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30 in 30: Revamped Predators hope for playoff return

by Mike G. Morreale

On the first day of NHL free agency last month, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile admitted he had never been so eager to upgrade his roster.

Failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four seasons while equaling the lowest goals per game average (2.27) in the NHL can do that to someone holding his team to a much higher standard.

The Predators' transition game suffered a major blow with the loss of defenseman Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild via free agency in the summer of 2012, and the highest goal-scorer on the roster was forward David Legwand with 12 in 48 games.

Nashville's leading point producer was defenseman Shea Weber, with 28.

There's no question Poile needed an upgrade on offense, particularly after the organization drafted top defensive prospect Seth Jones and with Mattias Ekholm on the verge of earning significant time with the big club. So the GM rolled up his sleeves and went to work July 5 by signing four forwards to multiyear contracts.

He signed center Matt Cullen and wing Viktor Stalberg and brought in some grit and tenacity with the signing of wings Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom. Poile also signed goalie Carter Hutton as the probable backup to starter Pekka Rinne, who is coming off a career-low .910 save percentage. Rinne is entering the second year of a seven-year contract signed in November 2011.

"We wanted to identify specific areas of need and I think we signed players that fill specific roles for our hockey club," Poile said. "I think the players we signed [July 5] are going to make us better next year."

Head coach Barry Trotz agrees.

"I like the type of people we brought in," Trotz told The Tennessean. "Guys like Hendricks and Nystrom really fill in that grit factor, and that backbone factor, so some of the young guys we have in our lineup can feel comfortable out there."

It's rather obvious that finishing last in the Central Division and 14th in the Western Conference with a 16-23-9 record didn't sit well with the coach or GM.

The maturation of sophomore defenseman Roman Josi, Nashville's 2008 second-round draft pick (No. 38), provides added hope along the blue line. Josi finished second among defensemen on the team with 18 points. The Predators provided Weber with additional support at the 2013 NHL Draft when they selected coveted defense prospect Jones with the No. 4 pick and 6-foot-5 defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby in the third round (No. 64).

Trotz was particularly impressed with Jones' powerful skating stride, generated from a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame. It wouldn't be surprising to see Trotz pair Jones with Weber to open the season.


Additions: RW Viktor Stalberg, C Matt Cullen, LW/RW Eric Nystrom, LW/RW Matt Hendricks, G Carter Hutton, D Bryan Rodney

Subtractions: LW Sergei Kostitsyn, RW/LW Brandon Yip, RW/LW Matt Halischuk, D Hal Gill, D T.J. Brennan, RW Bobby Butler, C/W Chris Mueller, D Jonathan Blum

UFAs: None

Promotion candidates: F Filip Forsberg, D Mattias Ekholm, F Austin Watson

"He moves really well for a young man at his size," Trotz said during the team's development camp in July. "It's exceptional."

The team also would expect improvement from Ryan Ellis, an offensive-minded defenseman who managed two goals and six points in 32 games.

After Legwand, the only other players to finish in double digits in goals were Mike Fisher (10 goals) and Gabriel Bourque (11 goals). The team re-signed forward Patric Hornqvist, a key piece to the team's core, to a five-year extension in April. Poile also re-signed the team's toughest player, left wing Rich Clune, to a two-year deal in July. Clune led the Western Conference with 159 hits last season.

Colin Wilson was having his best season to date before a shoulder injury sustained in March sidelined him after just 25 games. Much is expected of the fifth-year pro in 2013-14. The offense should also benefit from the addition of top offensive prospect Filip Forsberg, who was acquired from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Martin Erat and Michael Latta in April.

Forsberg played in five games for Nashville and had one assist and 14 shots on goal while averaging 15-plus minutes. He had 15 goals and 33 points in 38 games for Leksand in Sweden's No. 2 league and captained his country to a silver medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship with three goals and five points in six games.

The organization also is very high on prospects Austin Watson and Colton Sissons.

In addition to adding fresh faces to the lineup, Poile hired former NHL defenseman and United States Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, Phil Housley, to the coaching staff. Housley, who spent 21 seasons in the NHL, was coach of the U.S. National Junior Team that won the gold medal at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia, in January.

Under Housley, the Americans finished with the fourth-highest power-play efficiency (29.27 percent) and the top-ranked penalty-killing unit (89.29 percent) among the 10 teams. The Predators ranked second to last in the NHL on the penalty kill in 2012-13 with a 75.5-percent efficiency.


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