Can Predators make deep playoff run?
The Nashville Predators finally broke through last season and won the first playoff series in franchise history.
Prior to last spring's opening-round triumph against Anaheim, Nashville had been eliminated in the first round in its first five playoff appearances, and failed to qualify for the postseason in its other six seasons since joining the NHL in 1998.
Last year, the Predators fell to eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver in the second round, but will be looking to go even deeper this year.
The pressure is on, though.
Not only are Predators fans desperate for a legitimate run at a Cup, but the window to win one could be closing soon with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and goalie Pekka Rinne all poised to hit free agency next summer.
2010-11 record: 44-27-11, 99 points (2nd Central Division; 5th Western Conference; beat Anaheim 4-2 in first round, lost to Vancouver 4-2 in second round of playoffs)
Key additions: F Niclas Bergfors (free agent); D Tyler Sloan (free agent); F Zack Stortini (free agent); F Kyle Wilson (free agent); D Jack Hillen (free agent); F Robert Slaney (trade with Toronto); F Brodie Dupont (trade with NY Rangers)
Key losses: F Matthew Lombardi (traded to Toronto); D Cody Franson (traded to Toronto); F J.P. Dumont (bought out); D Brett Lebda (bought out); F Joel Ward (signed with Washington); F Steve Sullivan (signed with Pittsburgh); D Shane O'Brien (signed with Colorado); F Andreas Thuresson (traded to NY Rangers); F Marcel Goc (signed with Florida)
Burning question: Will this be the final season for the Predators' core stars?
Weber was awarded $7.5 million for one year after the Predators took him to arbitration, but they'll have to sign him again next summer when fellow defenseman Suter and goalie Rinne will also be headed to free agency. Those three are by far Nashville's most important players, but will the Predators be able to retain all three? The Predators should have the salary-cap space to do so, though Weber's huge score in arbitration could complicate that.
A bigger issue might be the small-market Predators' ability to spend to the cap the keep all three. If they can't, then this year could be their final chance to break through for a deep playoff run.
2011-12 outlook: The Predators gave up promising young defenseman Franson as part of a salary dump to shed Lombardi's contract and give Nashville some financial flexibility to deal with Weber and Co. But even without Franson, the Predators boast a deep and talented blue line, at least as long as Norris Trophy finalist Weber (16-32-48 last year) and Suter (4-35-39) are in town. Rinne has been a rock behind them, putting together a stellar season of his own last year (33-22-9, 2.12 GAA, .930 save percentage). They lack a true elite playmaker up front, but Sergei Kostitsyn did thrive away from Montreal (team-leading 23-37-50 last year), while Martin Erat (17-33-50), Patric Hornqvist (21-27-48) and Wilson (16-18-34) supply a solid supporting cast. Nashville will also have a full season of trade-deadline pickup Mike Fisher (19-17-36 in 82 games split between Ottawa and Nashville).
Did you know? Hockey might not have a long tradition in Nashville, but the game definitely is in the blood of many of the Predators. In addition to having Tuukka Rask's little brother Joonas in the system, the Predators also feature Kostitsyn, brother of Montreal forward Andrei Kostitsyn, and Suter, nephew of Gary Suter, who spent 17 years in the NHL. Wilson is also the son of Carey Wilson, who played 12 years in the league, and grandson of Gerry Wilson, who played briefly for Montreal.
The greatest multi-generational ties belong to Blake Geoffrion, a former Hobey Baker winner at Wisconsin who made his NHL debut last season. He's the grandson of hockey legend Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and the great-grandson of another Hall of Famer, Howie Morenz. Geoffrion's father, Dan, was a first-round pick of the Canadiens and played three seasons in the NHL.