Hockey is finally upon us. After a lengthy lockout, the Predators will open the season Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last year’s season ended with the Predators losing in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs, but not after Nashville knocked out chief rival Detroit in the first round.
The players, who hoped to start the season four months ago, are certainly ready to go. The question is whether the fans are as well. Professional sports fans don’t take kindly to long labor disputes, and the lockout comes just eight years after the NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season .
According to 102.5 The Game’s Willy Daunic, the league’s latest labor stoppage hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for the Predators much, if at all. Saturday night’s opener is sold out, and Monday’s game against St. Louis isn’t far behind.
“They only lost about one percent of their season ticket holders during the lockout. They ended up with the highest renewal rate of season tickets that they’ve ever had,” Daunic said on Friday.
The fans should be happy with the product the team puts on the ice again this year. Yes, the team will be without all-star defenseman Ryan Suter, who signed a free agent contract with Minnesota, but the bulk of the club returns, including star goalie Pekka Rinne and first team All-NHL defenseman Shea Weber.
The Central Division will once again be one of the toughest in hockey. Four of the division’s five teams made the playoffs last year, the other three being Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis.
Daunic sees St. Louis, last year’s division champs, as the favorite again.
“They’ve got everybody back. Like the Predators, they’re young, and they’re only going to get better. They don’t have a star, but they have some emerging stars who are young,” he said.
Daunic also sees Chicago as being competitive again (“They have some question marks with their goalie, but they have some firepower. They’re a force.”) but thinks the perennially-powerful Detroit team could be headed for a down cycle after captain and future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom retired.
“They made a huge play for Suter and/or Weber (in free agency), they wanted to get one of them badly after they lost Lidstrom, and they didn’t,” Daunic said. “They put all their eggs in that basket, and whiffed, and so they really don’t have the answer for not having Lidstrom, so they are vulnerable because they are older, I think.”
So, what about the Predators? According to Daunic, how Nashville answers these three questions should determine the trajectory of their season.
1. How will Nashville adapt without Ryan Suter?
The Predators hoped to keep all three of their stars – which of course were Rinne, Suter and Weber – for this season. They inked Rinne to the biggest deal in franchise history in November 2011, and then last summer signed Weber to a contract that more than doubled the amount of money they are going to pay Rinne. Nashville made a generous offer to Suter too, but the Predators’ 2003 first-round draft pick signed with the Wild instead.
Now, the Predators hope to replace him with their second-round pick from the 2008 draft, 22-year-old Roman Josi, who played 52 games with Nashville as a rookie last season, whom Daunic describes as “very, very promising.”
“They’re going to throw him in there with Shea Weber, and Suter and Weber were the best pair of defensemen in the league, I think pretty much hands-down. And they’d play about half the game. That’s the most you can realistically expect any one defense pair to play,” Dauinic said. “They won’t be able to lean on them quite the same way this year. How Roman Josi does, and how they compensate for Suter, as a group, is going to be the No. 1 key to the season.”
2. How much better are Nashville’s youngsters?
Rather than load up on big-name free agents, the Predators have generally relieved on developing a cohesive group of solid young players within their own organization. That worked last year, and it’ll be the approach again this season.
On defense, that starts with Ryan Ellis, the team’s first-round pick from 2009. The 22-year-old played 32 games last year, but will be leaned on more heavily this season.
On the line, Nashville got the job done a season ago despite not having a single player in the NHL’s top 60 in points; Martin Erat (ranked 63rd), was Nashville’s most prolific scorer. Right-winger Jordin Tootoo (30 points) late-season acquisitions Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov are gone, so the Preds will look to a pair of 23-year-olds to help share the scoring burden.
“Two guys I would single out, especially offensively, are Craig Smith and Colin Wilson. These are two pretty talented, young players, American players on a side note, that have shown good offensive ability,” Daunic said. “But now it’s time. They’ve going to have to be more consistently strong scoring, and that can make a big difference. If at least one of them, that would help give them the offense they need to win.”
Wilson, a center, was Nashville’s first-round pick in 2007, and tallied 35 points in his third NHL season last year. Smith’s first NHL action came last season, and he scored 36.
3. Can special teams excel again?
The Predators Big Three helped make Nashville the NHL’s best special teams unit last season, after ranking 26th the season before. “I think it shocked everybody in the league that they were No. 1, because for years that was a weakness,” Daunic said.
However, the Predators were just ordinary in the playoffs, giving up five power-play goals and scoring five themselves.
Should the Predators’ regular-season performance on special teams last season repeat itself this year, it should be another playoff season for Nashville.