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Preds Season Preview Part II: Forwards

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. Earlier in the week we looked at the defensive side of the rink; today we'll turn our attention to the forwards.

The Preds have arguably their deepest crop of forwards in franchise history; 17 of the forwards in Camp skated in the NHL last season, plus Jonas Andersson was a standout in the KHL, Linus Klasen was a star in Sweden, and Blake Geoffrion was the top player in the NCAA.

Prior to the start of camp, Coach Trotz felt he had nine forwards penned in to roles and around 10 others vying for the remaining five spots. The roster battles may have become even more crowded with the surprising start to Camp by Taylor Beck and Ryan Flynn. Beck was a highly regarded prospect entering Camp (he finished fourth in the OHL in scoring last season with 93 points in 61 games for Guelph; Taylor Hall – the No. 1 overall selection in the ’10 NHL Draft – and Tyler Seguin – the No. 2 overall selection in the ’10 NHL Draft – were two of the three player to finish above him in the scoring race), but was well off the radar screen for the NHL roster this season. Similarly, Flynn was viewed as solid blue-collar checking line prospect, but after a non-descript college career at University of Minnesota, he entered Camp seemingly ticketed for Milwaukee. Beck has been a solid power-forward throughout the rookie games and intra-squad scrimmages and earned his way into the Preseason Game lineup. Flynn has emerged as a responsible, big, two-way winger through the first week of Camp, playing a style very similar to Jerred Smithson, and may be making his way into the conversation for a third or fourth line role.

Matthew Lombardi, the team’s big free agent acquisition this summer, has been as good as advertised through the first week of Camp. He joins J-P Dumont, Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, David Legwand, Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, and Colin Wilson, as candidates for the top scoring lines. Among those groups the coaches have pairings they feel comfortable with, but will use the preseason to find ways to audition the third member for each line. Erat and Wilson were effective together down the stretch last season as wingers on Jason Arnott’s line. Lombardi and Sullivan have looked very comfortable together in the early part of Camp. Legwand and Ward were solid last season; in the playoffs Legwand and Dumont were able to generate most of the team’s offensive production against Chicago; Erat and Legwand have had success paired together in past seasons as well. Hornqvist was successful in a number of different line combinations last season; the trio of Hornqvist and Sullivan centered by Marcel Goc was an effective line down the backstretch on the ’09-10 season.

Wade Belak is safe in his role. And then come the positional battles. Goc was a pleasant surprise last season and is versatile enough to play several roles in the line-up. Smithson and Jordin Tootoo are established energy players. Smithson is a big bodied match-up forward. He’s solid defensively, strong on the penalty kill, can play both wing and center, is good on faceoffs, and had a breakout scoring season last year with nine goals in the regular season and one in the playoffs (his first career NHL playoff goal). Tootoo is one of the league’s uber-pests. He gets inside opponents’ heads in ways usually reserved for the likes of Sean Avery and Jarkko Ruutu. Never afraid to create contact, so far in Camp, Tootoo has also been very effective using his speed to create offensive opportunities for his linemates. Add in Andersson, Cal O’Reilly and Sergei Kostitsyn all on one-way contracts and the Preds may have more qualified forwards than available roster spots. That says nothing of Nick Spaling and Andreas Thuresson, both of whom were solid in mid-season call-ups for the Preds last season, or veteran Jamie Lundmark, who has appeared in 295 career NHL games, including 36 games last season. Matt Halischuk, acquired from New Jersey as part of the Arnott trade, opened last year in the NHL, too.

Geoffrion, coming off a stellar collegiate season in ’09-10, has caught the eye of the coaches in practice; he brings a well-rounded game, is responsible in the defensive zone, and likes to go to the front of the net in the offensive end – a skill Coach Trotz said he wants to see the Preds do more of in ’10-11. Rising Swedish star Linus Klasen also would have been in the mix for one of the final roster spots, but he was injured in the first rookie game at Florida and is still not ready to return to on-ice work; the delay probably eliminates his chance to make the Opening Night roster, but file his name away as a potential in-season call-up. Klasen is a gifted offensive talent who has flourished on the big ice in Europe. The coaches and scouts are interested to see how his game translates to the smaller North American ice surface.

The easiest decision would be for the coaches to look at the one-way contracts and award roster slots from there. However, the Preds coaches pride themselves on making decisions based on merit –Ward came from well off the radar screen to make the team two year ago; defenseman Teemu Laakso was a similar story last season. So whoever makes the Opening Night roster will need to produce over the final two weeks of camp -- it will really be up to the players to determine who earns a spot on the roster. And for those who don’t make the initial roster, performance in Camp will be paramount for positioning in the in-season call-up pecking order (Spaling’s play in Camp last season was a big reason for his NHL promotion when the opportunity arose in-season).

Coach Trotz has also been clear that he is looking to ice the best team, not necessarily the best collection of individual talent. Ability to excel in certain roles will play a major part in the final roster decisions; based on the skills the coaches feel they need to best round out the roster, players strongest in those specific areas could hold an advantage in the final roster battles. Special teams play will also be a big factor. Power-play candidates are aplenty on the roster (Dumont, Erat, Hornqvist, Legwand, Sullivan, Ward were all regulars on the PP last season; Lombardi is a skilled player; Kostitsyn is a creative offensive player – especially with the time and space guys normally have on the power-play; Wilson is maturing into a talent worthy of long looks on the PP; O’Reilly has been a dangerous PP performer for Milwaukee in the AHL), but the PK is where the coaches are a little concerned. Barry Trotz-coached teams have traditionally been stout on the penalty kill, but last season the Preds struggled on PK. Coach Trotz felt his penalty killers didn’t really take ownership of the PK responsibilities. Goc, Legwand, Smithson, and Ward have been regulars up front on the penalty kill. Emerging as an option on the PK could help push a forward off the bubble and onto the NHL roster.

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