There are certainties, question marks and a host of names worth keeping an eye on.
In other words, training camp is here.
The Nashville Predators will hold off-ice and on-ice testing today before hitting the ice Saturday at Centennial Sportsplex for their first official training camp practice of the 2011-12 season. (click here for pdf roster of player groupings for camp drills)
The Predators are coming off their most successful season in franchise history after reaching the second round before losing in six games to the Vancouver Canucks, who eventually fell to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals.
Here are some things we know, some things we don’t and some players who may bring a new level of excitement to the Predators this season.Three Things We Know
1.The situation at goaltender
is firmly established and there is quality depth. Pekka Rinne
is coming off a year when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. Backup Anders Lindback
played in 22 regular season games in 2010-11 and was 11-5-2. Rinne and Lindback represent the most talented and most stable goaltending tandem the Preds have had since the Vokoun/Mason duo from ’03-04 through ’06-07, if not the strongest in team history.2.The defense
, once again, looks primed for another strong season. Captain Shea Weber
and Ryan Suter
continue to emerge as the best defensive pairing in the NHL. The duo is used to logging heavy minutes and will each likely average over 25 minutes a game during the season. Jonathon Blum
and Kevin Klein
proved in 2010-11 they can match up with elite players in pressure-packed situations. When healthy, Francis Bouillon
is a bulldog shutdown defenseman. Off-season free-agent signees Tyler Sloan
(Washington) and Jack Hillen
(NY Islanders) each played 30-plus games in the NHL last season and provide proven depth options. And that says nothing of the elite rising prospects – Mattias Ekholm
, Ryan Ellis
, Roman Josi
, Teemu Laakso
– who all have the potential to play regularly in the NHL this season.3.There will be depth at forward
, which means there will be stellar battles not just during camp, but throughout the season. At the start of Training Camp there are easily 18 forwards who have shown worthy of an NHL roster spot – 16 played in the NHL last season, plus Craig Smith
(who was a stand-out for Team USA at the World Championships and scored six goals in two rookie games in Florida earlier this week) and Gabriel Bourque
(who was Milwaukee’s most effective forward in the AHL playoffs). And there’s good upper-end talent in the forward corps; seven or eight forwards have 20-goal potential – six have already hit the 20-goal mark at least once in his NHL career and Colin Wilson
netted 16 goals last year despite struggling through the second half of the season.
Three Questions We Want Answered
1.Who is going to emerge as the top scoring threat?Three Players to Watch
There are plenty of candidates. The first is Sergei Kostitsyn
, who led the Predators in goals (23) in the regular season. Patric Hornqvist
, who had 21 goals last season, led the team in goals two seasons ago with 30. The Mike Fisher
-Kostitsyn-Hornqvist line was as good a line Nashville has had in awhile; they were dominant the last dozen games or so of the regular season and were consistently dangerous throughout the team’s playoff series win over Anaheim. And don’t forget about Martin Erat
, who had 17 goals in the regular season and tied with Kostitsyn for the team lead in points (50) or Niclas Bergfors who scored 21 goals during his rookie season in ’09-10 and has a lot of similarities to Kostitsyn’s pre-Nashville development.2.How quickly can the rookies get up to speed?
The Preds were the fifth youngest team in the NHL at the end of last season and still closed the year on a 11-3-2 run, increasing expectations further for this season. Forward Blake Geoffrion and defenseman Jonathon Blum
will still have rookie status despite the experience and success they earned during the regular season and postseason in 2010-11. Can they build on their strong end-of-season performances and emerge as top NHL Rookie of the Year candidates? This question deals more with forward Craig Smith
, for example, who was dominant in rookie camp, and fellow forward Gabriel Bourque
, who opened eyes during his first professional season last year with Milwaukee. On defense, Ryan Ellis
and Roman Josi
have been long touted as future NHL stars, while Mattias Ekholm
and Teemu Laakso
have flown more under the radar. All four will have the opportunity --- and the raw talent --- to play a major role on the Nashville blueline this season.3.Who’s going to step up on special teams?
The Preds have long been recognized as one of the elite Penalty Kill teams in the league (the Preds were fifth in the NHL in PK last season), but power-play performance has been an Achilles ’ heel the last few years and Cody Franson, the trigger man for the second power play unit, is gone. Blum, Ellis, Josi, Ekholm all have proven to be solid power-play contributors at the developmental level, but can they step-up at the NHL level? Prior to his injury, O’Reilly provided creativity to the second power-play unit last season and will get a long look again this year, while Bergfors, Erat, Kostitsyn will need to showcase their creativity in offensive-zone situations. There are options galore, but Coach Trotz will be looking to see who takes ownership of the opportunity. On the PK, Marcel Goc and Joel Ward, two experienced penalty killers, are gone. Still, the Predators were solid on the penalty when Goc was out with an injury late last season and the penalty kill unit does have a deep group of names returning from last year’s PK, including Jerred Smithson, Nick Spaling
, Matt Halischuk
, David Legwand
, Martin Erat
and Mike Fisher
1.When Jordin Tootoo
returned to the team last season, he was lighter, faster and more focused. That is expected once this season starts, and the fan favorite may be a huge contributor and exciting story line for the team this year.2.Craig Smith
has reached near-legendary status from Predators fans and he has yet to play an NHL game. He scored six goals and added an assist in two rookie games earlier this week. The Predators veterans who have shared limited ice time with him recently have raved about Smith’s poise and talent.3.Mike Fisher
added immediate talent and experience when he joined the Predators last season. He played injured during stretches but still clicked with his teammates. He had successful offseason shoulder surgery and is fully healthy, which may give the team a ‘wow’ factor in 2011-12. Consider, beginning in 2005-06 while in Ottawa, he scored 22-or-more goals four times in a five season stretch, while playing physical along the boards and in front of the net and providing stellar shutdown defense in his own zone.