seen is what the seedings will be to determine who plays who. If the playoffs started today, your Western Conference matchups would be (1) San Jose vs. (8) Colorado, (2) Chicago vs. (7) Detroit, (3) Vancouver vs. (6) Los Angeles, and lastly (4) Phoenix vs (5) Nashville. I’ve already discussed how I would expect Nashville to fare against any of the 4 teams that could host them in the opening round of the playoffs, so I’ll not delve into that again. In reviewing the teams that are going to the playoffs, I was thinking about the difference of parity between the two conferences. Currently in the West, there are only 5 points that separate the 4-8 spots in the standings. Of those 5 spots, the final 4 could shift up and down quite a bit, because the teams are just so closely matched. In the East however, 12 points separate 4th place Pittsburgh from 8th place Boston. Anaheim’s (11th in the West) 86 points would be enough for 7th place in the East. I feel like the most intriguing playoff hockey is going to come from the West. Of any of the possible matchups in the West, only 1 team to me occurs to me as one that could “upset” another team in the opening round: the Colorado Avalanche. If it hadn’t been for Colorado’s collapse since the Olympic break. we wouldn’t even be able to consider them an upset team. So evenly matched are these teams that if any of the 5th, 6th or 7th place teams have made their way to the 2nd round, could we really call it a surprise? Nashville beating Phoenix, Vancouver or Chicago? Sure, why not? Chicago would obviously be favored over Nashville, and probably Vancouver too. But could a person scratch their head in disbelief if Nashville were to win the series? I don’t feel like they could. The same could be said for Detroit or Los Angeles. Over the course of the season, these teams have proven they have what it takes to run with any of the other teams night in and night out. Out of the East, a Pittsburgh/Ottawa matchup is likely, although there’s a chance Pittsburgh could trade places with New Jersey for the Atlantic division lead. Either way, an Ottawa advance to the 2nd round is highly unlikely. Then consider the other 3 teams: Montreal, Philadelphia and Boston. Against the likes of Washington (God help whoever faces them), New Jersey and Buffalo. A second round that doesn’t have the Caps, Pens, Devils and Sabres in it is a borderline ridiculous thought. But, as they say, that’s why we play the games. As a result of the premium cost at which wins will cost in the west, I have to give the advantage (I know, it’s early, why am I talking about it) to the Eastern conference team that plays for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Western conference team will have to overcome great physical and mental fatigue just to get to the final round, so it figures that the Eastern conference will likely be a much fresher team.

So there you have it. My thoughts as we prepare to enter the playoffs. Now that you know what I think, I would like for you to return the favor. Am I underestimating the Eastern conference? Do the lower 4 have what it takes to steal a series in the East? and who is your favorite in the West? Hit the comment feed below:

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The Playoff Push

As the Preds prepare for Wednesday’s game at Phoenix, Pred-heads are abuzz with the certainty that the Predators are returning to the playoffs after narrowly missing them last season. No longer are Pred-heads watching the scoreboards hoping that matchups will fall a certain way to push the Preds into the post season. In spite of the skepticism of “experts” in the media, a rash of injuries to key personnel throughout the season and a miserable start to the campaign, Nashville has taken care of business themselves and last week clenched a return to the playoffs. As of this post, the Predators sit in 5th place in the West with 98 points and 2 games remaining. They are 4 points behind Phoenix, who have 3 games remaining. A single point earned by Phoenix in any of their last 3 games will ensure that Nashville cannot overtake them for 4th, which is the final position providing home-ice advantage. Nashville does have SOME say in the Coyotes final position since we play them on Wednesday, but considering Phoenix will have another 2 games to earn a point even if Nashville beats them in regulation Wednesday, the likelihood is that Nashville not have home-ice advantage in the opening round. The attention then turns to 4 teams, of which one will be the Predators host in the opening round: the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks or the Phoenix Coyotes.

I’m expecting that if you were to have a survey of Preds fans of which team you would most like to avoid in the opening round, the majority would respond with the San Jose Sharks. And I would be in that majority. I think San Jose is the only one of the 4 teams that could get into the heads of the Preds, having twice eliminated Nashville from first-round playoff action in seasons prior and having completely embarrassed the Predators on March 11 when they scored 6 goals in the 3rd period to rebound from a 4-2 deficit at the 2nd intermission to win 8-5. This season Pekka Rinne is 1-1-0 against San Jose but that comes with a GAA (goals-against average) of 3.88 and a save percentage of .873. The HP Pavilion is widely known as one of the least friendly arenas in the league, housing a loud and energetic crowd to serve as a constant source of inspiration for the players. San Jose does however rely heavily on the Heatley-Marleau-Thornton line for much of its offensive production. Thornton has been oft-criticized for his fading out during the post-season, and it also makes it easier for Trotz to keep his powerhouse defense pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter up against the Sharks’ biggest offensive threat. I think it unlikely that the Preds fall to 8th to have to face San Jose, who appear to be headed for the first seeding in the playoffs. Though if we were to fall, I would certainly fear for the Preds. Expected outcome – Sharks in 5 (again)

