30 in 15: Predators after an edge in 2013-14
Wednesday, 09.18.2013 / 3:00 AM
By Mike G. Morreale
Now is as good a time as any for the Nashville Predators to re-establish the "Nashville Bite."
At least that's how coach Barry Trotz views the situation as his team prepares to embark on a new season.
"We didn't play with a lot of bite last year and I feel some of the offseason pickups we made will enhance the play of some of the players we had," Trotz told NHL.com. "We just have to get back to playing with what I call the 'Nashville Bite.' That's when we play with an edge and with attitude … we need to get back to that."
Predators general manager David Poile was certainly hard at work this summer in an effort to provide that for his veteran coach.
A change on offense was definitely in order after the Predators finished 14th in the Western Conference while averaging 2.27 goals per game to match the Florida Panthers for the lowest in the League last season. So on the opening day of free agency, Poile acquired center Matt Cullen and wings Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks. The GM also added some insurance in goal with the signing of Carter Hutton to back up starter Pekka Rinne, who is entering the second year of a seven-year contract signed in November 2011.
Cullen, whose 0.64 points per game average last season was his best since 0.83 in 2007-08, provides depth down the middle, and Stalberg, who could fill a top six role, offers speed and size (6-foot-3, 209 pounds). Nystrom possesses a relentless motor and ability to forecheck effectively, and Hendricks is a versatile player with a strong work ethic.
So what will Trotz look for during training camp in an attempt to sort out his lineup card?
"We have some young guys coming up that I think can take the next step forward, like a Craig Smith, Austin Watson or Taylor Beck," he said. "I really like where we are right now. We have a lot of backside pressure on every position at forward. We're not really deep on defense, which is usually our strength, but we've got a lot of talent back there that just needs a little bit of experience."
In addition to the four offensive acquisitions over the summer -- Cullen, Stalberg, Nystrom and Hendricks -- the Predators coaching staff will be taking a long, hard look at the young core ready to push for roster spots.
"We're looking to play an up-tempo game, an attacking game, and that fits my style pretty well," Cullen told the Predators website. "I feel that in most aspects of the game I'll be able to fit in pretty well with this team."
Naturally, one of several big questions surrounding the Predators entering 2013-14 is the state of the offense; no player had more than 12 goals and three finished in double digits (David Legwand, Mike Fisher, Gabriel Bourque). Trotz told NHL.com his big board has Cullen, Legwand, Fisher and Paul Gaustad penciled in at center.
Among those young players looking to make decisions tough on the coaching staff are Swedish prospect Filip Forsberg, who could provide some needed production in his first full season in North America, and center Austin Watson, who could be promoted at some point to provide an added boost.
"I like the type of people we brought in," Trotz said. "Guys like Hendricks and Nystrom really fill in that grit factor and that backbone factor so some of the young guys we have in our lineup can feel comfortable out there."
A solid training camp by Beck and Watson could earn one or both players more valuable minutes sooner rather than later. Despite offseason surgery for Colin Wilson, Trotz said he expects him to be fine during training camp. The 23-year-old forward had stabilization surgery on each shoulder within a span of a few weeks in April.
"I was in Boston training before this and my first time out there Hal Gill stepped into me, so I'm used to getting hit on the shoulder," Wilson said. "It's not something I'm concerned about. I'm already comfortable, so it's not even a thought in my head right now."
The coach said he would anticipate Wilson playing some center if he were to remain healthy over an 82-game season. Cullen, meanwhile, can be shifted along the wall if a change were needed.
"I want to help the team and become more of a leader," Wilson said. "This is my fifth year with the organization, so I want to take on more of that kind of role and a little more pride in it, so I think that can only help me."
The Predators have long been a group that has thrived on scoring by committee, but they connected for two or fewer goals in 27 of 48 games in 2012-13 and had a 3-17-7 record in those games en route to finishing 27th in the League. Nashville was 13-6-2 when scoring more than two goals last season.
One area that must be improved is shots per game; Nashville averaged a League-low 25.9 last season.
