Preds strong bet for playoffs as camp starts

Preds strong bet for playoffs as camp starts

Published Jan. 12, 2013 12:37 p.m. ET

The Nashville Predators will have only one significant change in their roster on Sunday when they hit the ice, as expected, for the start of what will be an abbreviated training camp.

Assuming the league’s collective bargaining agreement is ratified in time, the departure of All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter via free agency to Minnesota remains the most glaring absence from the team that advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season in 2012 and finished with the fifth-most points in the NHL during the regular season.

Predators general manager David Poile managed to re-sign virtually all of the other players whom he wanted to – most notably captain Shea Weber, who was a finalist for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) for the second straight season.

As a result, the biggest storyline entering the season will be how Roman Josi, in his second season, transitions to a first-pair defenseman as Weber’s partner. Josi’s skating ability and offensive skills are unquestioned but now he will have to show first-rate defensive abilities, as well, when going up against opponents’ top lines such as Detroit’s of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula. Josi, a 22-year-old Swiss, finished plus-1 in 52 games last season but was minus-4 in 10 playoff games.

Along with Josi on the defense corps, expect Ryan Ellis, also 22 and entering his second season, to make an impact in his first full season, as Ellis played in only 32 games last season, along with three playoff games. As soon as the lockout is officially ended, the Preds are expected to call up Ellis from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, along with fellow defenseman Jon Blum and forward Chris Mueller.

To go with that youth, the Preds have added a good bit of age along the backline. Poile re-signed 6-foot-7 defenseman Hal Gill, for whom he sent a second-round pick to Montreal in February, and Gill will be a mainstay on the penalty kill, possibly even supplanting Josi on the first unit. To replace the departed Francis Bouillon, Poile added another physical veteran in 6-1, 225-pound Scott Hannan, 33. Over the last 10 seasons, the durable Hannan has played more than games than any defenseman in the NHL.

Up front, the Preds’ forwards are almost identical to the group that played the bulk of last season, minus the late-season additions of Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, both of whom are playing in Russia’s KHL this season.

Poile re-signed imposing center Paul Gaustad, a defensive and faceoff specialist, whom he acquired from Buffalo for a first-round pick. The effect of having Gaustad up front and Gill on the back end serves to make Nashville a much bigger team for the full season than it was for most of 2011-12. It’s also possible that the duo could help to improve an already effective Preds’ penalty kill, as the Preds ranked 10th in the league in that category at 83.6 percent.

In the early going, the Preds must overcome the loss of wing Gabriel Bourque, who suffered a lower-body injury while playing with Milwaukee and is expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the season. As a rookie during the ’12 playoffs, Bourque, now 22, played the role of hero at times, totaling three goals and two assists in 10 games.

For the most part, many of the mainstays from the past few seasons are back up front, including original Pred David Legwand, Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn, Colin Wilson, Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk. Craig Smith, another among a slew of talented rookies from last season, also will be back and big speedy wing Brandon Yip, claimed off waivers from Colorado last season, will spend his first full season in Nashville. During the lockout, Smith played eight games in the Finnish Elite League, totaling four goals and four assists in eight games, which bodes well for the coming season.

In goal, the Preds will return two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne, who played in the KHL during the lockout. This season, Rinne’s backup will be former Pred Chris Mason, 36, who started the first round of the ‘06 playoffs in goal for Nashville but played the last two seasons with Atlanta/Winnipeg. Anders Lindback, Rinne’s back-up the previous two seasons, was sent to Tampa Bay where he could be in the Lightning’s No. 1.

A 48-game season could be unpredictable once it kicks off a week from Saturday. Nonetheless, with one of the best goalies, best defensemen, a power-play unit that ranked first in the league last season and a roster that is used to playing together under coach Barry Trotz, the only one in franchise history, the Preds appear another strong bet to make the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine seasons.