If the Sharks end the season in first, nipping at their heels will be the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m actually more comfortable with this matchup than probably most of my peers are, although I would still like to avoid them if possible. Rinne is a 1-2-0 against Chicago this season, but with a healthy 2.35 GAA and a save percentage of .924, which are really pretty good statistics as a goaltender. Chicago will be going into the first round missing their top offensive threat from the blue-line in Brian Campbell who is out with a broken collarbone. Niemi is as solid a goaltending option as they’re going to have this season. However his record only consists of 32 games so it’s hard to have a gauge on how well he will hold up under the increased pressure of the playoffs. A Chicago matchup would keep travel to a minimum and since they’re a Central division opponent, we are familiar enough with them to compete with them night in and night out. Expected outcome – I honestly believe the Preds would win this one, but it’ll take all 7.

My expected outcome for the Preds this season is to land in 6th, solely because Detroit has been as red-hot as the Preds, and the Wings have more games to gain the ground. Whoever lands in 6th will face the rigorous travel to Vancouver, who will grab the three seed. The Preds went 2-2 against the Canucks this year. Luongo has looked completely ordinary this season, particularly since the Olympic break. The Sedin twins are always a handful, and the Canucks physical style of play would wear down on the veterans in our lineup. With Arnott and Dumont having already missed significant portions of the season this year due to injury, a physical game could significantly hamper the Preds aspirations for a deep run. So to me it breaks down to goaltending and durability. Expected outcome – This could go either way, but I’m gonna let my bias come into play. Preds in 6.

It’s been said time and again, but what a story the Coyotes have been. Predicted by EVERYONE to be competing for the first round draft pick this summer. Instead, they’ve challenged for the Pacific division lead all year on the coat tails of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. GM Don Maloney has built a team around the goaltending, and finally brought in a coach that can get a team playing with a plan. The team has done a phenomenal job of not allowing all of the off-ice turmoil affect the team’s on-ice product. Having surpassed all expectations, this team is playing with house money. The nothing-to-lose attitude can carry them a long way, but can they hold up under in the pressure cooker that is playoff hockey after it has been away from the desert for so long? I’m excited to see what Shane Doan will be able to do with this squad but just don’t see them having enough grit to stand up to the task. Predicted outcome – Preds in 5.

Who would you rather see? And what are your thoughts on my predictions? Hit the comment feed below.

Big Kev

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Random thoughts

The Predators play their last game of this 4-game road trip today against the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center. While they aren’t up yet, I dare say that by time you read this you’ll be able to find game previews via On the Forecheck
and Preds on the Glass, and possibly among the other fine Preds bloggers. You could say this is a trip of mixed emotions, though that would typically not be the case. Western California is not a place that is typically kind to Preds, yet the Preds have opportunity to go 2-1 this trip with a win tomorrow, completing the road trip at 3-1 (Win at Atlanta 2-1, loss at San Jose 8-6, win at Anaheim 1-0 so far). Any Preds fan would happily accept 3 out of 4 games won, from a standings perspective. Happily… except that the 8-5 loss to San Jose occurred in a game in which the Predators went into the 2nd intermission holding a 4-2 lead. The Predators that had only lost 3 times this season when leading after 2 periods allowed *6* 3rd period goals. Myself included, Pred-heads everywhere voiced their concerns about this collapse. Certainly it didn’t mean the end of our season, but it was an important 2 points that slipped away and a person could understandably begin to have questions about the mentality of this team. How would the team respond playing less that 24 hours later in an arena that we’ve had frightening little success in? While it couldn’t be said that a complete 180-degree turn was made, the Preds certainly played measurably better, keeping the high-scoring Ducks off the scoresheet, which allowed Shea Weber’s lone 5-on-3 goal to stand as the game-winner.

The future looks bright for Nashville, with the players that are expected to carry us past the Arnott-Dumont-Sullivan era beginning to look more and more comfortable. Looking particularly strong is Colin Wilson, who has played 11 games since being recalled on February 9. In those 11 games, he has scored 4 goals, of which 2 were game-winning goals, and tallying 3 assists while averaging 13:22 time on ice. The majority of this time has been played on the 3rd line, a role not counted on for offensive contributions. The hard work of Wilson has found favor with the coaching staff as well, with Wilson being promoted to first line duties alongside Arnott and Erat, and also finding himself on the 2nd power play unit.

