Almost since the first day of their existence, the Nashville Predators have been a team that's embraced defense. With David Poile and Barry Trotz working hand in hand, players were selected to fit the needs of a club that builds victory from the net out.
Growing slowly and steadily in experience even as their fanbase matured into a knowledgeable, passionate crew who could give even the most rabid Volunteer fans a run for their money, the club finally broke their streak of first round frustrations in 2011 by defeating the Anaheim Ducks, but fell to the eventual Western Conference champion Canucks.
In 2012, the club seemed ready to solidify their future when they locked up goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven year, $49 million dollar deal, but were unable to manage an extension for the other tent poles of their defense, with Ryan Suter going into the season as a potential free agent and Shea Weber playing on a 1 year, $7.5 million dollar contract after salary arbitration.
Pushing hard through the regular season, the club appeared to "load up" at the trade deadline, acquiring veterans Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill, and most impressively, finally retrieving Alexander Radulov from the KHL.
The move appeared to pay off when the club handled the Detroit Red Wings decisively in the first round, even with Weber serving a brief suspension for an illegal hit on Henrik Zetterburg, but the Phoenix Coyotes would bring their season to an end once again in the second round of the playoffs.
A Gathering Storm
With no first round pick thanks to their extensive deals, the Predators organization added some flexibility by trading backup Anders Lindback to Tampa Bay for several later round draft picks, then made excellent use of their selections on the second day of the NHL draft, grabbing players like Pontus Aberg, Colton Sissons, Mikko Vainonen, and Simon Fernholm.
Despite that success, however, the lack of a new deal with their top two d-men raised several eyebrows, and brought up questions about their ability to meet the asking price with the team's commitment to a careful budget.
When July first came around, Suter would officially open his door to all suitors, eventually landing in Minnesota, while Weber's status as an RFA would eventually lead to an offer sheet from Philadelphia that must be considered a budget buster, even though the club would match the offer to keep their captain in the fold.
Perhaps because of that cost, the club's vaunted defense is beginning to look a bit frayed. Weber remains one of the best defensemen in the Western Conference, but how will his decision to accept an offer sheet affect his relationship with the room as their captain? How will the club replace Suter's ability to set up scoring, particularly on the power play? And who will they call on in the tough minutes? Until the club signed veteran Scott Hannan, only the oft-injured Gill and Kevin Klein bring more than two seasons of NHL experience.
The club still has Rinne in net, and even brought back former Predator Chris Mason to serve as a veteran backup, but as their reshaped roster faces a major learning curve, it seems likely that each will face new challenges compared to other seasons.
Up front, the club continues to rely on scoring by committee, but the leaders are Martin Erat, David Legwand, and Mike Fisher. Fisher, like Suter, was ready to enter the season a UFA, but the club secured him to a new 2-year contract last night, keeping "Mr. Carrie Underwood" a fixture on and off ice for Music City fans.
Meanwhile, the team looks for youth to step up here as well, with Sergei Kostitsyn, Gabriel Bourque, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Patric Hornqvist expected to shoulder more and more of the load. But 8 of the 14 forwards currently under NHL contracts, including Smith, Yip, Bourque, and Hornqvist, are slated for some form of free agency.
Much of the club's future may hinge on the new collective bargaining agreement. With each evolution of the league's policies, Poile has found ways to build the club up and compete. Their ability to manage talent and continue to compete in one of the toughest divisions in the NHL while keeping to a strict budget should be a blueprint for general managers around the league. Yet they will again face new challenges, adapting and adjusting once again.
Can the Predators continue to rally around their strengths, or will the club finally stumble just as it seemed to make headway?
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