Is there a more controversial Nashville Predator than Jordin Tootoo? His penchant for dishing out big hits without apology puts him at the center of a firestorm at least a couple times each season, it seems. Unlike most other agitators around the NHL, however, Tootoo has recently developed into a more well-rounded player, and looks to provide some offensive punch to go along with his more traditional, physically aggressive fisticuffs.
When the words first crept across my computer screen, I thought it was a flashback to the summer of 2007. “Jim Balsillie is closing in on a deal to purchase the NHL’s Nashville Predators,” ran the first sentence of the article from Sportsnet. According to a report by Bob McCown on the Fan590 in Toronto, the Blackberry Kid is tantalizingly close to announcing a deal to buy out the Predators’ local ownership, with the obvious intent of moving them from Nashville to his lair in Hamilton, Ontario.
Perhaps nobody on the Nashville Predators has more to prove this season than Shea Weber; long celebrated as an up-and-coming defenseman and sometimes compared to draft classmate Dion Phaneuf (that 2003 group was stacked with good defensemen), Weber would appear to have all the tools of a top-flight blue-liner. He’s big, tough, has a powerful one-timer and is an agile skater. Last season it was hoped that he would step into the void left by former captain Kimmo Timonen, but a knee injury on the first shift of the first game pretty much derailed his year.
So far in training camp, we’ve seen a bigger, badder Shea Weber; he’s reported with some additional muscle, and appears to relish the challenge of being the highest paid defenseman on a playoff-caliber team. So just how far will Weber take his game this season?
If a single player could represent the history and growth of an NHL franchise, that player would probably be David Legwand. The first draft pick of the Nashville Predators displays many of the hallmark characteristics of the team; he’s an underrated two-way player, and succeeds more through a consistent, hard-working effort than any eye-popping display of talent. Some look at his 2nd overall draft position from 1998 and consider his offensive production disappointing, but GM David Poile saw enough there to reward him with a 5-year, $22.5 million contract. What can we expect, then, from Legwand this season?
One of the several key Nashville Predators signed to new contracts during the offseason was Martin Erat, the 27 year-old Czech who re-upped for 5 years at $4.5 million per season, a richer and longer deal than that given to J.P. Dumont, who gets considerably more attention as an offensive force. The question, then, is why did GM David Poile pay so much for a player who has yet to top 23 goals or 57 points in a season?
Shea Weber draws the comparisons with Dion Phaneuf, and Ryan Suter gets the star treatment, but nobody contributes more to the success of the Nashville Predators defense corps than Dan Hamhuis, the 25 year-old who enters his 5th NHL season this fall. His regular selections to represent Team Canada at the annual World Championships are a testament to his ability to handle tough assignments and deliver solid two-way play.
Last summer, the Nashville Predators fan base was in full-blown crisis mode, trying to hold on to a team that not only Jim Balsillie but seemingly most NHL commentators wanted to move out of town. This fall, however, with a local ownership group in place and several core players signed to new, long-term contracts, the focus is on energizing the fans, building new corporate partnerships, and establishing a fresh start for what should be a competitive NHL franchise for years to come. Today, “Our Team Nashville” is hosting an all-day radiothon and fan rally at the Sommet Center, but the mood is entirely different from that rally of a year ago.
Nashville Predators fans were horrified last season when Shea Weber injured his knee during the first shift of the first game; it was a kick in the gut to a fan base that had taken quite a licking over the previous summer. When young Ville Koistinen stepped into the breach and started playing regularly, nobody knew what to expect initially. For that first month, very little happened. Koistinen’s Plus/Minus figure was 0 for every game in October, and he failed to score a single point; it was like the guy was destined to stay away from the highlight reel, either as a hero or victim. As the calendar turned over to November, however, the trends all turned solidly positive, and by the end of the year, the results were astounding; he finished second on the team in Plus/Minus to Jason Arnott with +13 in 48 games played, and put up 17 points along the way.
Last year at this time, Dan Ellis was attending the Nashville Predators training camp just hoping to land a steady gig, most likely in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. By the end of the season, however, he was the toast of Music City, leading the team on an improbable drive into the playoffs, posting the NHL’s longest shutout streak and highest total save percentage along the way. So what does Ellis have in store for this season? He now comes to camp as the #1 goalie, with a two-year contract and a shot at stardom with a team that expects to improve.
First off I have to say it’s a great honor to join the gang here at Kukla’s Korner; my only wish is that Paul had extended the invitation before I spent two days wrestling with my Old Blogger template over Labor Day weekend. For those of you who are new to On the Forecheck, you can look forward to a combination of Nashville Predators commentary and a healthy dose of NHL statistical analysis. On occasion, I’ll dive into the world of Fantasy Hockey and chime in on business issues facing the league as well.