Lucky 13? (Part 1/2)

Two of the Nashville Predators’ key young veterans, Patric Hornqvist (left) and Sergei Kostitsyn (right) will play a big role in determining whether the Music City’s hockey club can better their second-round playoff appearance of a year ago. Will the team’s 13th NHL season of play be a lucky one? (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America)


Is The Summer of Our Discontent Finally Over?
It’s kinda tough to paint a big ol’ smiley face over the ‘meh’ that at times has dominated the collective expression of Nashville Predators fan community throughout the summer of 2011 — a summer which, thankfully, is now in the rear-view mirror. It was a summertime that featured record-high temperatures across North America and just-as-volatile levels of alternating enthusiasm and depression among the Fang Faithful, as in the wake of the team’s most successful campaign to date, the Preds suffered a pair of devastating losses and the potential for few more in the not-too-distant future (albeit the latter being of much lesser import in the grand scheme of things).

The rash of player deaths involving the disturbing demise of a trio of former NHL enforcers, along with the unspeakably tragic loss of the entire HC Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team to a plane crash in central Russia last month, all occurring within a five month span from May thru September gave new meaning to the concept of the summer from hell.

The death of current and former Predators favorites, Wade Belak and Karlis Skrastins has placed a special poignancy on this upcoming season; underscoring Nashville’s seemingly endless requirement for resiliency in the face of adversity — something that seems to be this team’s recurring challenge. Now the Predators will not only have to steel themselves against whatever the hockey gods can throw at them physically, they’ll  be forced to deal with the emotional fallout of these tragic past months as well. Make no mistake, all the hockey world mourns the recent losses to its extended family; it just seems as though Music City is called upon to sing a note that’s a little bluer than the rest, having lost more former players and prospects in this summer’s collective hockey tragedies than any other NHL team.

Nevertheless, side-by-side with the grim reaper stands hope here in Smashville; hope that the memory of the fallen Preds can be lifted up in tribute, as an inspiration to the former teammates they leave behind. Still, it’s a hard pill to swallow and even harder to make any sense of, whatsoever.

Nope, there’s no doubting it; for Preds fans especially, this summer sucked six ways from Sunday. The shortest offseason in team history has actually seemed like the longest. It’s a period that truly qualifies as a circumstance in which the well-worn joke is totally applicable: it’s like banging your head against the wall — it feels so good when you stop.

From the protracted emotional drainage of team captain Shea Weber’s summer-long contract drama to the possible debilitating effect it might have had on the team’s ability to re-sign Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne; the taste that’s left in one’s mouth isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘pleasant.’

But just when you thought you were fresh outta tic-tacs…

Despite the uneasy peace that has now settled over 501 Broadway, many observers of this team still believe there’s plenty of reasons to be positive for the 2011-12 season.

As someone named Sarah Connor once said in the face of near-certain destruction, “the future is not yet written…”

Smart lady, that Sarah.

Lucky and Good?
As the team enters its thirteenth National Hockey League season of play, it just wouldn’t be proper for a pun-lovin’ headline hack like moi to not at least outwardly wonder if it will be lucky 13. Only, the new generation of Nashville Predators coming to the fore in 2011-12 may render ‘luck’ irrelevant for the most part. Nonetheless, given all this team has been through, a little good fortune would definitely be a plus. No doubt the law of averages should be in the Preds’ favor by now, so lucky and good certainly isn’t out of the question.

In the yo-yo experience of being a Nashville Predators fan, I’ll take whatever I can get.

The Predators are a team rife with potential, but appear at this point to be one whose future is still fragile, ultimately; largely dependent on the factors of remaining healthy, physically, and perhaps even more so, psychologically.

After finally breaking the first-round playoffs barrier before succumbing to the eventual conference champion Vancouver Canucks last spring, there was a tremendous vibe of confidence surrounding the Predators’ immediate future. The window of opportunity was officially agape and the club seemed poised to exploit it; then came the summer of our discontent. Five months later there is still ample room for optimism, but with it, questions of neutron-star-gravity surrounding the former ‘little team that could.’

How will all-world defenseman and team captain, Shea Weber’s monstrous one-year, $7.5 million, arbitrator-awarded contract affect not only his play, but his ability to lead in the wake of his inability to find common ground with the team in the form of the previously assumed long-term contract? How will that affect the climate of a team so dependent on not only his services, but those of his defensive partner, Ryan Suter and goaltender, Pekka Rinne as well?

