Surely, some Nashville Predators fan out there took trip to a remote country in early June and just got home now.
“What did I miss? Preds do anything?”
“Gary, you better sit down.”
There’s a ceiling on how exciting it is to cheer for Nashville at the moment. Sharing a division with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas will do that. Still, the Predators’ wild flurry of off-season activity should have their fans as amped up as they could possibly be. A year ago, the Preds had drafted Seth Jones, but GM David Poile’s biggest off-season additions were, drumroll, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg.
This summer: no more Mr. Nice Poile. He realized the team needed a complete philosophical shift, and he went for it. First, Poile said goodbye to Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history. It was an amicable split, but a difficult one. In came offense-minded Peter Laviolette. The change in coaching approach was as drastic as can be, as Laviolette teams tend to forecheck ferociously and pay less attention to defense.
“That’s partly why we made the changes,” Poile said. “We need to push forward a bit more. We feel very confident in our goaltending with Pekka Rinne coming back healthy this season, and our defense led by Shea Weber, Roman Josi, young players like Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. We feel we’re terrific in goaltending and defense, and as Peter Laviolette says, we need to go forward more. We need to try to be a more dangerous team offensively. I don’t think we’ve scared too many teams offensively in the past. They knew they were going to get a good, hard game, but we have not been able to put up a lot of goals on a regular basis. That’s prevented us from making the playoffs the last couple years.”
The Laviolette switch set the stage for offensive reinforcements. If you hire a run-and-gun coach, you equip him with a .357 Magnum, not a pop gun. That’s why Poile sprung for the James Neal trade on draft night, sending Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh.
There’s something about James Neal, isn’t there? He’s a 40-goal man and a six-time 20-goal man, yet it took him and Matt Niskanen to land Alex Goligoski when Dallas first sent Neal to Pittsburgh. This time around, the return for Neal seemed light. Hornqvist, the key piece, has scored 20 goals four times and hit the 30-goal mark once, albeit he’d played his entire career in Trotz’s offense-constraining system.
It seems like teams try to give away Neal, perhaps because of his history of playing too much on the disciplinary edge. But does Poile think he has a steal on his hands?
“No, I don’t, I don’t really know that,” Poile said. “The thing that was most important for us is that we’re looking to improve our offense and first-line forward players. And he fit that description. That was the main situation. I probably disagree with you a little bit in that we gave up two pretty good players. But we have a guy who scored 40 goals. And that’s exactly what the Predators need.”
And Neal wasn’t the only thing the Predators needed. Mike Fisher’s ruptured Achilles tendon opened up a hole at center. Poile’s solution: reach deep into the free agent bargain bin and pull out former No. 1 pivots Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy. The moves don’t need a ton of explanation, as they’re simply low-risk, medium-gain investments to plug a hole left by Fisher’s departure and continue the transition toward a more potent attack. But who the heck will play on the wings for Nashville? Jokinen, Ribeiro, Roy and Fisher (when healthy) are natural centers. Paul Gaustad and Matt Cullen are even better suited to the position since they’re faceoff mavens. Youngster Calle Jarnkrok played center when called up. Colin Wilson and even Craig Smith have experience up the middle. What gives? Well, Poile figures the depth chart will sort itself out, noting most of the pivots have enough experience on the wing that a shift back there wouldn’t throw them off. And not only does the free agent trio provide a Fisher Band-Aid, it also takes heat off the team’s long-term centerpieces at forward: Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg.
“Absolutely,” Poile said. “Initially, you’d be thinking Roy, Ribeiro, Jokinen, Neal would go play on your top two lines. This can give guys like Jarnkrok and Forsberg a good situation if we can slot them in on our third line, as far as matchups. We’d put them in a position to have good success.”
By the same token, nabbing rugged defenseman Anton Volchenkov on a one-year deal could insulate Jones, but the situation isn’t the the same. Jones was good enough to play defense in the NHL as a teenager, which is rare, and Poile believes his prized young prospect can grow into a bigger role this season. Ask Poile to give Jones a report card for year 1 and you sense it’s at least a solid B.
“He ended up playing near the beginning with Shea Weber, which was a good way to be broken in when Roman Josi was hurt for a month,” Poile said. “There were some highs and lows as the season went on in terms of overall play, but for his age and the role he played, he did great. He went over to the World Championship and was just terrific over there. He’s been training all summer. There’s no question in my mind, with one year of experience under his belt, he’s going to be a really solid contributor for us this year.”
The Preds have a mountain to climb in the Central, and they may not reach the playoff summit this year or next. But they sure are trying, and it sure looks like they’ve improved on paper.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin