One of the NHL's best farm systems is going to be put to the test in 2009-10 when Nashville welcomes its future to support its present and return the Predators to the postseason. The influx of rookies is the main storyline to what promises to be an important season in Nashville as the Central Division becomes increasingly tougher thanks to Columbus and St. Louis emerging as playoff teams last season and Detroit and Chicago pressing on as League powerhouses.
The youth movement comes at the expense of a few veterans who won't be returning, namely Radek Bonk, Vernon Fiddler, Greg Zanon, Ville Koistinen, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer, a group that collectively had 31 goals, 74 points and a minus-17 rating in 2008-09.
The top six forwards from last season return, and the chemistry developed on the top two lines remains intact. The youngsters being brought in are not having the weight of the franchise placed on their shoulders; a few goals, some dogged shifts and an all-out high-energy effort will do them, and the veterans they support, just fine.
The rookie who figures to set the standard for Nashville is highly-touted center Colin Wilson
, who will turn 20 during the season's first month. What sets him apart, other than his skill set, is a 6-foot-1, 213-pound frame that will help him withstand the rigors of an 82-game season, nearly double what he experienced in college.
There were openings on the second, third and fourth lines as training camp opened. And with little talent brought in via free agency, it's up to incumbents and youngsters to fill in the blanks.
Five spots that appeared locked in are Arnott centering Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont on the first line, and center David Legwand
with Martin Erat
on the second line.
A leading candidate to join the latter duo is Joel Ward, who had 17 goals and 35 points last season, his first with Nashville after being signed as a free agent from the Minnesota Wild. Another plausible scenario is that Ward, a capable two-way player with a full season under his belt, could be a steadying presence on the third or fourth line with younger players.
Early in training camp, the second line left wing audition was heating up with rookie Mike Santorelli, a 27-goal, 70-point scorer with AHL Milwaukee last season, impressing the coaches. Also slated to be given a chance are Ben Eaves, Ryan Jones and Patric Hornqvist
As for the bottom six forwards, coach Barry Trotz has limitless possibilities.
Wilson likely will be the third-line center; he'd need a disastrous training camp to not make the team. Wilson was second in the nation last season with 55 points (16 goals) and helped Boston University win the national championship as a sophomore last season. In two seasons with the Terriers, Wilson had 29 goals and 90 points in 80 regular-season games. "The chances of him playing for us this year are pretty good," Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton said.
The choices for fourth-line center are many, from among veterans Marcel Goc and Ben Guite -- signed as free agents from San Jose and Colorado, respectively -- and youngsters Cal O'Reilly, Nick Spaling
, Peter Olvecky, and Santorelli.
Goc (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and Guite (6-1, 211) bring good size and a combined 434 NHL games to the position, and they should be the frontrunners for the job. But also in the mix is the 27-year-old Eaves, who played the last two seasons in Finland's top league. The former Boston College star and Hockey East scoring leader and player of the year had 18 points in 22 games Espoo Blues last season. At 5-8 and 174 pounds, Eaves probably isn't suited for a checking role, which is why Trotz is auditioning Eaves as a winger in training camp.
The candidates for third- and fourth-line forwards are plenty but largely unproven except for veteran tough guys Jordin Tootoo
and Wade Belak, both of whom can protect Wilson. At the start of training camp, Trotz was using Belak on defense, a position he played with some regularity early in his career.
Jones (6-1, 206) is a prototypical third liner -- a tenacious, two-way, high-energy right wing who competes hard every shift. He had 7 goals and 17 points in 46 games with the Predators in 2008-09. Hornqvist had 7 points in 28 games as a rookie after spending time developing at home in Sweden.
Left wing Jerred Smithson also is in the mix, and Eaves or Spaling could play wing if they don't make the roster as centers.
The key to the Predators' success is sustained health from Sullivan, Arnott and Dumont. In the last three seasons, Arnott and Sullivan have missed large chucks of time with injuries.
This is one area where Predators management and fans need not wonder or worry. The top three of Ryan Suter
, Shea Weber
and Dan Hamhuis are as good as any trio in the League, as evidenced by their invitations to Olympic orientation camps for the United States and Canada this past summer. They can carry the puck, make hits, contribute scoring, work the power play and kill penalties.
Weber was one of three defensemen to score at least 20 goals last season, with 10 coming with the man-advantage. He was the NHL's only defender with more than 50 points and 175 hits.
Suter racked up a career-high 38 assists but was a minus player (minus-16) for the first time in his four-year career. He led the Predators in average ice time at 24:15 per game.
Hamhuis ranked second on the club in average shorthanded ice time per game (3:41) and blocked shots (113), a career high, while playing all 82 games for the second time in a five-year career; he's played at least 80 games every season. Kevin Klein
will be back for his second full season and likely will receive more playing time because of the departure of Greg Zanon via free agency to Minnesota.
This past Monday, the Predators added free agent Francis Bouillon
on a one-way contract. The nine-year veteran missed the final two months of 2008-09 with an abdominal muscle injury, but returned to appear in one playoff game for the Canadiens.
Nashville's youth movement will affect the blue line as well, where at least two rookies are expected to win jobs. German import Alexander Sulzer, who made his NHL debut last season, had 34 points in 48 games with Milwaukee in 2008-09.Jonathon Blum
, the No. 23 pick of the 2007 Entry Draft, was the Canadian Hockey League defenseman of the year last season. The California native scored at least 60 points in each of his last two campaigns with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League and had a plus-53 rating in 2008-09. He completed the season by appearing in five playoff games with Milwaukee.
Cody Franson, a 2005 third-round pick, will give the Nashville coaches a tough job of deciding who to cut. The 6-5, 214-pounder scored 22 goals and 88 points in 152 games with Milwaukee over the last two seasons.
The Predators are banking on Pekka Rinne
becoming the first goaltender since Tomas Vokoun in 2005-06 to open and close the season as the starter.
He wrestled the No. 1 job away from Dan Ellis last December and steered the Predators to within three points of a playoff berth while winning 29 games and posting seven shutouts. The 6-5 Rinne became only the second goaltender in Nashville's 10-year history to win at least 25 games.
Ellis, who had stolen the starting job from Chris Mason in 2007-08, will be the backup but could earn playing time if he regains the form that led him to post the fifth-best shutout streak in the modern era (233:38) only two seasons ago.Contact Rocky Bonanno at email@example.com
Author: Rocky Bonanno | NHL.com Staff Writer