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Faces change, results don't for successful Preds

by John Manasso
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said the thought dawned on him minutes after his team was eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Semifinals.

"We saw and observed that we may be a lot closer than even we thought," Trotz said, "and it's not always the best team that's going to win the series, it's the team that plays the best that's going to win the series. And that was a lot of growth for us. I think organizationally we look at it as anything less than the Stanley Cup now, we must consider it a season (where) we didn't accomplish what we wanted to. … So are expectations higher? Yeah."


s. kostitsyn m. fisher p. hornqvist
c. wilson d. legwand m. erat
n. spalding c. o'reilly m. halischuk
b. geoffrion j. smithson j. tootoo
r. suter s. weber
k. klein r. ellis
j. hillen j. blum
f. bouillon t. sloan
p. rinne
a. lindback
ones to watch
d roman josi
f craig smith
D teemu laakso
g chet pickard
Vancouver, which came within one victory of winning the Cup, lost four home playoff games -- two of them to Nashville.

The Predators have developed into something of a playoff mainstay recently, with five berths in the last six seasons. But last season was the breakthrough -- the franchise reached the second round for the first time.

So while outsiders might not take Nashville seriously as a contender, the Predators take themselves seriously.

Five forwards from last year's opening-night roster (Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont, Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, Matthew Lombardi) are gone. Trotz believes developing players will fill most of those slots, leaving two positions up for grabs at training camp.

Colin Wilson, the seventh pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, had 16 goals last season despite what Trotz said was a bad second half. Wilson is just 21 years old, but Trotz said, "He's got to give us 20 (goals)."

Trotz also is looking for a better season from right wing Patric Hornqvist, whose production dropped from 30 goals in 2009-10 to 21 last season. Trotz said 25 is what he's expecting.

Blake Geoffrion, who had six goals in 20 games in his first NHL season in 2010-11, must score 12 to 15, Trotz said. Geoffrion will miss several weeks after suffering a deep cut to his wrist when he was stepped on during a preseason game.

Trotz said he also expects continued production near the 20-goal plateau from last season's leading scorer Sergei Kostitsyn, who had 23, as well as David Legwand and Martin Erat.

A full season from Mike Fisher also should benefit the offense. Fisher, acquired from Ottawa in February, underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason and his readiness for the start of the regular season is in question.

"It's going to be better," Legwand said of having Fisher for the full season. "Obviously, Fish is a hard player and plays gritty minutes and does everything around the ice well. Around here, we've got to be good in all aspects of the game and have coaches trust in all aspects of the game. I think a big thing for us moving forward is being strong in our own end (and) being strong in the offensive zone, too, not just getting the puck out of our end and getting in. We've got to score more goals this year and defend better and we'll be a better hockey team."


IN: Niclas Bergfors, RW (free agent, Panthers); Jack Hillen, D (free agent, Islanders); Brett Lebda, D (trade, Maple Leafs); Robert Slaney, LW (trade, Maple Leafs); Tyler Sloan, D (buyout, Capitals); Zack Stortini, RW (free agent, Oilers); Kyle Wilson, C (free agent, Blue Jackets)

OUT: J.P. Dumont, RW (contract buyout); Cody Franson, D (trade, Maple Leafs); Marcel Goc, C (free agent, Panthers); Matthew Lombardi, C (trade, Maple Leafs); Shane O'Brien, D (free agent, Avalanche); Steve Sullivan, LW (free agent, Penguins); Joel Ward, RW (free agent, Capitals)
Some of the young players who contributed last season -- Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling and Cal O'Reilly among them -- will be better from their extended playing time. Youngsters Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith also could be in the mix for opening-day spots.

The only significant acquisition the Predators made at forward was Niclas Bergfors, an all-rookie selection in 2010 who is with his fourth team since February 2009. He can have long scoring lapses that baffle coaches but is just 24. Trotz said he asked Bergfors why he was not as productive last season as he could have been, and Bergfors responded that he did not go to the hard areas of the ice enough.

"We're trying to figure out Niclas as we got him," Trotz said. "He's got speed, but he's quick -- quick in the small areas. He's more of a grinding, quick-play, give-and-go type. … His game is blue line in versus far blue line to the goal. You have to understand that and give him the benefit of the doubt."

Trotz bristles at that notion that his team doesn't have enough offense.

"There's teams like Atlanta or whatever, they score a lot more goals than us but also give up a lot more," Trotz said. "It doesn't translate. And for us it does translate. We're going to make it hard for you to score, that's where our strength is. Sometimes I get mad even at our own organization -- 'Well, we don't score, we don't score' -- but we win games. All I know is we score one more than the other team more often than not. That's what matters to me."

It all starts with two names for Nashville on the back end: Weber and Suter.

The two defensemen, who form arguably the League's top defense pair, complement each other's strengths. Ryan Suter finished plus-20, best on the team and tied for 11th among NHL defensemen, and had four goals and 35 assists in 70 games.

Weber was in the top 10 among NHL blueliners with 16 goals and 48 points, and was a Norris Trophy finalist.

In the playoffs, they spent almost half of the game on the ice -- Suter averaged 28:51 per game and Weber 27:58.

Weber went through a somewhat contentious contract negotiation with the Predators in the offseason, eventually winning a one-year $7.5 million contract in arbitration He'll be a restricted free agent again next summer if he doesn't sign a long-term deal.

The hope is that his contract status does not become a distraction for Weber. Before the Preds hit the ice for the first day of camp, Trotz addressed what was a difficult summer for the organization.

"I know mentally for Shea, dealing with the contract situation and arbitration -- it still probably plays with him a little bit, but he's signed and it gets it out of his way," Trotz said.

The Preds' second pair likely will consist of Jonathon Blum, 22, and veteran Kevin Klein. Blum was the 23rd pick in the 2007 Entry Draft; he saw his first NHL action last season and played well in the playoffs.

Ryan Ellis, in his first pro season after being the Ontario Hockey League's most valuable player in 2010-11, Matthias Ekholm and Roman Josi, when he gets healthy, are in the mix to fill a spot.

Ryan Ellis
Defense - NSH
GOALS: - | ASST: - | PTS: -
SOG: - | +/-: -
The Predators have a number of defensemen competing for the final three spots until veteran Francis Bouillon returns from a concussion that has kept him sidelined since last season.

Trotz said Teemu Laakso is the odds-on favorite to be the No. 5 defenseman because of the physical nature of his game – the sort of role formerly played by Shane O'Brien, who departed via free agency.

Free-agent signees Jack Hillen and Tyler Sloan, each of whom has NHL experience, also could earn spots.

The foundation of so much of what the Preds do is in goal, with 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne, who finished second in the League in save percentage (.930) and third in goals-against average (2.12).

After a wild, high-scoring first-round series, Rinne settled down in the second round. He allowed only one goal in each of the first two games against Vancouver and did not yield more than three goals in a game in the series, finishing the postseason 6-6 with a 2.57 GAA and .907 save percentage.

"Pekka's going to be that guy," Legwand said. "He's a professional. He comes in, he wants to be up there with the high-end goalies in the League and he's one of the best, if not the best, and that's a confidence-builder for our team just having him back there, knowing that you can get a save at any given time in the game." 

When Rinne was out with injuries, Anders Lindback -- virtually a clone of Rinne physically -- played well in his rookie season, going 11-5-2 with a 2.60 GAA and .915 save percentage.\
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