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Looking Ahead: Defensemen

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
As the 2007-08 season wraps up, it’s time to take a peek ahead to 2008-09. After an off-season of change last summer, this summer looks to be significantly more quiet for the Predators as 16 players are already signed to NHL contracts with an additional seven players eligible for restricted free agency status, several young prospects pushing for full-time NHL status and just four players looking at unrestricted free agency.

Over the next few days will take a position-by-position look at the Predators depth chart. Last week we looked at the forwards. Up today are the defensemen. Check back this weekend for the goaltenders and overall team summary.

Signed (4): Greg de Vries, Dan Hamhuis, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky
RFA (4): Kevin Klein, Ville Koistinen, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber

The Predators hold the option to bring back their entire eight-man defensive corps from last season with four guys under contract and another four guys as restricted free agents. Of the players already under contract, Marek Zidlicky rebounded from a tough 2006-07 campaign to lead team defensemen with 43 points in 2007-08 and prove once again he could be a top power-play trigger man. Zidlicky’s 38 assists trailed only Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont on the team. Dan Hamhuis continued to settle in as an elite shut-down defender, a role he played well enough to earn the same responsibilities from Team Canada for the World Championships. Greg de Vries and Greg Zanon proved to be valuable blue-collar defensemen providing physical elements to the Preds blueline, ranking second and first on the team, respectively, in blocked shots, while also figuring among the team leaders in hits.

GM David Poile has repeatedly stated the team will bring back its key restricted free agents, which would indicate both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber will be retained, locking up the other two members of the team’s top-six from ’07-08. Ville Koistinen proved to be a valuable extra defenseman, filling in quite admirably during injuries to Weber and later in the season, de Vries. He continued his progression with a solid showing in helping Team Finland to a Bronze Medal at this year’s World Championships. Kevin Klein continues to be one of the team’s prize young players. Due to the log-jam of players ahead of him, Klein was limited to 13 games this season, but based on his performances in practice, the coaching staff feels he has the potential to challenge for a regular slot in the lineup in ’08-09.

Prospects on the horizon:
European prospects Janne Niskala, 26, and Alexander Sulzer, 23, both made their North American debuts this past season with Milwaukee in the AHL. In many organizations both would have been in line for NHL injury replacement duty last season, but due to the glut at the position in Nashville, there wasn’t a need for either. Niskala finished second in the AHL in goals by a defenseman with 19 and tied for 11th in points by a defenseman with 44. He followed that up with a strong World Championships for Team Finland where he proved himself NHL worthy with two goals and two assists while serving primarily as a power-play specialist. Sulzer’s development is on par with Niskala’s, and he, too, has big-time international experience as a member of Team Germany at the 2006 Olympics.

A third young blueliner, Cody Franson, was named the 33rd best prospect league wide by The Hockey News in its annual Future Watch edition. Franson made his pro debut this season in the AHL with Milwaukee, earning a spot on the AHL’s All-Rookie Team, while posting a solid 11 goals and 36 points, tied for 23rd among league defensemen in scoring. In many other organizations he’d be knocking on the door for NHL duty, but again the young depth already at the NHL level will make it a very competitive training camp along the blue line.

Further down in the system, Jonathon Blum, the team’s ‘07 first round pick, either has to make the NHL club or go back to the WHL next season – not a knock on his development, but it will be extremely tough for him to make the club out of camp. Blum is already signed and looks like a good long-term option down the line after finishing his Western Hockey League season second in the league in points by a defenseman and third in goals by a defenseman. Teemu Laakso is another highly regarded young European defenseman. Though just 20-years old, Laakso has spent the last three seasons in the top pro league in Finland, consistently one of the more competitive leagues in Europe, while starring at the World Junior Championships in ’05-06 and ’06-07. The next step in his development would be an introduction to the North American game in the AHL, which the organization is likely to push for in ’08-09 or ’09-10.

The depth, especially young depth, along the blue line is one of the organization’s strongest assets. With the repeated statements by GM David Poile regarding his preference to only carry seven defensemen on the NHL roster next season, look for the Predators to heavily explore trade options to clarify the depth chart both at the NHL and AHL levels. On paper the team has more than enough options to extend the roles of a few young defensemen next season.

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