The Russell Report: Questions Heading Into Camp - Part 2
My two-part series looking at the six major questions facing the Nashville Predators during training camp this season.
Click here to see Part 1
What to do with all the flexibility up the middle?
With Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Paul Gaustad and Nick Spaling already on the roster for the upcoming season, it will be up to Head Coach Barry Trotz to see how six players who are capable of playing center will fit into his roster opening night.
Fisher and Legwand have been Nashville’s top centers dating back to the acquisition of Fisher in February 2011. Fisher tallied 21 points (10g-11a) and posted a team-high +6 rating on the year (tied with Gabriel Bourque). Legwand led the team in goals (12) and ranked second in scoring during the 2012-13 campaign with 25 (12g-13a) on the year.
Health is the number one question facing Gaustad going into the season after a nagging shoulder injury kept him out of all but 23 games in 2012-13. Despite the injury, Gaustad was on track to finish among the League’s top five players in face-off efficiency after winning 59.7 percent of his draws – his fourth consecutive season of ranking among the NHL’s top face-off men. If Gaustad can remain healthy, he will once again be a jack-of-all-trades, specializing in a wide variety of face-off scenarios, while seeing considerable time on the penalty kill.
Spaling figures to be the odd man out of the center race, but his youth and ability to play both center and wing make the Drayton, Ont., native an integral part of the 2012-13 roster. Look for Spaling to possibly make the move to wing to start the season, which leaves Trotz with a back-up plan throughout the season if injuries and other unforeseen circumstances crop up.
In Cullen, Nashville has a speedy veteran who, even at 36-years of age, is still capable of being a game-changer. A season ago in Minnesota, he posted 27 points (7g-20a). Much like Gaustad, Cullen has consistently found himself among the League leaders in face-off efficiency (53.2 percent in 2012-13) – his third consecutive season with such success.
Hendricks is another wild card in the center bunch. Like Spaling, Hendricks is comfortable playing both center and wing. Preds fans can expect Hendricks to line up at wing this season, but the flexibility still remains. In addition to bringing flexibility and grit to the line-up, Hendricks has also carved out a niche as a shootout specialist and will help the Preds improve in the post-overtime tiebreaker.
What’s next for Filip Forsberg?
In five games with Nashville this past season and throughout rookie camp, Filip Forsberg has shown that, despite a raw skill set, he has the potential to be a powerful force in the League for years to come.
Prior to crossing the pond in April, the 19-year-old won the Gold Cage Award as the Allsvenskan's junior player of the year after leading all junior players in goals, and ranking second in points (15g-18a-33pts) to fellow Preds prospect Pontus Aberg. During qualification, the Ostervala, Sweden native ranked second in goals and tied for eighth in points (5g-4a-9pts, 9gp), helping Leksand earn promotion to the Elite League.
Forsberg is still learning the North American style of play, but with the Preds offseason additions and the return of many injured players, he will be afforded the chance to develop in a second or third line role. But if the Predators’ brass believes he still needs to improve on certain aspects of his game before returning to the NHL, Forsberg will benefit from spending time in Milwaukee – an opportunity not afforded to North American-born players of his same age.
How the defensive pairings work out?
As in past seasons, if the Nashville Predators are anything, they are deep along the blue line. However, Nashville is looking to get grittier and more lethal among the rearguard.
Enter new assistant coach Phil Housley, a seven-time NHL All-Star, a finalist for the 1992 Norris Trophy and the second-leading American-born scorer in NHL history. The prevailing thought is that Housley, who was an undersized player during his time, will help Nashville’s young defenseman become more of an offensive threat, both during 5-on-5 play and on the power play, while solidifying their defensive game.
Beyond the top three of Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Kevin Klein, Nashville has Victor Bartley, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm chomping at the bit to see increased roles with the NHL squad. The addition of top-rated defensive prospect Seth Jones also adds another layer to the group. Despite the potential upside of these young prospects, they are just that – young.
Bartley showed promise during his 24-game stint with the club last season. Bartley tallied seven assists, ranked fourth on the Predators in average ice time (19:32) and led Nashville d-men in plus/minus rating (+2) in 2012-13. He has shown that he is capable of taking on an increased role within the Predators system, but the question of where he slots in with fellow rookies remains to be seen.
Highly-touted defenseman Ryan Ellis has shown great offensive prowess and the ability to help transition the game, but his size and defensive play have left some questions during his time with the Preds. In 64 games at the NHL level, Ellis has tallied just five goals and 12 assists. Entering camp, Ellis will be given every chance to earn in place with the big club again, but the competition is more robust than it has been in years past.
Last season, Ekholm 27 points (9g-18a) in 55 games for the Admirals in 2012-13, his first full North American campaign and in addition to playing one game for the Predators. The Borlange, Sweden native has the size, skating ability and hockey IQ the Predators need along the blue line and this year’s training camp will be his chance to prove he’s ready to return to Nashville.
Jones, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, has been described as the most NHL-ready prospect for more than a year. The 6-4, 210-pound rearguard will have an opportunity to make the team out of camp, but Poile has made it clear that the 18-year-old must earn his roster position.
Outside of the seven players already discussed, Nashville has Bryan Rodney and Joe Piskula waiting in the wings. Rodney has posted 13 points (1g-12a) in 34 NHL games dating back to the 2008-09 season. Piskula, who the Predators acquired in the Brian McGrattan trade, has 10 games of NHL experience under his belt. In Milwaukee, Joonas Jarvinen – a 6-3, 212-pound Finn – has also been honing his North American game and could provide much-needed size and grit to Nashville’s blue line.