CAN PREDS HANG IN TOUGH WEST?
By Brian Roe, Nashville Writer
--Fast start and consistency will be key for the
Predators to compete for playoff spot this year--
The Nashville Predators will open the 2003 season off with four straight home games, including the opener against the defending Western Conference Champion Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
The Ducks, who will play their season opener against Dallas the night before, are a team that inspires the Nashville Predators. Last season, with solid team defense, timely goal scoring and amazing goaltending, Anaheim went from the cellar of the Western Conference to champions of the West in one year.
Nashville must get off to a quick start with four home games, two against division rivals in the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings. Last season, the Predators began and ended the season terribly and never really recovered from those two breakdowns. If the Predators can play more consistently, then the team increases its chances of making the playoffs.
Nashville will open the 2003-2004 season with a goalie that will enter his first full season as the starter, an offense that has never scored 200 goals in a season and a defense that will unveil at least three new blueliners after Nashville cut ties with Cale Hulse, Bill Houlder, Andy Delmore and Karlis Skrastins over the summer.
So, the question is: can the Nashville Predators realistically compete in the overly talented Western Conference?
Yes and no. And I will tell you why.
First, scenario one: the optimistic view that sees the young Nashville squad skate onto playoff ice for the first time in franchise history. The Predators need three things to happen if they want to make it through the west and earn themselves a playoff spot.
Number one: one goalie in Tomas Vokoun must be a top-10 goaltender for the entire season. Vokoun played sensational last season, earning the respect of both teammates and opponents.
Vokoun did his job, playing in 69 games, posting 25 wins, a 2.20 goals against average, a .918 save percentage and three shut outs. For the Predators to be successful, Vokoun must again play 65-plus games at the same level as last season.
Number two: two defensemen must have breakout seasons. Tomas Kloucek, Marek Zidlicky, Robert Schnabel, Dan Hamhuis and others will all be given the opportunity to step in and make an impact on the re-vamped Nashville blueline this year.
Mark Eaton will also be given an expanded role this season after scoring nine points in 50 games and posting a plus/minus rating of +1.
If two of these new defensemen can come through and become good NHL defensemen, meaning keeping the plus/minus rating on the positive side, the Nashville blueline will be improved over last year and in turn the team should see improvement as well.
Number three: three Predators need to score 25 goals or more. Last season, the closest the Predators got was in Andreas Johansson who scored 20 goals and David Legwand who had 17. Also, defenseman Andy Delmore had 18 goals.
Assuming both Johansson and Legwand are healthy for the majority of the season, both should score near 25 goals. After that candidates include Scott Walker (16 goals), Scott Hartnell (12 goals), Adam Hall (16 goals), Vladimir Orszagh (16 goals) and even offensive-minded defensemen Zidlicky.
Last season, only Anaheim and Minnesota made the playoffs without at least three players netting 25 goals during the regular season. But each team had a 30-goal scorer on its roster.
Anaheim had Petr Sykora scoring 34 goals, to go along with Paul Karyia’s 25 goals and Steve Rucchin’s 20 goals. And Minnesota had Marian Gaborik scoring 30 goals, to go with Pascal Dupuis’ 20 goals and former Predator Andrew Brunette’s 18 goals.
Only one of the non-playoff teams in the Western conference last year had three players score at least 25 goals last season (the San Jose Sharks with Marleau – 28 goals, Selanne – 28 goals and Sturm – 28 goals).
Next, scenario two: the opposing view that sees the young defense collapse and the inexperienced offense come up as unproductive. Three things the Predators hope will not happen in 2003-2004.
Number one: Vokoun falls apart. The 27-year-old plays more like a mediocre back-up than a top-notch starter and gets benched.
Number two: the defense falters with too much youthful ignorance and not enough veteran leadership. The team surrenders soft goals and mental breakdowns that assist in Vokoun’s benching.
Number three: the Predators have no one to score twenty goals. Legwand takes a step back on the progression ladder, Johansson shows he was a one-hit wonder and all youngsters prove to be average.
So, which of these will happen: scenario one or two? Chances are neither one will happen and the Predators will fall somewhere in between like they usually do.
Legwand should score 25 goals this season, but others may be hard pressed to hit that mark. The defense should come together because they are younger, faster and more skilled. Vokoun will likely continue his stellar play, keeping Nashville in the race until the end of the season.
In the end, the season will come down to one thing: consistency. If the Predators can play the entire season consistently, making big saves and scoring timely goals, then Nashville has a shot at the post-season.
So, can Nashville really make the playoffs this year after finishing 13th in the West last season?
Well, in 2001-2002, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks had 69 points, also finishing 13th in the West. And we all know what happened to the Ducks last season.
Hey, if the Mighty Ducks can do it, why not the Predators?
2003 OPENING DAY ROSTER
11 David Legwand, C
25 Denis Arkhipov, C
22 Greg Johnson, C
38 Vernon Fiddler, C
21 Andreas Johansson, LW
17 Scott Hartnell, LW
15 Rem Murray, LW
10 Martin Erat, LW
24 Scott Walker, RW
33 Vladimir Orzsagh, RW
18 Adam Hall, RW
55 Jordin Tootoo, RW
44 Kimmo Timonen, D
3 Marek Zidlicky, D
26 Wade Brookbank, D
4 Adam Eaton, D
27 Jason York, D
36 Robert Schnabal, D
43 Dan Hamhuis, D
29 Tomas Vokoun, G
30 Chris Mason, G
28 Tomas Kloucek, D
- Sprained knee, out two to four weeks (injured on Oct. 3)
19 Jim McKinzie, LW
- Sprained knee, out two weeks (from Oct. 6)
23 Jamie Allison, D
- Sore ribs, out one week (from Oct. 3)
PLACED ON WAIVERS:
35 Jan Lasak, G
NASHVILLE PREDATORS INFO BOX
History: 6th season in NHL
Owner: Craig Leipold
GM: David Poile
Head Coach: Barry Trotz
Arena: Gaylord Entertainment Center
Captain: Greg Johnson