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Nashville Predators 2007-8 Season Preview

Today it's my turn to chip in on our Central Division bloggers roundtable of 2007-8 NHL previews, so let's turn our attention to the Nashville Predators. As some of you may have heard, there's been some turmoil on the ownership front here in Music City, but I'll save that bit another time. For now, let's focus on the team...

FORWARDS
Who's Out: Scott Hartnell, Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg (presumably).
Who's In: Radek Bonk, Martin Gelinas, Jed Ortmeyer.

The Skinny: Depth down the middle should still be quite strong (Arnott/Legwand/Bonk/Nicholl), but scoring depth on the wing has taken a hit with the combined departure of Hartnell & Kariya along with the continued back troubles for Steve Sullivan, who is not expected to play until Thanksgiving at least. Look for a more yeoman-like effort loaded with plenty of 15-30 goal scorers, but no single dynamo that carries the load. The two main scoring lines for now appear to be new captain Jason Arnott centering J.P. Dumont (coming off a career-best 66 point season) and Vern Fiddler, then David Legwand (also coming off a career-best season) centering Martin Erat and Jed Ortmeyer. We'll find out if Barry Trotz is an avid reader of this humble blog if Alexander Radulov starts the season on a line with Bonk & Gelinas. I suggested just such an idea in a comment on September 21, and only four days later, reports in the paper showed Trotz doing just that. The fourth line will consist of what is likely to be a rotating crew of Scott Nichol, Jerred Smithson, Jordin Tootoo, and Darcy Hordichuk.

Who to Watch: While Alexander Radulov's talent entices the locals with dreams of an All-Star caliber sniper, he has to show greater consistency in the face of increased attention from opposing teams, and Radulov himself seems disappointed with how he's prepared during the offseason. A healthy increase in ice time should help him tally upwards of 150-200 shots, but in scoring 18 goals last season, he potted about seven more than his overall Shot Quality would predict, so I'm guessing that he won't repeat that 18.8 Shooting Percentage from 2006-7. Figure him for something like 200 shots, a 13-15% scoring rate, and 25-30 goals. Anything above that would be a huge bonus to the Predators. Along the way, Radulov should provide plenty of highlight moments; he's an exciting, dynamic winger who gets a huge charge out of scoring goals, and that translates right up to the crowd. Check out the following from the first round of the playoffs (A-Rad's goal comes up around 20 seconds in, and be sure to hang around for the replay):




DEFENSE
Who's Out: Kimmo Timonen, Vitali Vishnevski
Who's In: Greg de Vries, Ville Koistenen

The Skinny: One of the NHL's youngest, yet most talented defense corps must be ready to face the music this season without longtime stalwart Kimmo Timonen, who left for Philadelphia. Shea Weber steps in as the headline grabber and top all-around talent, but Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter will also see heavy duty in a variety of situations. The veteran de Vries adds experience and the ability to backfill a number of different roles should someone else get injured, while Greg Zanon plays a solid shutdown, shot-blocking game (he finished 8th in the league in Blocked Shots last year while playing only 66 games).

Who to Watch: With Timonen out of the picture look for Marek Zidlicky to provide the offensive punch once again. He's been working with the top power play unit and has been clearly instructed to shoot first & ask questions later, which (if obeyed) will help quiet critics who see him getting too fancy with the puck back there.

GOALTENDING

The Skinny: Chris Mason takes over the #1 job after the trade of Tomas Vokoun to Florida, and while nobody likes to see such a 1-2 combo broken up before its time, Mason has proven himself worthy of such a promotion and should acquit himself well. What the Predators will miss is the confidence of depth - Dan Ellis beat out Pekka Rinne for the backup job coming out of training camp, but his one game of NHL experience (with Dallas prior to the lockout) leaves more questions than answers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Skinny: Despite last year's high-octane offense, Nashville's power play was a lackluster 18th (17.4%), leaving some room for improvement as the reins have been handed over to associate coach Brent Peterson, who has emphasized a "back to basics, get more shots on net" approach to the man advantage. Look for Radek Bonk and Dan Hamhuis to play key roles in making that program work. Even a modest increase in power play performance should help offset an expected decrease in 5-on-5 scoring. The penalty killing unit was a true strength of the team (5th in the NHL, 84.6%) and must be relied upon to continue that level of performance.

SUMMARY

Taking the PythagenPuck approach to predicting how the Predators' season will go, the lions share of a team's points in the standings will be driven by the Goals For/Against ratio, with extras thrown in for shootout victories. Last year, the Predators scored 266 goals and gave up 206, which, when run through the formula, would predict a winning percentage of .636 (against an actual result of .634, showing how accurate PythagenPuck can be) outside of those SO wins. That .636 winning percentage across 82 games yielded 104 points, which along with six shootout victories gave them the 110 points that was good for third best in the NHL last year.

What we have this year is a departure of some fine offensive talent, and its replacement with veteran, defensively responsible players (primarily de Vries, Bonk & Gelinas). Taking the same analytical track as applied against last season, I'm projecting the Predators to score around 245 goals, while yielding 215. Running those numbers through the PythagenPuck model would yield a winning percentage of .572 and thus 94 points from regular play. In addition to that, an average performance in shootouts would garner another 5 or 6 points, putting them right around the 100 point mark and a 5th-7th playoff spot in the Western Conference, second in the Central Division behind Detroit.

Basically, I do see the team taking a step backwards this year, but not to the level that's been touted by some of the MSM. If you look at the big names that left the team and their impact on the 110-point season, Forsberg only played 17 games in Nashville, and Hartnell's production (22 goals, 19 assists) should be relatively easy to replace. Kariya and Timonen are indeed significant losses, and the real Achilles Heel of this team will be the question (which remains open until answered) of whether Chris Mason can carry the burden of 60+ games played. Last year's team was only three points removed from the President's Trophy, so I think in calling for a 5th-7th playoff spot this projection does reflect a genuine downgrade.

The upside for Nashville fans is that if the ownership situation can be resolved around the end of October (as looks likely to be the case), the team is positioned so close to the salary floor that they should be able to make an adjustment or two in trade during the course of the season. GM David Poile has done a remarkable job putting together a competitive squad while given marching orders to slash the payroll, and he was even able to restock the draft pick cupboard through the Vokoun deal. While keeping up with the Red Wings may not be a likely prospect this time around, the Predators should continue to stand head & shoulders above their other Central Division competitors in Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis.

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