Ellis likely has played himself out of any more starts, which the possible exception being the back-to-back games against Columbus and St. Louis on the 20th and 21st of March. Ellis is not solely to blame for the San Jose loss in the least, but his play in the third was horrible. There’s was no question that the Sharks were going to come out pressing in the third and that the goaltending was going to have to be up to the challenge.

This week NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell cited the need to follow “precedent” in not suspending Matt Cooke for a vicious and cowardly headshot that has almost certainly ended Marc Savard’s season, and with it, possibly Boston’s playoff aspirations. The league then deviated from the mentality of following precedent set when the War Room in Toronto (which reviews all controversial goals during games) when it allowed Malhotra’s  kicked-in goal to be allowed after having disallowed Boyd’s goal in the period prior, which had incidentally bounced in off a skate, although whether it was Boyd’s or the Sharks defender’s is unknown. I may be wrong, but I am convinced these 2 reviewed goals completely took Nashville out of the game. I can empathize with how disheartening it must have been to the players to have such inconsistency have such a profound effect on their hard work.

If you’ve read to this point, well done. You deserve a cookie. Go get yourself one. And while you’re at it, leave your comments. – Big Kev

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No suspension for Cooke,

On October 24th, 2009 the Philadelphia Flyers’ Mike Richards delivered a vicious blindside hit to Florida Panthers’ forward David Booth. The result for Booth was a concussion that held him out of 45 games, as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he would undoubtedly had represent Team USA. The result for Richards… well, he just continued to play games. NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell, having a son playing for the Panthers, wanted to avoid any suggestion of nepotism, and logically so, so he passed on the responsibility of reviewing the hit for a possible suspension on Richards to NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy. Murphy foolishly felt this was an unfortunate hockey hit that did not merit a suspension, leaving the majority of journalists and bloggers stunned.

Video of the Richards hit can be found here:

Sunday, Penguins forward Matt Cooke laid a similar hit to the Bruins’ Marc Savard, leaving Savard with a grade 2 concussion. Savard is almost certainly done for this season, and the hockey world watched as we waited to find out how Cooke would be disciplined. Today, we got that answer. Citing the fact that Richards got away with the same hit, so should Cooke.

Video of the Cooke hit can be found here:

The NHL lost an opportunity to rectify a mistake made in October, and instead made it that much harder for us fans of the game to tell the casual sports fan about our game. How can we help the game grow, telling about the skill and athleticism involved when these hits, and the subsequent negligence towards discipline, continually are brought to the forefront? In baby steps forward, the GMs of the league today unanimously approved a proposal to reduce blows to the head and to add a means to levy penalties and suspensions. Someone try to wake up Marc Savard and tell him… but talk quiet… I’m told concussions make you sensitive to sound…

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Preds win 2-1 over the Thrashers

Tonight the Preds visited Atlanta and squeaked out a 2-1 victory over the host Thrashers. The Preds got goals in the first from Ryan Suter and Colin Wilson. They then rode on the back of strong play from Dan Ellis in net to keep Atlanta from scoring a goal to tie it after Antropov scored within the first minute of the second period. The Preds played a solid opening period of play, limiting the opponents chances to the outside and pushing back a team that is coached with an emphasis on the attack. After the first intermission the Preds played the majority of game quite lackadaisically, and while the Thrashers didn’t play their way back into the game as much as the score suggests, the Thrashers did generate enough offense to keep things tense. In the end it wasn’t enough and the Preds skated off with a huge 2 point gain in the Western Conference standings.

* According to the official scoresheet, the attendance in Atlanta tonight was just over 11k. If that’s true, then they must have stayed in the lobby. I would ball park it around 7k in attendance and even that feels a bit generous.

*I have to say I wasn’t terribly inspired by any of the even strength lines. The Suter goal came on the team’s first power play opportunity, and the Wilson goal was his own, as he jumped on a defensive gaff while on the forecheck and lifted the puck past Hedberg after an efficient backhand to forehand movement. Hopefully some chemistry is developed soon as this is a critical roadtrip and has the potential to be a season ending run without some wins.

*It was a lot of fun to be a Pred fan in enemy territory tonight. The Preds heads very a very vocal group jeering the opposition and it was very easy to understand what was being said. Very well done. According to tweeters watching from home our taunts were coming through on the TV feed. Well done indeed.

*Up next for your Predators are 3 games in 4 nights, 2 of which are against teams jockeying with the Preds (Ducks and Kings). First on the itinerary are the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.

As always, your comments are definitely encouraged.

Until next time – Big Kev

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