Yes, it is going to happen. Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli will actually play for the Nashville Predators. The wait has been ridiculously long, but I'm excited to see what these players look like in their second stint with the organization. There were some rather humorous thoughts shared on Twitter from frustrated Preds fans during this odyssey, like "Should somebody call the President?" or "I've gotten Siberians into the country with less red tape."
But it's water under the bridge now.
They finally arrived at Nassau Coliseum Thursday night during the Predators and Islanders game after a brutal day of travel and waiting. "It's been an interesting couple of days," said Franson, when I saw him after the game. That's putting it mildly. Their reward shortly after getting there? Another bus and plane ride - to Philadelphia on a bitterly cold night with wind chill temperatures well below zero following a tough 5-2 loss. Fun!
Looking back on their first days as Preds, Santorelli played only a handful of games as a very young player coming up through the Preds system, so he didn't have much time to showcase his skills. He did, however, have a unique way of getting loose before games back then. Before the gates at the arena opened, Santorelli would come up to the concourse in running shoes and take a few high paced laps around the building, whipping past the concession stands, funnel cake stations, kiosks, and of course, pregame radio broadcast setups. I wonder if he will still do that?
Franson played a more significant role in his first few years as a third-pair defenseman on a couple of very good Predators teams. He wasn't ready to play and defend against top forwards yet, and he was still figuring out how to use his size and reach to his advantage. But he had some big moments offensively using his two big weapons: excellent vision and passing skills, and an ultra quick and accurate snap/wrister from the point.
His biggest moment came in Game 5 of the opening round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in Anaheim, with the series tied 2-2 and Nashville trailing by a goal in the final minute. The Predators had never won a playoff series (0-5), and had suffered through lots of heartbreak in previous years (most recently the Game 5 loss in Chicago the year before - I won't go there now). Here they were on the brink of falling behind in the series after leading 1-0 and 2-1 in games (just as they had in 2010 vs. the Hawks).
With around 40 seconds left and the Ducks leading 3-2, Nashville pulled Pekka Rinne for the extra attacker and an offensive zone draw starting to the left of Goalie Ray Emery. Normally Barry Trotz would automatically have gone with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber at the points without hesitation. But he instead elected to utilize Franson's special skills.
With Franson stationed at the right point and Weber across from him at the left, the two right hand shots created the best immediate shooting threats off of a potential faceoff win. Sure enough, Mike Fisher won the draw directly back to Franson, who then had the option of shooting the quick snapper into the traffic, or feeding across to Weber for a one-timer. Franson read the defense and chose the latter, with Weber then blasting it past Emery to tie the game. Later, Jerred Smithson won it in overtime, and Nashville went on to win its first-ever playoff series. It's arguably one of the 10 most important goals in Predators history when you consider the circumstances.
Franson now is a more mature and complete player ready to shoulder some tougher minutes on a deep defense corps. Santorelli has come a long way as well and will add a variety of skills to an already solid group of forwards. No doubt Nashville is glad to have them back.
An Opposing Coach's View:
Sometimes the best way to get an evaluation is from the outside. On Wednesday, a Hockey Central radio program airing on NHL Network had San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan on their show to talk about the upcoming "Stadium Series" game Saturday in the Bay Area against the Kings.
Coming off of Tuesday's 5-1 loss to the Predators, host Nick Kypreos asked McLellan what separates his team right now from a top team like Nashville. Rather than discuss his own team's shortcomings, McLellan opted instead to reveal what has made the Predators so successful. To paraphrase, here were his thoughts:
- Skilled defenseman who can maneuver and get out of trouble in their own end, make good outlet passes, jump into the play offensively and (key point here) get back and recover without getting burned. McLellan also speculated that adding Franson to this group would make them even more dangerous.
- Four lines that can hurt you - stressing that "hurt you" can mean defensively as well as offensively. No doubt he was referencing Paul Gaustad's unit, who frustrated Joe Thornton and his linemates throughout the night, particularly at even strength. The point was that all four lines had significant impact on the game. That's important.
It's Sportsclub Stats Time:
It's that time of the year. I annually resist looking at Sportsclubstats.com as long as I can, but I've now allowed myself to peek. It's a site based on probability and statistics (one of my least favorite classes at Vanderbilt University by the way). The first time you go there it can be a bit overwhelming, but it can be a guide to what a team has to do to accomplish a goal.
For example, the first time I ever heard of the site came via Trotz in 2008. With his team down to seven games left in the season and five points out of a playoff spot, he needed something to spark some hope.
Trotz realized by looking at the website that if Nashville won a certain amount of their remaining games, the probability was very high that they would make the playoffs regardless of how the other teams did. By showing this to the team, the situation suddenly didn't appear as dire. The Predators went 5-0-1 in their next 6 games to clinch a playoff spot prior to their final contest.
This year, the stakes are a bit different. One of the most compelling things about the current race is the new NHL playoff format introduced last season. In this setup, the division winner takes on the Wild Card team in the first round, while the second and third place finishers in each division play each other. This year, three of the best teams in all of hockey (Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago) play in the same division: the Central. The result? The Predators will have to continue to play at a high level to win the division, and if they were overtaken, they would meet the Blues or the Blackhawks in the first round.
There is no such thing as an easy playoff series. Any first round opponent would be tough (how about the Los Angeles Kings as a Wild Card team?). But Sportsclubstats.com can give you a guide of how well Nashville must play in order to win the Central. For example, with 24 games remaining, if the Preds went 15-7-2 they would have a 93 percent chance of winning the division. If they were to go 12-10-2, they would finish with 110 points, but their probability of winning the division drops to 40 percent. The site lists all of the in-betweens if you want to look.
These things are fluid mind you, so they can and will change. My advice? Don't get too caught up in the current percentage chance. Focus on what needs to be done to achieve the goal you are looking to achieve. For Peter Laviolette inside the Predators locker room, the best thing right now is to simply focus on the next game - a big strength of his. But if you enjoy the race, this website can be fun to watch.