TC 06: Re-tooled Predators have offense on the mind

Saturday, 09.23.2006 / 6:11 PM / Features
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TC 06: Re-tooled Predators have offense on the mind

Take the team with the best home record in the NHL and the third-most points in the Western Conference in 2005-06. On first glance, it would seem as if the Nashville Predators roster going into 2006-07 would need little more than some fine tuning.

One summer later, eight regulars from a season ago – including the team captain (Greg Johnson) and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer (Scott Walker) – have moved on. Many of these players were huge factors on the team’s ascension into the league’s elite, marked by three straight seasons of improvement and two consecutive appearances in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

Predators General Manager David Poile used the off-season as a means to add talent through free agency and trades, essentially overhauling and upgrading the club’s personnel. He has created a lineup that, on paper, should give opposing goaltenders fits and keep Tim McGraw singing “I Like It, I Love It” at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

At the center ice position, Nashville signed the premier free agent on the market, Jason Arnott

Jason Arnott adds size up the middle.
from the Dallas Stars to a long-term contract. Entering his 13th NHL season, the 6-4, 220-pound pivot has registered nine 20-goal seasons and is coming off a career year offensively in which he netted 76 points (32g-44a). Just as significantly, the Predators have added a veteran winner with nearly 100 games of playoff experience, two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, one Stanley Cup Championship and one particular goal that clinched the Cup in 2000 for New Jersey in double overtime of Game Six of the Finals. 

Sixteen days after that addition, Nashville added a 6-5, 214-pound left-handed center iceman to match Arnott’s right-handed draw in the face-off circle. Fresh from a Stanley Cup campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes, Josef Vasicek came to the Predators in a deal for Walker. The Predators had long admired the offensive potential of the 26-year-old Czech, who spent most of the past season recovering from knee surgery.

In a surprise move that capped a successful summer, the Predators added former Buffalo forward J.P. Dumont two weeks before the start of training camp. After a fantastic post-season in which the Sabres came within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, economic realities forced the club to walk from Dumont’s contract (as decided through independent arbitration). The Predators were happy to jump in and scoop up the sniper with at least 20 goals in four of his past five seasons, and his surgeon-like hands should be a welcome addition to one of Nashville’s top two lines. (Not to mention, an already lethal power play with two of the league’s most dominant offensive blueliners – Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky – along with world-class scorers like Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan).

The addition of Dumont just emphasizes the unprecedented depth at forward the Predators will enter training camp with. Along with, Kariya and Sullivan, wingers Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell will be counted on to build on their breakout offensive seasons in 2005-06. Center David Legwand, one of the NHL’s swiftest skaters, will return to full strength after battling through knee problems (that culminated in off-season surgery) last season. Meanwhile, promising talent such as Scottie Upshall and Jordin Tootoo, who have earned their stripes in Nashville’s developmental system, are expected to produce as NHL regulars.

One of the most compelling training camp storylines features another forward, vying to make the club in his first season as a pro.   No other Nashville forward has entered the scene with the offensive credentials of the team’s first selection in the 2004 Entry Draft, Alexander Radulov. After earning a long look at his first NHL training camp a year ago, Radulov dominated the junior ranks, leading the entire Canadian Hockey League in scoring, winning MVP trophies in both the CHL and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and helping the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts capture the Memorial Cup with another MVP performance. At one point during the 2005-06 season, the colorful Russian posted points in 50 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in league history.

While Poile and the Nashville coaching staff have long preached that the road to Nashville

Alex Radulov with Head Coach Barry Trotz
leads through the Milwaukee Admirals (of the American Hockey League), Radulov will have the opportunity to earn a roster spot with his performance. If the 20-year-old makes the club, the Predators will field an opening-day roster with as many as six of its own first-round picks (Legwand, Hartnell, Upshall and Radulov up front; Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter on defense) vying for time.

