Many sports fans in the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee that have long traditions of football season running 365 days a year, only have casual interest in the Nashville Predators until playoff time comes around. This year, the late arrivals may have to have a longer attention span than in past seasons.
Predators GM David Poile has put together a squad that has the potential to go deep in the playoffs, potentially into June and the Stanley Cup finals.
In spite of making the playoffs six of the last seven seasons, few folks in the mainstream hockey media paid much attention to the Predators prior to last year’s series with the Vancouver Canucks when Nashville made it to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time.
Hordes of old time hockey media swarmed to the American South and fell in love with a fan base, building, and honky-tonk entertainment district collectively known as “Smashville.”
From the first year of play in 1998, the Predators have always been a workman-like team that exceeded expectations. Recently, the criticism was that the team lacked a big scoring forward.
In mid March, the best player in the world (not in the NHL) returned to his original team after four years as the KHL’s best player. When Alexander Radulov returned to Nashville to fulfill the final year of his entry-level contract, he became the most dynamic player to have ever worn the “Predator gold.”
After only nine games in Nashville, Radulov has to be considered a top-ten NHL forward as much for his play away from the puck as when he has the puck on his stick. The 25 year-old is a much-improved player than the one that left abruptly in 2007.
There were questions as to how Radulov would be accepted back to the Predators after his departure four years ago, but they were answered quickly when teammates and fans saw him in action and he has quickly become a fan favorite as all has been forgiven.
The Predators are coached by Barry Trotz, the only coach the franchise has ever known, picked up his 500th career win in the season’s final weeks. He is a legend in that through his tenure he has never “lost the room” or had his message “go stale.”
Trotz has done more with less talent than any coach in recent history. The team is known for a “Band of Brothers” style of play where every player has to give 100% every game with a focus on team play that has come to be known as “The Predator Way.”
There has been fierce competition for playing time in recent weeks, with the Predators carrying 27 players on the roster and the ones that are producing are getting the minutes.
The team has been built from the goal out and 6’5” Pekka Rinne, who leads the NHL in wins, is the anchor. Anders Lindback is the other half of Nashville’s “13 feet of goalie,” checking in at 6”6”.
The top defensive pair is Norris Trophy candidates, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The other four d-men slots are mostly filled with combinations of Kevin Klein, rookie Roman Josi, Hal Gill, and Frankie Bouillon. Waiting for opportunities are Jack Hillen and rookie Ryan Ellis, who won every award available during his four years with the Windsor Spitfires.
The Predators have long been known for a lack of scoring punch, with plenty of 2-1 games peppering the season’s results. This year, the Preds were fourth in the West in scoring, and after years of struggles on the man-advantage are now ranked number one in the NHL in power play conversion.
The Predators score by committee and only have two twenty-goal scorers, but do boast of eleven players with ten or more goals for the year.
Nashville’s top line is centered by Mike Fisher, with Sergei Kostitsyn, and Marty Erat on the wings. The second line is still a work in progress as Radulov has been added to the line centered by the original Predator draft pick, David Legwand. Patric Hornqvist and Andrei Kostitsyn are the other candidates.
From that point on the competition is fierce with a wide variety of forwards, each with a different skill set, trying to make the lineup each game.
Ex-Boston University player, and Hobey Baker finalist, Colin Wilson has found his previously lacking consistency this season and is close to becoming the player that was expected. Rookie Craig Smith who made the jump from the University of Wisconsin has struggled with the number of games played, but has shown flashes of brilliance at times.
The one player that exemplifies “Predator hockey” the best and who has become one of Trotz’s favorites, is 21 year old, Gabriel Bourque, who hails from Rimouski, Quebec. Trotz has repeatedly said that he improves any line on which he plays.
Masterton Trophy nominee, Jordin Tootoo is a player that is known for being a shift disturber but has actually gotten away from that role in the last couple of seasons. Toots is a much more well-rounded player than folks outside the Nashville area realize and is greeted by hundreds of “Too-Too whistles” every time he steps on the ice.
Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, and Brandon Yip all have similar roles, playing solid two-way, gritty hockey in the trenches and on the boards. Paul Gaustad was acquired at the trade deadline from Buffalo as a face-off and penalty kill specialist and is guaranteed a start every night.
For toughness, Nashville brought in one of the better pugilists in the game in Brian McGrattan, who only plays when trouble is imminent.
With all the late season additions, especially with the post-deadline pickup of Radulov, most pundits see Nashville with a good chance of making the Western Conference finals and possibly even having a sniff at the Cup in the final series in June.
It all begins on Wednesday night at the Bridgestone Arena when the Predators’ measuring stick, the Detroit Red Wings comes to town for what should be a long, hard-fought series between the best team in the NHL over the last 20 years and a hungry, youthful Nashville team.