NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As the Nashville Predators gather here today from all over the globe for the start of training camp, what does coach Barry Trotz plan?
A road trip.
For the first time in a decade, the Predators will move part of training camp away from Nashville, traveling to Florida on Monday for a week’s worth of on-ice workouts and off-ice sessions sandwiched between three exhibition games.
After four days of training camp here through Sunday, the team will play two games on Monday against Florida in Sunrise, Fla., then travel to Naples, Fla., for two days of camp, and then close the sojourn a week from Friday with a game at Tampa Bay.
“This training camp is a little bit about change,” said Predators coach Barry Trotz, whose team didn’t make the playoffs last season after gaining the postseason seven of the previous eight seasons. “I want to change some of the things that we have gone into. We have a lot of new personalities. I think we have a great group for mentorship.
“We looked at what we are trying to do. We are trying to build a team and to get back to the Predator way.”
Indeed, last season’s next-to-last place finish in the Western Conference didn’t sit well with Predators administration, coaches, players and fans alike. Granted, the season was shortened by the extended lockout, but the Predators never got into synch while putting together one of their worst campaigns in the 14-season history of the franchise.
“We didn’t like the way last year went,” Trotz said. “It was difficult. It didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it. So, it’s a real fresh beginning. We get to do some great things during training camp.”
The Predators will again feature a core of key veterans like goaltender Pekka Rinne, defensemen Shea Weber, Kevin Klein and Roman Josi and forwards Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Paul Gaustad, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and Gabriel Bourque.
But they also will have an infusion of new talent that features two rookies and four veteran free agents that will all be depended upon in a variety of roles.
As for the youth being served, defenseman Seth Jones was the No. 4 overall pick in late June’s draft after being judged the consensus top prospect in the draft. Even at the age of 18, plans are for him to start immediately, even possibly running on the top defensive line pairing with Weber.
And Filip Forsberg — the 19-year-old former first-round draft pick of Washington who came to the Predators in a late-season trade for veteran forward Martin Erat — is being depended upon sooner rather than later to provide offense for a team that has traditionally been scoring challenged.
Four veteran free agents were added to the forwards mix. Matt Cullen (previously with Minnesota) and Viktor Stahlberg (Chicago) will add speed and scoring and challenge for front-line placement, while Eric Nystrom (Dallas) and Matt Hendricks (Washington) will add grit and toughness. Each is being asked immediately to lend experience to a team in need of leadership.
“I think you are going to see a very, very competitive camp,” Trotz said of the 59 players that hit the ice today. “I think you are going to see a close-knit group. I met with the leadership. There are some great mentors, if you will, in terms of veteran players who can mentor, not only guys that have played in the league a little bit that are a little bit younger, but even our prospects.”
For a player like Weber, the team captain, he understands that his role has grown to more than just being one of the top blue-liners in the league.
“I hope that I can help,” Weber said. “We have some good leaders in this room and guys who have been around for a long time and have a lot of experience. So, if we can share any of that with the younger guys, obviously, we are going to.”
Another good sign for the Predators is the healthy return of Rinne, one of the league’s top net-minders who underwent hip surgery on May 9.
He said Wednesday that he is not back to 100 percent, but should be by the season opener Oct. 3 at St. Louis.
“I am really looking forward to, first of all, getting back into shape on the ice,” Rinne said. “For me right now, it’s just a little bit of trying to catch up. But I still have plenty of time during training camp to get myself ready.”
He, too, understands the dynamics of the roster changes from last season. Other than Erat being gone via the trade to the Capitals, former Predators also not returning include defensemen Hal Gill and Jonathan Blum and forwards Sergei Kostitsyn and Matt Halischuk.
“We have a lot of new faces and we get to spend more time together,” Rinne said of moving training camp to Florida next week. “I think it is only a positive thing. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s too long. We are still able to come back and continue our training camp here at home, too. But I think it’s a nice little change.”
And one, according to Trotz, that should provide team bonding. A decade ago, the Predators spent a weekend of training camp in Orlando, Fla., and he remembers one incident that brought the team together.
During a practice session at a nearby arena, Legwand and former Predator Jim McKenzie, who were not practicing because of injury, sneaked out to the parking lot and removed all the seats from the coaches’ van except for the driver and front passenger seats. After practice, the team returned to the team hotel for a dinner meeting, while the coaching staff remained at the arena to work.
“We had a team dinner that night,” Trotz said. “And after practice the coaches were working until the last minute at the rink, then we jumped into the van knowing we had only two minutes to get over there.
“And when got in, there were only two seats – the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat – and there was like 10 of us, so we rolled and bounced around in the back. The players were there early and they all saw us roll out of the van. It was a pretty funny moment.”
Trotz and staff retrieved the hotel’s security tape and showed the incident at the end of the trip, much to the howling delight of players and coaches alike.
“It’s those intangible things that are very important for a team,” Trotz said. “They have to bond around something. Hopefully, something in Florida will happen this time, and we’ll laugh about it, and it will be real special.”