Consistent with the philosophy of developing its own draft picks, Poile, assistant GM Paul Fenton (who, in turn, “developed” from within, earning a promotion from his role as director of player personnel) and the coaching staff have created a scenario on the back end which will create opportunities for the Predators’ unmatched cadre of defensive prospects. The club parted ways this summer with over 1400 games of NHL experience in Mark Eaton, Danny Markov and Brendan Witt. Instead, a young but extremely talented group of youngsters led by Dan Hamhuis (who has more NHL experience than all but one NHL defenseman drafted in 2001 – Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester) will suit up alongside veterans Timonen and Zidlicky. Ryan Suter will log more minutes in more situations in his second NHL season, as will Shea Weber. The promising Kevin Klein and Greg Zanon are prime candidates to fill out the blue line, while physical crease-clearer Alex Henry, signed as a free agent, will be in the mix, as well.

Going with youth on defense worked once before for Nashville, when the team parted ways with Bill Houlder, Cale Hulse and Andy Delmore prior to the 2003-04 season. That being said, Poile will complement the corps if need be after in-season evaluation.

Tomas Vokoun
Perhaps the most important lineup change for Nashville didn’t even show up in the transactions page. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun was issued a clean bill of health in July, putting the issue of the blood disorder that submarined his participation in the 2006 playoffs firmly in the past. Since taking over as the Predators’ No. 1 goalie in December of 2002, the former Montreal farmhand has emerged as a member of the NHL goaltending elite. Over the last three NHL seasons, Vokoun has ranked third in the league in games played and wins. The presence of his leadership, talent and competitiveness on the Nashville lineup is simply undeniable.

That’s not to downplay the importance of goalie Chris Mason, who filled in admirably in net for Nashville during the final weeks of the 2005-06 regular season and playoffs. Sought after on the free-agent market, the Predators were aggressive in their pursuit of the popular netminder, and brought him back to Music City for at least two more seasons.

Again, no matter how good the team looks on paper, nothing counts until the team plays the game on the ice. This team will be challenged early, playing 19 of its first 29 contests on the road. The coaches will rely on a strong leadership group (featuring Arnott, Kariya, Sullivan, Timonen and Vokoun) for counsel, but the club enters camp without a captain in place for the first time since 2002-03. For these reasons, as well as to simply build chemistry, the club will return to Orlando, Fla. (where it previously went off-site in 2003) for a week of team-building during this year’s training camp.

OFF-SEASON
May 8, 2006:    Signed defenseman Marek Zidlicky.

May 9, 2006:    Signed defenseman Ryan Parent.

May 18, 2006:    Signed forward Vernon Fiddler and free-agent defenseman Ville Koistinen.

May 22, 2006:    Signed forward Jerred Smithson.

June 1, 2006:    Signed forward Daniel Widing and defenseman Mikko Lehtonen. 

June 5, 2006:    Named Paul Fenton assistant general manager and Michael Santos director of hockey operations.

June 24, 2006:    Selected forwards Ryan Flynn, Blake Geoffrion, Viktor Sjodin and Niko Snellman and goaltender Mark Dekanich in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

July 1, 2006:    Signed free-agent goaltender Chris Mason.

July 2, 2006:    Signed free-agent forward Jason Arnott.  Signed defenseman Cody Franson.

July 17, 2006:    Signed forward Brandon Segal.  Signed free-agent forwards Shane Endicott and Patrick Leahy, free-agent defenseman Nolan Yonkman and free-agent goaltender Karl Goehring.

July 18, 2006:    Acquired forward Josef Vasicek from Carolina for forward Scott Walker.

July 19, 2006:    Acquired forward Dominic Moore from the New York Rangers for forward Adam Hall.  Acquired a third-round selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft from Pittsburgh for forwards Dominic Moore and Libor Pivko.

July 21, 2006:    Signed forward Jordin Tootoo and defenseman Sheldon Brookbank.  Signed free-agent forward Ramzi Abid.

July 22, 2006:    Signed forward David Legwand.

July 24, 2006:    Signed forward Martin Erat.

August 1, 2006:    Signed forward Scott Hartnell.

August 21, 2006:    Signed free-agent defenseman Alex Henry.

August 29, 2006:    Signed free-agent forward J.P. Dumont.

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