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Looking Ahead: Goaltenders

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. Previously we looked at the forwards and defensemen. Up today are the goaltenders and the complete team analysis.

Signed (1): Chris Mason
UFA (1): Dan Ellis

The Predators allowed 224 goals this past season, tied for 15th in the league. The duo of Chris Mason and Dan Ellis rebounded from a tough start to the season to limit opponents to 113 goals over the team’s final 45 games of the season, a 2.51 team goals against average during that span, slicing a half of a goal per game off the team goals against average from the opening 37 contests. Mason is under contract again for next season, the first year on his new two-year deal signed last summer. He struggled early in the season with the transition to the No. 1 goaltender role, but still set a career-high with 51 games played.

Ellis can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Entering the season with just one game of NHL experience, Ellis put together a breakout campaign which saw him claim the starting goaltending role for the playoffs. The Predators have already opened contract talks to retain the 27-year old.

Prospects on the horizon:
Pekka Rinne nearly made the team out of training camp last season, but went back to the AHL and earned rave reviews carrying Milwaukee into the playoffs. A two-time AHL All-Star, Rinne looks ready to make the jump to the NHL next season – which fits nicely since he would need to clear waivers in order to be assigned to the AHL in the future.

Mark Dekanich completed his collegiate eligibility at Colgate this year. He graduated with a stellar senior season and signed with the organization during the playoffs. He’ll be an older AHL rookie next season, but likely needs a few years in the AHL to develop his pro game.

Further down the system is Jeremy Smith, a second round pick in last summer’s draft. Smith had an up-and-down season in the Ontario Hockey League, highlighted by his performances at the World Junior Championships where he backstopped Team USA to a 4-2 record, allowing the third fewest goals in the tournament. He’ll spend next season back in the OHL – and likely serve as the starting goaltender for Team USA at World Junior Championships again – and probably make his pro debut during the 2009-10 season.

If the team is able to re-sign Ellis, goaltending will become another position of depth for the Predators as he, Mason, and Rinne would each need to remain on the NHL roster or clear waivers before playing in the AHL; the end result would be an interesting battle in training camp not just for the starting role, but for the No. 2 slot as well. Should Ellis opt to sign elsewhere, the roster slots would be established heading into training camp with Mason and Rinne slotted into the NHL roster. Regardless, the team may be in the market for a AHL veteran to help mentor Dekanich through his rookie campaign.

Overall Team View
The Predators present and future both look extremely promising. With just a few restricted free agents remaining to be signed, the roster appears to be set at all three positions (forward, defense, goaltending). Quality young prospects across the board give the team an enviable amount of balance and depth and gives the team the luxury of being able to hunt for options to upgrade the roster without any true “must fill” positions.

With the high number of contracts already in place, the Predators are unlikely to be active players in the unrestricted free agency market, unless it’s to re-sign one of their own or if the perfect fit is sitting there for them. More likely, however, the team will attempt to tweak the roster through trades. The combination of the solid proven depth at all three positions, several “easy contracts” for other teams to assume, added financial flexibility, and several early draft picks (Nashville enters this summer’s draft with two first round picks, two second round picks, and one third round pick) make the Preds a very attractive trade target to most teams across the league.

Draft week tends to bring out a lot of conversations. Look for the team to be active in discussions on several ends. With eight NHL proven candidates on defense needing to clear waivers – and an additional two or three prospects in the AHL ready to test their skills at the NHL – plus David Poile’s stated preference toward carrying seven defensemen, the math dictates that at least one is likely to be moved before Opening Night. Up front with 12 forwards already under contract, two restricted free agents, and two prospects ready to earn full-time NHL jobs, again, the math again would seem to indicate the need for a roster move. And if Dan Ellis is re-signed, the team would have three goaltenders who would require waivers to play in the AHL, a third position likely indicating a future roster move.

All combined, the Predators appear to be one of the more interesting teams to watch across the league this summer, particularly around the draft (when many trade rumors are generated) and again starting in mid-to-late July (after the big name free agents are signed and teams re-focus on trades).

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