The Nashville Predators took a calculated risk this summer. When veterans Shane O'Brien, Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward entered free agency the team opted to look internally for their replacements. David Poile and Barry Trotz had confidence the team's young forwards were ready for more prominent roles and the cadre of top defensive prospects were deserving of opportunities at the next level.
While several other teams in the division went on spending sprees and brought in big name veterans, the Preds went with a youth movement.
As the League heads into the All-Star Break, the strategy has has paid dividends, especially in the offensive zone. The Preds have nine skaters who have scored at least 10 goals this season, tied with Philedelphia for most in the league. And of those nine top scorers, five are 25-years old or younger, including rookie Craig Smith
and second-year Pred Matt Halischuk
-- linemates providing key scoring depth behind the Fisher and Legwand lines. Nick Spaling
, 23-years old and in his second full NHL campaign, isn't far behind with seven goals while anchoring the team's checking line and serving as a lead contributor on the penalty kill.
As the young forwards have adapted to their new roles the team has experienced increased success. The Preds opened the season 12-11-4, averaging 2.59 goals per game. Since then, the team has averaged 2.91 goals per game to rip off an 18-5-0 run, despite playing four games without Shea Weber
in late December and three games without Ryan Suter
Similarly, the Preds have leaned on young defensemen; 21-year old rookies Roman Josi
and Ryan Ellis
both made their NHL debuts during the first half of this season. Josi, a second round pick in the '08 Entry Draft, was a standout in Switzerland before making a splash in the AHL last season. After being eased into the lineup from Thanksgiving through Christmas, he's steadily taken on a larger role starting when Weber was injured and has stabilized the team's top-4 defensive rotation, seeing over 20 minutes of ice time in each of the past eight games. Not coincidentally, the Preds have allowed just 12 goals against in those eight games.
Ellis, the No. 11 overall selection in the 2009 NHL Draft with a legendary list of accolades and accomplishments at the Canadian Junior level, has provided an extra dynamic element from the backend for the Preds. His check in a preseason game at Washington and more recently his hipcheck on Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds have furthered his reputation as a fierce competitor, while his puck-moving skills have been a big asset to the team's transition game.
Ellis and Josi have also formed a potent No. 2 power-play unit behind All-Stars Suter and Weber.
The youth movement has helped the Preds enter the All-Star Break with the fouth-highest point total in the NHL and a ton of optimism heading into the final 32 games of the regular season.