Sports

NEW SEASON, NEW COACH: A LOOK AT THE NASHVILLE PREDATORS AND THE NASHVILLE PREDATORS’ EXPERIENCE

Preds captain Shea Weber getting the best of Chicago Blackhawk Marian Hossa for the home crowd.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Sixteen thousand loud voices and an arena full of infectious energy: For novice and die-hard hockey fans, it’s the best of “Happy birthday, Sweet Sixteen” debuts in town.

Nashville Predators fans showing their solid-gold team-color loyalty. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Nashville Predators fans showing their solid-gold team-color loyalty.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

The Nashville Predators kicked off their 16th season in Bridgestone Arena October 9 against the Ottawa Senators, with ultimate hopes of returning to post-season play after a two-year absence.

Absent from the sidelines was long-time head coach Barry Trotz, the only coach in the team’s history (and now head coach of the Washington Capitals). Present was original Preds forward, David Legwand—but for the Senators.

While bearing some resemblance to the team Trotz iced in 2013-14, the Preds are potentially significantly upgraded at the forward position, and they boast a new leader behind the bench in Peter Laviolette.

Laviolette, a former defenseman who skated with the New York Rangers, has had NHL head coaching experience with the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes–who won the 2006 Stanley Cup under his leadership.

“It was exciting to be in Nashville for training camp, because my last two coaching jobs (in Carolina and Philly) had me take over teams in mid-season, so this was the first time in many years (going back to fall of 2001, when I joined the New York Islanders as head coach) that I was able to start with a clean slate,” Laviolette said. “I couldn’t wait to get started.”

Predators new head coach Peter Laviolette (center) hopes to lead another team--Nashville’s team--to a Stanley Cup championship. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Predators new head coach Peter Laviolette (center) hopes to lead another team–Nashville’s team–to a Stanley Cup championship.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Confident in the team he and general manager David Poile have assembled, Laviolette also said he expects “spirited competition” from his players—a desire to bring an “up-tempo, winning attitude” and “solid systems” into his first Nashville season in a competitive Western Conference. In turn, Nashvillians can expect the thrill of witnessing a team that plays with such spirit.

The Predators were one of only two teams in the Central Division of the NHL’s Western Conference that did not see postseason play last year. The Chicago Blackhawks, chief rivals of the Preds and the 2013 Cup winners, play in the Central. With the Pacific Division’s Los Angeles Kings having won the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cups, the Western Conference has maintained a stranglehold over its Eastern rivals of late. The NHL’s weighted schedule emphasizes divisional rivalries, and competition is fierce. In addition to Chicago, the Preds will face Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis and Winnipeg—all hoping to improve on their past campaigns on the quest for the Stanley Cup.

No doubt, Nashville attracts its share of fans from rival teams, who fill seats and hotel rooms on visits. For instance, when the Chicago Blackhawks–2013 Stanley Cup winners and arguably the Predators’ biggest rivals–come to Music City, red and black jerseys dot the crowds. But over the years, the Predators have garnered a diverse fan base–with those of varying levels of interest from various geographical backgrounds, meaning some fans in Bridgestone have traded jerseys and allegiances.

Preds captain Shea Weber getting the best of Chicago Blackhawk Marian Hossa for the home crowd.  PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Preds captain Shea Weber getting the best of Chicago Blackhawk Marian Hossa for the home crowd.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Casual fans who have not watched much hockey may find live games in Bridgestone Arena far more exhilarating to witness live, and the 16,000 to 17,000 fans who attend average Predators home games might captivate newcomers in an atmosphere that fans keep wildly electric, whether the team wins or loses. People who have thought of hockey as a sport best suited to bitter cold-weather towns are learning that hockey thrives in California, Florida, Texas and Arizona–and that some of these places don’t have the hockey lineage Nashville has.

Of course, there are many transplants to Nashville who have experienced hockey in other cities. Many who have relocated to Music City from areas as diverse as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit arrive in Tennessee thinking they have moved to a city that is so “football centric” that “hometown” fans could not possibly hold the same enthusiasm for–and exhibit the same knowledge of–the sport as a “normal” NHL crowd may display on a nightly basis. The combination of a good family atmosphere and passionate fan base in Nashville home games has converted many a skeptic into a Predators fan in short order. New Nashville residents, who for decades had followed other teams, have purchased season seats.

More interesting still, a reasonable number of older, more ardent, local hockey fans can trace their Nashville loyalties back to the early 1960s, when a minor league, known as the Eastern League, included the Nashville Dixie Flyers for nine seasons. Later, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, such minor league teams as the Nashville South Stars (a farm team of the NHL’s then-Minnesota North Stars), the Knights, Nighthawks, and Ice Flyers all graced the city. These minor league franchises set the base for expansion of the National Hockey League to Nashville in 1998.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE 2014-2015 PREDS TEAM:

Goalie Pekke Rinne (35) and forward Craig Smith (15) in action PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Goalie Pekke Rinne (35) and forward Craig Smith (15) in action
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

A little background for general audiences

When skating at full strength, teams “ice” three forwards, who skate as a “line” (a left wing, a center, and a right wing); two defensemen, who are a “pair” or “defensive tandem”; and of course, in the last line of defense, the goaltender, or “goalie.” The players skate in shifts that generally run from 30 to 60 seconds, depending on their ability to “change” and on possible “line matching” coming from the coaching staff. Each game, teams dress 20 players, which will usually include four sets of forward lines, three defensive pairings, and both a starting and a backup goaltender.

