Welcome to another weekly edition of Conference Call Tuesday, where we collaborate with the people who know our Western Conference counterparts best: their own die-hard fans, to talk shop and look ahead to the 2014-15 season.
This week, we take a look at a team that had a lot of success against the Blackhawks in 2013-14, but not much anywhere else; the division rival Nashville Predators.
The Predators started their season with high hopes for improving on a last-place finish in the Central Division the year before. GM David Poile picked up two former Blackhawks in Viktor Stalberg and Carter Hutton, as well as Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, and Matt Cullen.
The Predators were dealt a huge blow early in the season, when former Vezina Trophy candidate, goaltender Pekka Rinne, was diagnosed with a hip infection, and did not return to action until March.
By then, the Preds’ playoff hopes were dampened, but not doused. The Preds and Winnipeg Jets battled in the basement of the stacked Central Division, searching for the second and final Wild Card spot with fellow Division rival Dallas Stars. In the end, it was the Stars that punched their ticket to the post-season, and the Predators failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second straight year.
Nashville would not rest on their laurels in the summer of 2014, making moves on both defense and offense, while locking in their goaltending tandem moving forward. Hutton was re-signed to a two-year deal to back-up Rinne next season.
The only coach the Predators have ever had, Barry Trotz, was fired, and replaced by former Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette.
40-goal scorer James Neal was brought in, as well as a triplet of free-agent centers: Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, and Mike Ribero. Anton Volchenkov is the Preds’ lone defensive improvement, but all in all, a busy season in Nashville has Predators’ fans excited for the season ahead.
What was the Predator’s main issue in 2013-14? Aside from playing in the killer Central Division.
Well, the obvious issue for the Predators from last season was goaltending. When Pekka Rinne underwent hip-surgery, the organization didn’t really know where to turn. At first Marec Mazanec saw a lot of time in net, and played well for a while then hit some struggles, Carter Hutton stepped in and started off slow then really developed into the dependable backup goalie for the Predators and seems to be the front-runner to be Rinne’s backup next season. Other than goalie play and injury, the Predators did finish 20th in the league; the second worst among all Central Division teams.
Do you feel that the goaltending issue has been addressed so far this off-season?
Rinne is expected to be healthy and we did see glimpses of greatness last season when he did return the later half of the year. If Rinne was healthy all season I truly think the Predators would have reached the playoffs as a wild-card team. Other than that, the trade for James Neal and the signings of Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Mike Ribeiro the Predators should have a few more scorers on the ice. Also, a new system like Peter Laviolette will introduce should be waves ahead, offensively, than what Barry Trotz focused on in his time in Nashville.
Do you feel it was time for Barry Trotz to go, or did the firing catch you off-guard?
I think it was time. Trotz took an expansion team of the late 90’s and built the Predators, along with GM David Poile, from the ground up basically. Trotz will never be forgotten by Predators fans. The firing did not catch me off guard. I can honestly say 100% of Predators fans wish him the best in Washington and most are looking forward to the new era with Peter Laviolette.
How do you feel the existing Predators will react to new coach Peter Laviolette’s change in coaching style?
I think Laviolette’s system is the polar opposite of Trotz’s. If the defense lead by Shea Weber and Roman Josi continue to play at the levels they have shown the blue-line will be fine. For the forwards, I think it will take some getting used to. It will be much faster paced both in games and practices, and the development of Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Seth Jones, and other young forwards under Laviolette will mold together nicely, in my opinion.
The Preds seemed to have the Blackhawks’ number last season, with four wins in five games, including a couple of blowouts. Did this team just come to play against Chicago, or are they capable of that every night?
The Predators played well against the “big teams” last season for most of the year. We fared well against the Avalanche, Blackhawks, and Stars for the most part but then we wouldn’t show up against teams like Edmonton or Calgary.
How do you feel about the Predators’ offense now that James Neal has been brought in? Do you expect him to be the go-to weapon next season?
I believe he is the go to guy for sure. I think he understands that as well. He was the go to go in Dallas in his time there along with Ribeiro and hopefully they both will step up and light the lamp night in and night out. Another guy to keep an eye on that could have a whale of a season is forward Craig Smith.
Seth Jones; How would you grade his rookie season?
I give Jones a B+. He showed signs of greatness. You have to remember he is still 19-years-old so he also showed some mistakes on the ice as well. Offensively he was great. He has said he has been working out very hard this off-season, if he fills out his jersey a bit more and gains some speed on his feet he can only get better.
Hutton was a mixed bag of emotions for the first few games but then really found his groove and ended up winning 20 games for the Predators. He has won the back-up goalie spot behind Pekka Rinne. Stalberg was the opposite. He had a rough go of it. A tough season, but I think Laviolette’s system fits him much better than Trotz’s; this season can’t get any worse than last.
What’s the Preds’ X-factor heading into next season?
The play of their young forwards. Jarnkrok, Forsberg and Gabriel Bourque will have responsibilities on the 3rd or maybe even second lines. Jarnkrok showed great skill last season, Forsberg has high expectations, and Bourqe is a machine on the ice, if paired with the right players he could have a very good season in a new fast paced system.
Predict the Predators’ 2014-15 season.
I think the Predators battle for the final wildcard spot this season with the likes of Phoenix or Minnesota, and I think the Predators edge them out due to their goalie play. I think they sneak into the playoffs and anything can happen from there. Very excited to see a new era of hockey in Smashville.
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