There was some great debate last night and this morning on Twitter and around the blogs about the NHL's supposed "ultimatum" issued to the PA with regards to the Kovalchuk contract. It was good stuff, and Michael Petrella over at The Production Line really sounded off on his thoughts about the whole situation. JJ from Kansas wondered aloud whether this was a conspiracy by the league to gauge the fans' reaction. Personally, I like the idea of there being a clearer line as to what constitutes a "valid" contract and what is going to be considered circumvention of the salary cap. If the "requests" made by the NHL are indeed real, I also have no problems with them. However, like Petrella, I have a real issue with the method the NHL may be undertaking to effect this change. I do not believe that a heavy-handed approach was either necessary or warranted in this situation, especially considering they have the Arbitrator's ruling in their back pocket as a trump card to play at any time. The NHL had an independent person tell them that the Kovalchuk deal was no good, and while I don't doubt that they are in a position of strength, that does not mean they need to play the "bad guy" with threats. I think that with this ruling, the issue will be fixed going forward, and the NHL can close this loophole when they sit down to actually negotiate the CBA in the future. I do not believe that a full amendment of the current CBA is warranted, because both sides negotiated and agreed to that contract in good faith. It's not the PA's fault now that some agents and GMs figured out this loophole and exploited it, and it would be unfair to punish the players now based on the actions of some ingenious people. The NHL will have their chance when the current CBA is up for renewal/renegotiation, and I would love to see something in writing about these long-term contracts so that we never have to go through this debacle again. I think the key thing to remember here is that these types of contracts are relatively rare, so it's not like we are talking about the majority of the players being affected.
Perhaps this is what bothers me the most: these type of contracts amount to less than 10% of the total number of contracts currently in force, yet it's the rank-and-file that are going to feel the brunt of the NHL's "wrath" when the next CBA is put in force. There's only so much money and salary to go around, and as we've seen this off-season, some pretty talented people are still without jobs. Thankfully I am not in charge of figuring out how to resolve this issue, but I will be watching closely to see how this all shakes out. I will say this: to the Devils and Kovalchuk, thanks for being giant dickwads and potentially fucking this whole thing up. That first contract was an absolute joke, and even someone with only a rudimentary understanding of the salary cap and circumvention knew what you were both trying to do. I don't know if it was by design or not, but I blame the Devils for being so blatant in trying to get around the cap, and Kovalchuk for not taking less so that this is over. I understand he wants to maximize his income; but there's a bigger issue here, and he could easily have sacrificed some years and/or dollars in order to get a contract in place and avoid all this.
Now that my little rant is over (and thanks to Petrella for the inspiration), let's move on with our season preview. Today we take a look at our favourite "southern" team, Bubba.
Arrivals: Matthew Lombardi; Ryan Parent; Sergei Kostitsyn; Jonas Andersson
Departures: Jason Arnott; Dan Hamhuis; Dan Ellis; Dustin Boyd
For a time during the mid-2000's, the Predators were the Wings' only real divisional rivals. Last season saw the Preds reach the 100 point mark, but they finished seventh in the Western Conference and were ousted in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Blac.....kha....wks (yikes that hurt to type). While it was a disappointing exit for the Preds, they did reach for the playoffs after missing them altogether in 2008-09. The Preds will be looking to build on a season that saw some improvements and their first road playoff win in franchise history.
Offense: For years, the biggest challenge facing the Predators has been finding consistent scoring, and last year was no different. Their leading scorer was Steve Sullivan, and he only had 51 points, tied with Patric Hornqvist, who was the team's only 30-goal scorer. The Preds are hoping that the acquisitions of Lombardi and Kostitsyn will help turn around a team that finished 17th in the NHL in offense with only 217 goals. Unfortunately for the Predators, players like Martin Erat and David Legwand have never developed into legitimate offensive superstars the team thought they were. JP Dumont has long been a guy who could be counted on for 40-60 points, but he does not have the talent to be the number 1 guy in an offensive role. Perhaps Kostitsyn can benefit from the change of scenery; there's no questioning his talent is there, but he has long been known as a guy who needed the proper motivation. The loss of their captain, Jason Arnott, also will leave a hole in the lineup that needs to be filled, and I know the team is hoping that Lombardi can flourish in the Nashville the lineup the way he did for Phoenix. The Preds do have 2 of the better young offensive defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and both of them are going to be expected to chip in with some offense from the blueline. In what I believe is a theme throughout most of the Central Division, the Preds are going to be looking for their young players like Colin Wilson, Cal O'Reilly and Blake Geoffrion to break through and have solid seasons. The Preds could benefit from improvement on the power play, where they ranked 24th in the NHL.