A semi-pro, “in-the-know” look at the players

Nashville is “set” in goal this year, with 31-year-old Pekka Rinne, a veteran looking to complete a comeback after suffering through a 2013-14 season beset by injury. Carter Hutton, signed by the Preds to back Rinne up during last year’s campaign, was thrust into a position he may or may not have been ready for, and although he delivered respectable numbers and finished his season with five consecutive wins, he will be placed in a much better position to succeed with a healthy Rinne guarding the net for the majority of the season.

Previous coach Trotz always had a keen eye for solid defensive play, and the pedigree of defensemen that came up through the ranks and delivered shutdown performances over the years included reliable names like Kimmo Timonen, Kevin Klein, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter, and current Preds captain Shea Weber, whose booming slapshot strikes fear into the heads, hearts, helmets and shinpads of shot-blocking defenders. Coach Laviolette certainly inherits a defensive corps that keeps opponents’ chances to a minimum.

Weber, who turned 29 years old this off-season, led the Preds in assists and points last year. His 23 goals ranked second on the team, and first among all NHL defensemen. Weber and Swiss defenseman Roman Josi form a solid 1-2 pairing on the Nashville blueline and eat up well over 20 minutes of ice time per game.

Newly acquired Anton Volchenkov comes over as a free agent from New Jersey, and he will provide veteran leadership both on and off the ice. Other returnees include Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Victor Bartley and last year’s first-round draft choice Seth Jones, who at just 19 years old made his NHL debut and delivered a somewhat erratic overall performance. However, that glimpse into his skill set left no doubt that he is a world-class caliber player who will only get better. Jones, the son of former NBA star and native Tennessean Popeye Jones, is listed at 6’5, 210 pounds, with the agility and ability to be a top pairing defenseman in the NHL for a long time.

Mike Fisher celebrates with fans after a score. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Mike Fisher celebrates with fans after a score.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Up front, the Predators will start the season without veteran forward Mike Fisher, who tore an Achilles tendon over the summer, underwent successful surgery and is expected to return by mid-season. In his absence, the team will pick up the slack via off-season free agent acquisitions Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen. These three forwards arrive with hefty resumes, including solid offensive totals over their careers. By signing these players to one-year deals, the Preds hope to jumpstart an offense that was held to an average of just over two-and-a-half goals per game last season. James Neal arrives via trade with Pittsburgh, and he brings a goal scorer’s attitude and the credentials to back that up. Neal, who just turned 27 years old, has scored 20 or more goals in each of his six seasons in the NHL, with a career high 40 tallied in 2011-12 with the Penguins.

With newly acquired veterans coming to camp, seemingly penciled into an already crowded lineup, fans want to to see dynamic young talent like Filip Forsberg, age 20, and Calle Jarnkrok, age 23— both acquired via trades over the past two seasons—given regular roles in Nashville this year, Laviolette knows.

“I don’t want guys like them [Forsberg and Jarnkrok] to come in and think that because we’ve acquired these older vets that they don’t have a shot at making the team out of camp this year,” Laviolette said. “They absolutely will be given every opportunity to prove they belong here. Maybe it’s some of the other guys who’ve been either brought in in recent years, or have been on the team for a few seasons that will have to dig a little deeper to prove they belong here.”

Calle Jarnkrok PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL,  NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Calle Jarnkrok
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN RUSSELL, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

While not pointing fingers or naming names, it is clear Laviolette knows it could be make-it-or-break-it time for forwards like Gabriel Bourque, who tallied a career high 26 points last year but needs to improve on his nine-goal output, a disastrous decline from the 11 he tallied in less than half a full season last year. Viktor Stalberg is on notice as well, as he arrived from the Blackhawks in 2013 with the promise of improving upon his already solid numbers in Chicago, but he found himself “odd man out” at times last season. Enigmatic center Colin Wilson, a former first round pick in 2008 (7th overall) also is at a crossroads. Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom, who also came to the Preds as free agents in 2013, had their ups and downs, too.

One player who found himself planted firmly on the plus side of the ledger in last year’s disappointing campaign was Craig Smith. Smith, just 25 years old, contributed a team-high 24 goals on a team that did surrender more goals than they scored.

Veteran center Paul Gaustad will be counted on to win valuable face-offs at both ends of the ice, and third year Predator Rich Clune keeps opponents honest with his toughness and willingness to defend his teammates when tempers flare.

With new vision from new coach Peter Laviolette, inspired contributions from some offensively gifted acquisitions, a world-class goaltender and of course, captain Shea Weber, the 2014-15 Nashville Predators invite fans to come down to Bridgestone Arena and see for themselves why NHL hockey is a the great spectator sport they deliver to Nashville with passion and pride.

Note: Marc Nathan, a New York City native (Rangers fan then) who came to Nashville about a year ago via Los Angeles (Kings fan then) occasionally offers one of his season seats in Bridgestone Arena to Dana Malone. When she won’t interupt his game-watching, Marc is always willing to answer her questions about a game she continues to learn more about. Sports & Entertainment Nashville thanks Marc for his work on this story.