The aforementioned remainder of the Big Three are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next July 1st, and the proverbial pachyderm in the room, made even larger by the complications of Weber’s deal, will not lumber off peacefully into the weeds until that circumstance is resolved. If one or both players are not re-signed in relatively short order, how big a distraction will that be for a team now without the calming presence of former veteran stalwarts Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont to help them remain focused?

On a more positive flipside, just as the departure of the team’s ‘big brothers’ might present one challenge, it could also be the key to solving an even greater one. The continuing influx of youth that will indeed alter the team’s chemistry but could potentially add some much-needed octane to Nashville’s tepid scoring mixture will have its greatest impact to date this season — one way or another. In perhaps the ultimate question facing the Preds, whether or not rookies stars Blake Geoffrion, Craig Smith, and Ryan Ellis can find a way to make an offensive impact as they become one with Coach Barry Trotz’s Predators Way of playing hockey is a factor that will either go a long way toward stabilizing the club’s consistency, or keeping them scrambling offensively and very well could determine whether or not Nashville stays in the thick of the playoff mix amid a number of improved Western Conference opponents this season.

Even more directly vital to Nashville’s success could be the anticipated and continuing offensive production of young vets Sergei Kostitsyn, Nick Bergfors, and Patric Hornqvist — each of whom has shown a single flash of scoring brilliance in their young careers but have yet to sustain that output much beyond a single season. Any one or even a pair of these key players could occupy a revamped Preds’ first line and could truly be the force that drives the puck truck this season.

But hand-wringing and worry-wart commentary notwithstanding, there is nothing to suggest that today’s Predators are anything less than they were a year ago. Even the free agent defections and departures of the offseason have done little to change the essence of the 2010-11 edition of Trotz’ Troopers. This is essentially the same team that finished last season fifth in the West. There is nothing glaring to make one believe that what allowed them to get where they were last year walked out the door with Sullivan & Dumont, or with forward Marcel Goc, defenseman Shane O’Brien, or even the team’s 2011 playoffs stud, forward Joel Ward.

With all due respect to their contributions, Sullivan and Dumont were relative non-factors due to injury and long stretches of ineffectiveness in the second half of last season; likewise for Goc, who missed the entire second half and the playoffs. Only the absence of Joel Ward, who saved the best hockey of his four-season NHL career for the postseason tournament, leaves any kind of significant hole to fill. But as has been proven time and again, Barry Trotz and David Poile will find a way to plug that gap.

With the October 7th season opener in Columbus still more than a week away away, there’s much to be meted out, with nine players’ season-opening mailing addresses yet to be determined. But so far, so good. The Preds are 4-1 in the preseason, with one of those victories coming in dramatic come-from-behind fashion last Saturday night in a 4-3 victory over the Winnipeg (by-way-of-The-ATL) Jets.

The game featured many of the markings of a typical preseason tilt: too many penalties; some obvious butterflies in the belly of young Nashville goalie, Chet Pickard who started, gave up a pair of quick goals, and then finished up admirably after Pekka Rinne came on to restore order in Period Two before suffering a cut on the forehead and calling it a night.

Then there was the ‘let’s impress the coach’ grandstand move on the part of Winnipeg’s Troy Brodie and his retributive body-slam of new Preds ‘agiforcer,’ Zack Stortini. Storts had a particularly impressive outing, skating well, forechecking hard, and playing smart by not allowing himself to be drawn into the fight that Brodie was seeking. The result was a double minor penalty on the Winnipeg tough guy and a highlight-filled four minutes of power play time for Nashville. And that’s where the typicality of this preseason game ended — for the Predators anyway.

Nashville responded with not one, but two power play goals to take the lead for good, leading me to ask, “Who are you and what have you done with my hockey team?”

But when it comes right down to it, this rather extreme case of PP prowess notwithstanding, the Preds haven’t quite been themselves much at all this preseason when it comes to taking advantage of the man-advantage; they’ve actually been scoring. Thus far, they’re 4 for 19, a 21.0% success rate. Compare that with last season’s 26th-in-the-league 15.2% and it becomes glaringly apparent that should the trend continue, even a slight improvement in Nashville’s offensive special teams play could translate to a sizable difference in the win column this season.

Nonetheless, as they say, it’s still early. But in seeing the team live for the first time this preseason, it was quite apparent that they looked sharp and composed on the PP already. Again, if it holds, it could be the single-biggest component of this season’s success. It could be huge.


Next: Sometimes you’ve gotta make your own luck

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