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Preds Season Preview Part I: Defense & Goaltending

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
The first week of Training Camp is winding down and the preseason schedule is getting ready to open. So far this has been one of the most competitive and skilled camps in team history; many of the roster spots are spoken for, but the competition for the remaining spots is intense.

The coaches are excited to see how the camp battles shake out. Barry Trotz has been adamant that production will determine the personnel – not only in shaping who makes the roster, but also in determining how much ice time players earn. Before the start of camp, Coach Trotz had 15 players penned into the Opening Night roster – nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goaltender.

Looking position-by-position here’s how the Training Camp battles are shaping up. In today’s Part I we’ll take a look at the defensive side of the rink.

Pekka Rinne entered camp as the incumbent No. 1 goalie. He’s done nothing to jeopardize that status. Rinne played in 58 games last season and then started all six of Nashville’s playoff games. He appears in line to become more of a workhorse for the Preds this coming season.

The interesting battle to watch at the goaltending position will be the battle for the No. 2 job. After Rinne, none of the other four goaltenders in Camp have played in a NHL game, so each brings an element of the unknown to the mix.

Mark Dekanich has the most North American pro experience of the group. He had a stellar rookie pro season in the AHL during the ’08-09 campaign as the No. 2 goalie in Milwaukee (AHL) and then earned No. 1 job with Milwaukee last season, backstopping the Admirals to a playoff spot.

Chet Pickard was a first round pick by the Preds in the ’08 NHL Entry Draft and earned WHL Goaltender of the Year honors in both the ’07-08 and ’08-09 seasons. Pickard started his pro career last season in Milwaukee and had a strong first half of the year, but battled inconsistency in the second half while sharing the crease with Dekanich. Pickard had a strong pair of outings during the Preds Rookie Games at Florida and looks more comfortable and confident in Training Camp than he did last season.

Anders Lindback brings a wealth of experience from his time in Sweden. He was the No. 1 goalie on his team last season and played well enough to earn a spot on Team Sweden for the World Championships this past spring. Lindback is tall, athletic, and reminds many Preds scouts and coaches of Rinne, but this is his first experience playing on the smaller North American ice rinks (which changes the reads and angles for goaltenders). Lindback was very sharp in the Preds Rookie Games and showed flashes of stellar play during the intra-squad scrimmages.

Jeremy Smith was a high draft pick by the Preds in the ’07 NHL Entry Draft. He struggled through his rookie pro season last year, spending much of the campaign in Cincinnati (ECHL), but Smith helped backstop the Cyclones to the ECHL title and has entered camp playing with more confidence.

Based on practice time and the groups the players have been paired with, Dekanich and Lindback appear to have pulled slightly ahead of Pickard and Smith, but more should be known after the first weekend of preseason games.

The Preds have an impressively deep stable of defensemen; Coach Trotz indicated prior to the start of camp that five of his defensemen were set. Ryan Suter and Shea Weber have developed into elite world class defensemen. Francis Bouillon was a steady veteran presence last season. Kevin Klein and Ryan Parent were both elite prospects in the organization a few years ago and both now have a couple of seasons of NHL experience under their skates.

From there the battles get fierce. It is likely Nashville will open the season with seven defensemen. Cody Franson stepped up last season and made a strong impression on the coaches. He’s had a solid start to camp (been a sniper in shootout drills, too). Alexander Sulzer is also on a one-way contract. Sulzer has battled injuries the past two seasons, but is a solid, safe, defensive-defenseman; he played for Team Germany in the Olympics and World Championships last season. Veteran free agent Aaron Johnson brings an offensive skill set to the mix, plus an element of experience (225 NHL games under his belt). Johnson has looked comfortable during the intra-squad scrimmages, but probably needs to establish himself more during the preseason in order to earn one of the final roster spots. After those come three talented young defensemen – ’07 first rounder Jonathon Blum, ’09 first rounder Ryan Ellis, and ’08 second rounder Roman Josi. Josi may have been the front runner among the three youngsters – he played against men the last few seasons in Europe – after eye-opening performances in the rookie games and the first few days of practices, but suffered an injury in the first scrimmage game and will likely be out for the remainder of training camp; because he won’t play in preseason games, Josi will likely open the season in the AHL. Blum and Ellis, though, will get opportunities early in the preseason and with strong showing there, either can work his way into the mix for the Opening Night roster. Ellis has looked especially comfortable working alongside Weber and many scouts across the Canadian Junior leagues feel Ellis can step into the NHL right now and run a pro power-play unit, so he has some positives going for him. However, because of his age, Ellis is not eligible to play in the AHL so he must either make the NHL squad or return to his OHL team; it's a big jump from the OHL to the NHL, so he needs to make the most of his preseason games. And don’t forget Teemu Laakso. Laakso was an under-the-radar candidate in training camp last season, but emerged on the Opening Night roster. He’s a physical defensive defenseman, similar in mold and style to former Preds d-man Greg Zanon.

With all of those battles, the coaches have stressed the importance of players making a good showing early in camp and carrying the high level through the preseason schedule. A slow start could doom a player’s chances; similarly uninspiring play during the preseason games can erase the benefits of a good Week 1 in camp. With the deep talent pool, the coaches have even more leeway than in the past to look for perfection.

Beyond the battles for roster spots it will be interesting to see how the pairings will shake down. Suter-Weber has been a staple for the Preds the past two seasons, but Coach Trotz has stated that the team might experiment with splitting up the two pillars on different pairings. Bouillon-Klein was also a steady pairing for the Preds last season and Bouillon also was a veteran mentor in a pairing with Franson for stretches last season so it would not be too surprising to see the coaches give Bouillon significant ice time with one of those two through the early parts of the season. It’s also entirely possible the coaches will rotate pairings based on game situations. Parent, for example, is an established physical shut-down defenseman; when the team is ahead the coaches may juggle pairings to get him on the ice more regularly. On the flipside, Franson (or perhaps Ellis or Johnson) is a more dynamic offensive defenseman; if the team is behind or struggling to generate offensive chances, the coaches may slide him (or them) into a position to receive more ice time. Look for Coach Trotz and his staff to use the six preseason games as way to juggle around pairings and try out different looks.
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