"We probably have 15 to 16 guys who can play in the NHL right now. We're deeper at forward and we're probably a little older than we've been in a number of years," Trotz said. "We'll keep only 14 forwards, but our forward situation is probably better than it has been in a long time."
If there's one position overflowing with young talent, it's along the back end.
Trotz not only has captain Shea Weber, Ryan Ellis, Kevin Klein and Roman Josi returning to the lineup, but 2013 first-round pick (No. 4) Seth Jones is expected to earn a roster spot. Jones was considered by many to be the top defensive prospect on the draft board in June.
"I've obviously been working hard all summer to get to this level and I think I've done a pretty good job holding my own [in training camp] during 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 battles," Jones told the Predators website. "For me, I've watched a lot of these players on TV, but your mentality's got to be that you belong here with these guys and can play with them."
Nashville's top seven along the back end to open the season likely will be Weber, Klein, Josi, Ellis, Jones, Mattias Ekholm and Victor Bartley. Trotz would like to see Jones play left and right defense as a rookie.
"We'll work on his feet a lot during camp; for a big man he skates very well," Trotz said. "Right now, I don't think Weber or Klein will move over to the left side, so if he wants to move up, he's got to play some on the left. Being young, that's a challenge for him, but we wanted to get him out of his comfort zone so that he's challenged a bit entering camp."
Perhaps even more than his on-ice ability, Trotz has been impressed with Jones' maturity off the playing surface.
"He thinks well in terms of what he wants to do, how he wants to do it and how he's going to get it done," Trotz said. "Some feel as though I can just put him with Weber and he'll play against the top opposing guys and we won't have any concerns, but that might not be the case. Maybe he might be better off playing against third lines on some nights."
Trotz acknowledged he expects a regular rotation among the defensemen.
"I think with three veteran guys in the mix, we'll have to move them around so you might not see Josi with Weber playing together all the time," Trotz said. "They'll have to move around with different partners, so some nights you might see Josi and Klein together."
He also said Josi is just scratching the surface with his potential.
"He's probably done as much at his age  than Ryan Suter did for us at the same age," Trotz said. "Can he can get his game to the level of Ryan Suter? I don't know, since that's pretty high. But he'll be in that range; if Josi and Weber stay together, they'll be a top pair for the next seven or eight years."
Ekholm, who might have been regarded as the organization's top defensive prospect before the selection of Jones on June 30, had a solid rookie season in 2012-13 with Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee, with 10 goals, 32 points and a plus-15 rating in 59 games.
Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, is fully recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his left hip in May and was given clearance to return to game action. The surgery, which required approximately four months to recover, was necessary to correct a situation team officials were aware of last season.
The team will keep from overworking Rinne during training camp, and according to reports the veteran goalie isn't expected to play in either of the team's opening two preseason games scheduled against the Florida Panthers on Sept. 16 and Tampa Bay Lightning three days later.
Though Rinne's numbers weren't off-the-charts-good for a team that struggled to put the puck in the opposing net, he finished with a 2.43 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and five shutouts. He'll be backed up by Hutton to start the season. Hutton appeared in one game for the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and appeared in 51 games for Chicago's AHL's affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, finishing 26-22-1 with a 2.72 GAA, .908 save percentage and two shutouts.
Since turning pro at the completion of his collegiate career at UMass-Lowell in 2009-10, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound goalie has appeared in 120 AHL games, with a 60-44-7 mark with a 2.64 GAA, .902 save percentage and seven shutouts.
Prospect Magnus Hellberg is getting close, but according to Trotz needs to keep playing in the AHL and getting valuable experience. Hellberg, selected in the second round (No. 38) of the 2011 NHL Draft, enjoyed a solid North American debut last season in Milwaukee, finishing 22-13-0 with a 2.14 GAA, .924 save percentage and six shutouts.
"We're happy with his development, but we want him to be our next guy [in a few years] and want to make sure he's playing right now," Trotz said. "In Milwaukee, we can clean up some things in his game that will make him a better goalie for us."