Defense: The Predators are fortunate to have a great 1-2 combination in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber was just named captain of the team, and figures to take an even more prominent role both on offense and defense. Weber is one of those guys who can do it all; he's big, strong, talented and mean. Personally, I believe that he will be nominated for, if not win, a Norris Trophy in the next 2-3 years. Suter often gets overshawdowed on the team by Weber, but he is also an ultra-talented defenseman who can contribute offensively while playing shut-down minutes against the top line of the opponent. Beyond those two, the Preds have a number of young blueliners they are hoping to see some positive contributions from, including Kevin Klein and Cody Franson. They employ Francis Bouillon on the second pair, and although he is not big in stature, he plays a big man's game, using his body while playing solid minutes. The team has a quietly effective checking line consisting of Joel Ward and Jerrod Smithson. The one thing that all Predator teams have in common with each other is that they all play sound team defense, and this year's team looks to be no exception. They finished last year 14th in goals against, and any time you can be in the top half of the league of a major statistic like that, you're doing something right. However, one area where they can show a lot of improvement is on their penalty kill, which finished a dreadful 28th in the league at under 78%. In a division boasting the Wings and Hawks, both teams with potent power plays, the Predators are going to have to shore up their penalty killing if they want to stay in the division race.
Goaltending: I guess if you want to know who the Predators' goalie is going to be by the end of the year, you first need to figure out who their backup goalie is going to be this year. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Predators did not have a backup on their roster, so it looks like Pekka Rinne's job is safe for now. Just as Chris Mason lost his job to Dan Ellis, Ellis in turn lost his job to Rinne last year. Once Rinne took over the starter's job midway through the season, he proceeded to put up good numbers: a 2.53 GAA with a .911 SV% in 58 games. What was most impressive, however, was the 7 shutouts he pitched in that short amount of time. Like Mason in Columbus, Halak in St Louis and Howard in Detroit, Rinne is going to be under pressure this season to prove that he can be consistent and provide his team with quality goaltending over the course of an entire season. One thing about Rinne is that he is a big guy, standing 6'5" and 207 lbs, yet he is extremely agile. The Predators are known for having solid goaltending, and Rinne is no exception. He should keep the Preds in a lot of games and expect to see them in a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games.
Coaching: Barry Trotz is not only the current longest-tenured coach in the NHL, he is also the only coach the Predators organization has ever known, and given what he does year in and year out for this team, that will probably not change. Besides looking like someone who would be providing muscle for the mob, he's a hell of a coach who seems to be able to extract every last ounce of talent out of each player on his team. Trotz' teams have the same qualities: they believe in a strong work ethic and solid positional play. They are never flashy, and they do not like to get into offensive-shootouts with their opposition. They are very comfortable slowing the game down and turning it into a defensive slug-fest. Trotz has the uncanny ability to keep his team competitive despite who is on the roster, and I shudder to think what he could do with a team of legitimate superstars.
Player to Watch: I think this is the year that Shea Weber takes his rightful place as one of the top defensemen in the NHL today. He has been given the "C" and will be expected to lead this team on the ice and off. He plays a lot of minutes against the other team's best players, and is used in all situations. He also has one of the hardest shots in the NHL, and is deadly from the point on the power play. Like Rick Nash, he is a guy that I would not hesitate to trade for if I had a chance as an NHL GM. I think that if things go his way this year, he will be a finalist for the Norris Trophy at the end of the season.
Player With Something to Prove: Honestly, I wasn't sure who to put here. My gut reaction was to go with Kostitsyn, but that's a given. For me, if I'm a Predators fan, I'm watching Matthew Lombardi very closely. He was brought in to give the Preds a legitimate scoring threat at center beyond Steve Sullivan, and he will be replacing former captain and longer-term Predator Jason Arnott. Arnott was let go because he could not deliver when it counted, and Lombardi will be expected to provide consistent offense and chip in at key times. He fits more in the system that the Preds employ, which is based more on speed than size up front. However, last year saw him put up a career high in points with 53, and he will be expected to at least duplicate that, if not surpass it.
Why They Can Win the Division: A lot of people tend to overlook the Predators year in and year out, and I think they enjoy the underdog label. However, this is a team that finished with 100 points last year, including 47 wins. They only finished 2 points behind the Wings last year, and this young team should only get better. It would be a mistake to underestimate them, as they have the goaltending and defense to keep them in games. Plus, you can never count out a Barry Trotz-coached team.
Why They Won't Win the Division: For the improvements the Preds made up front, this is still a young team that does not have a ton of offensive depth. The acquisitions of Lombardi and Kostitsyn should help them in this regard, but beyond that there is not a lot of proven talent there. Rinne could be subject to a sophomore slump as well, and if he falters the Preds are in trouble. Overall I just don't see them having the horses to compete with the Wings and Hawks.
My Prediction: This team is going to be good; perhaps better than people expect. I know we make fun of Bubba a lot, but they are returning a lot of their younger players that didn't tear up the league last year, but who performed adequately. If they can get any improvement out of those guys, they will be in good shape. I like the arrival of Lombardi, but Kostitsyn is going to have to show a commitment level that was not displayed in Montreal. I think the departure of Dan Ellis is going to hurt them at times, as there is not a dependable backup on the team right now that the Preds could count on should Rinne falter. However, given their previous history, that backup will end up being next year's starter anyway. The defense is very good, and as I said, look for Shea Weber to make a big impact not only on the Predators but also on the NHL as a whole. I think another 100 point season is not out of the question, and they will once again finish in the middle of the conference. I also predict that at some point in the season, I will yell "shut the fuck up with those damn whistles!" at the TV.