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Preds poised for success after strong 2005-06 campaign

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators
No one knew quite how the National Hockey League landscape would shake out following the 2004-05 lockout season, the introduction of a new collective-bargaining agreement and major changes to the game itself mandated by the league’s competition committee.

The Nashville Predators entered the 2005-06 season with a quiet confidence.  A young team that had made the playoffs in 2004, and more importantly, realized that they could skate with the NHL’s elite, had matured.  Players had won championships abroad while others had seasoned in the American Hockey League.  Veteran leadership was in place, and the team made its first major splash into free agency with the August 2005 signing of Paul Kariya, one of the NHL’s most dominant scorers over the previous decade.

Fast forward to Spring 2006:  The Predators’ on-ice results in the 2005-06 regular season proved that the patient franchise-building plan championed by general manager David Poile was on track.  The aggressive playing style favored by head coach Barry Trotz also seemed tailor-made for the “new” NHL.  The quiet confidence was warranted, though the club learned some tough lessons in the post-season with an abrupt exit, courtesy of the more-experienced San Jose Sharks. 

Team success
GM David Poile has always been an advocate of building within the organization first.
It all began for Nashville with the quickest start in team history, not to mention one of the
hottest starts in NHL history.  Displaying a deadly precise power play, an aggressive transition game and their characteristic speed, the Predators won their first eight games, including their first three forays into the shootout. 

During the season-opening streak, Nashville won its first five games at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, another theme that would resonate throughout 2005-06.  The Predators finished the season with a league-best 32-8-1 record on home ice, where the Nashville faithful (returning at a clip of over 1300 more fans per game than in the 2003-04 regular season) gave the Preds quite the home-ice advantage.

The Preds found ways to get it done on the road as well.  Nashville posted a .500 mark away from home (17-17-7) for only the second time in team history and captured victories in some tough environments such as Colorado, Vancouver and two in Calgary.  Let’s not forget three wins at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, including a back-to-back set in January that (momentarily) pushed the Preds into a first-place tie with the Red Wings atop the Central Division.

By the end of October, 2005, Nashville was sitting with an 8-1-1 record.  The club would finish the season with a winning record in every month of the season except for the Olympics-shortened February.  The club obliterated previous entries in the record book with 49 wins, 106 points and fourth-place conference finish.

With the NHL’s new rivalry-based schedule, 16 points (eight games) were available against each Division rival, heightening the importance of the Predators’ season series with Chicago, Columbus, Detroit and St. Louis.  Nashville and Detroit featured a number of memorable slugfests, and the Preds completed their season series with the 2005-06 Presidents’ Trophy winners with a record of 4-4.  Meanwhile, Nashville took five of eight (5-2-1) from Columbus, six of eight (6-2-0) from Chicago and swept all eight tilts from the St. Louis Blues.

Before 2005-06, the Preds had scored over 200 goals in a season only one time (2003-04).  In 2005-06, Nashville hit the 200-goals mark with roughly a quarter of the season remaining, and 94 of the team’s 259 goals came on the power play.  The most 20-goal scorers on a previous edition of the Predators had been two; the 2005-06 featured five 20-goal scorers, not including Mike Sillinger, who arrived via trade from St. Louis at the end of January with 22 goals already under his belt.

Individual contributions
Paul Kariya was a consistent offensive threat in a season which saw the superstar forward rebound from an injury-plagued 2003-04 with a franchise-record 85 points (including a franchise highs in assists with 54).  Perhaps more importantly, Kariya played in all 82 games for Nashville and all five of the team’s playoff tilts.  While he provided a consistent scoring threat throughout the season, Kariya elevated his game at the right time, finishing the regular season with seven points (3g-4a) in his last three games and then posting seven points (2g-5a) in five post-season tilts.

In his first full season as a Predator, Steve Sullivan continued to light the lamp at an electrifying
Paul Kariya
pace.  He and Kariya became the first 30-goal scorers in franchise history, tying for the team lead (31).  Since joining Nashville in February of 2004, he has potted 98 points (40g-58a) in 93 games.

Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell each hit the 20-goal mark for the first time in their careers, and they led a group of nine Nashville draft picks (including five first-rounders) that contributed regularly to the cause.  The 24-year-old Erat finished the playoffs behind only Kariya among team forwards in average ice time per game (19:30).

On the back end, stalwart Kimmo Timonen had his most productive offensive season with 50 points (11g-39a) while second-year NHL’er Dan Hamhuis continued his progress with 38 points (7g-31a).  Hamhuis led the club in average ice time per game (22:33) while Timonen finished right behind him (22:26).

Night in and night, the Predators relied on goalie Tomas Vokoun, who posted a career-high with 36 wins.  Derailed late in the year by a season-ending blood condition, his 2005-06 season placed Vokoun clearly among the league’s elite netminders.

The shuttle between Milwaukee and Nashville was logging a lot of miles as well, as the team’s depth was tested.  Players such as Shea Weber, Scottie Upshall, Jordin Tootoo, Vernon Fiddler and Jerred Smithson all spent time in the American Hockey League and all made strong contributions at the NHL level.  That depth would prove necessary.
Lessons learned
In only 10 games this past season, the Predators’ lineup featured Kariya, David Legwand, Sullivan, Timonen, Scott Walker &  Marek Zidlicky.  The first seven of those games came in the team’s season-opening win streak.  Nashville lost a total of 272 man-games to injury – the most of any Western Conference playoff teams – and the most for the Preds since 1999-00 (318). 

Tomas Vokoun hopes to be back to his usual stuff for the 2006-07 season.
The loss of Vokoun before the playoffs was clearly a blow, though Chris Mason performed admirably in his absence.  Other key contributors who missed large chunks of the season included Walker (49 games), Legwand (35), Danny Markov (24), Zidlicky (15), Greg Johnson (14), Mark Eaton (13), Sullivan (13) and Yanic Perreault (11).  Walker (sprained wrist), Legwand (torn ACL), Zidlicky (separated shoulder) and Sullivan (sports hernia) all limped into the post-season; Sullivan and Legwand each underwent surgery following the end of the season.

Injuries were not used an excuse for the Preds’ dismissal from the post-season, though they were clearly a factor.  Another factor that haunted Nashville throughout the regular season and into the playoffs was the team’s inability to stay out of the penalty box.  The Predators were the third-most penalized team in the league this past season and were shorthanded 533 times throughout the regular season (behind only Pittsburgh and Washington).  The club gave up 10-or-more power-play opportunities in a single game 12 times.  While the team’s penalty-killers deflected the blows somewhat with the NHL’s fifth-best efficiency rating (84.6%), the man-down situations took their toll.

For instance, the Predators averaged 32.5 shots against per game, the fifth-most in the NHL (and the highest total among playoff teams).  The club gave up 40-or-more shots 15 times.  The good news for Nashville was that Vokoun and Mason were certainly carrying their weight, combining for the best team save percentage (.916) in the league.

When it was all said and done, 2005-06 should prove to be an important season in the maturation of the Predators.  After a ground-breaking regular season, the team was not satisfied with a first-round playoff departure. That being said, the key for the Predators going forward will be to build upon the success of 2005-06 as a foundation with those lessons learned.
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