Blue Jackets-Predators Preview
Despite losing one of the top defensemen in the league, the Nashville Predators still believe they're ready to take the next step in the postseason.
The Columbus Blue Jackets simply look to take a positive first step after finishing with the league's worst record a year ago.
The Predators remain focused on making another run at the elusive Stanley Cup in Saturday night's opener against the visiting Blue Jackets.
Nashville (48-26-8) finished in fourth place in the Western Conference with 104 points - the third-most in franchise history - and defeated Detroit in the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs before losing to Phoenix in five games in the conference semifinals. It was the second straight loss in the conference semifinals for a Predators team that has reached the postseason in seven of the past eight years.
"We've shown ourselves that we can play against anybody,'' goalie Pekka Rinne said. "And for sure it's going to be a tight schedule, quick season and you have to be ready from the beginning. And for sure, we're going to battle for the Cup.''
The Predators, however, took a big hit when defenseman Ryan Suter signed a 13-year deal with Minnesota in July.
Suter, who led the team in ice time, and Shea Weber had given Nashville one of the top defensive tandems in the NHL in recent seasons. The Predators made sure not to let Weber get away, matching Philadelphia's 14-year, $110 million offer to him. That keeps him around with Rinne, who signed a seven-year, $49 million extension in November 2011, as the cornerstones for this franchise for years to come.
Roman Josi, the team's second-round pick in 2008, is expected to replace Suter on the back line. Nashville went 34-15-3 with the 22-year-old Josi in the lineup last season and 14-11-5 without him.
"Obviously, they have big shoes to fill, but Josi's ready for that and he's played really well last year,'' Rinne said.
With Weber and Rinne signed to long-term deals, the Predators believe they can remain solid defensively after allowing the eighth-fewest goals (205) in the league last season.
Rinne led all goalies in wins (43) and saves (1,987), while ranking seventh in save percentage (.923). He was in net for all six games against the Blue Jackets last season, going 5-0-1 with a 2.48 goals-against average.
Despite the loss of free agent Jordin Tootoo to rival Detroit, Nashville returns Martin Erat (19 goals, team-best 58 points), David Legwand (19, 53) and top goal-scorers Patric Hornqvist (27, 43) and Mike Fisher (24, 51). Six of Fisher's goals came against Columbus.
In facing a 48-game season, the Predators believe they have an advantage with a team that had little turnover.
"Scott Hannan's the only guy who's never put on a Nashville Predators' jersey,'' said coach Barry Trotz, heading into his 14th season. "I'm telling everybody it's benefiting us."
The Predators hope this familiarity will show on special teams after leading the NHL in power play percentage (21.6) and finishing 10th in penalty kill percentage (83.6) last season.
It could be one of the keys against the Blue Jackets, who ranked last in the league in penalty kill percentage (76.6) in 2011-12.
After finishing a league-worst 29-46-7, Columbus began a major rebuilding effort with a new team president, new coach and six new players on the roster.
John Davidson is the new president in charge of hockey operations and Todd Richards had his interim tag removed after replacing the fired Scott Arniel last season and coaching the team to an 18-21-2 record.
The biggest change, however, is the departure of Rick Nash. The team's leading scorer the past eight seasons was dealt to the New York Rangers in July for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, defenseman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick.
Columbus ranked 26th in goals (198) last season and could struggle to find scoring opportunities without Nash, who had 30 goals and 59 points.
Right-winger Cam Atkinson (7 goals, 14 points), left-winger R.J. Umberger (20, 40) and center Derick Brassard (14, 41) are among those who have to step up for the Blue Jackets.
"We're going to have to score by committee,'' general manager Scott Howson said. "Some of our offense is going to have to come from our defense again.''
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, will compete with Steve Mason for the starting job after posting a 3.02 GAA and an .899 save percentage last season. Mason had a career-worst 3.39 GAA and has struggled since winning the Calder Trophy in 2009.
"There's so many games in such a short amount of time that you can't afford to be losing because of poor goaltending,'' said Mason, who has a 3.28 GAA in losing his last four starts against the Predators.