Earlier in the summer, I talked to Nashville Predators blogger George Scoville (@OTFGeorge) from On The Forecheck about recent Senators signing David Legwand. You can read that Q&A here. This week, we exchanged questions ahead of the season opener between the Senators and Predators in Nashville tonight.
1) How will the departure of the only coach in franchise history, Barry Trotz, impact the team? In what ways will Peter Laviolette's Predators differ?
This is the million dollar question in Nashville this year, and certainly the dominant narrative surrounding the franchise.
Barry Trotz and David Poile shared a long friendship that preceded either of them working in Nashville. They also shared a hockey philosophy and player development strategy. They preferred defense and character over skill and finesse, so they drafted and developed the likes of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Roman Josi. They really wanted to draft a forward in the 2013 entry draft, too, but Seth Jones fell into their lap.
In terms of forwards, they've never really been able to draft and develop an elite scoring talent. Again, this is in part because they prefer grit and character in their forwards to skill and finesse, but it's also in part because they were stingy with playing time. They insisted that dynamic, natural goal scorers like Alexander Radulov should pay their dues in Milwaukee, and tried to develop them slowly. It's no wonder to many in Nashville that Radulov split for the KHL a few years ago. Any offensive talent the Predators have ever had on the roster - for example, Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan, or Martin Erat - has arrived via trade or free agency. Bringing in this kind of help has traditionally been an afterthought to building a roster that could executive a modernized version of "the trap."
Peter Laviolette has proven success at developing elite forwards, from Eric Staal in Carolina to Claude Giroux in Philadelphia. David Poile has locked up the bulk of Nashville's defensive core and starting goaltender Pekka Rinne for several seasons yet to come, so now he's going to rely on Laviolette to develop those elite forwards who can play an up-tempo, north-south game that focuses primarily on the attack. Whether or not it will work this season, or in the next few, with a roster largely built with Trotz's system in mind, remains to be seen. We all have our fingers crossed down here!
2) Nashville has an interesting mix of youth (Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok) and experience (Derek Roy, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen) at forward. What do the Predators expect in terms of production for each group? Will Nashville young forwards get a shot at top-6 minutes?
Nashville has always brought a "no excuses" philosophy to its play, whatever that may mean in a given season, so I imagine the new coaching staff will expect contributions throughout the lineup. Ideally they'll preserve some grit in the fourth line, but be able to roll the top three against any other squad in the league. This formula paid handsome dividends, even under defensive-minded Barry Trotz, in 2006-2007 when the Predators tallied a franchise-high 110 points with a +60 goal differential. I think (or I hope, at any rate) we're going to see much more of a "what have you done for me lately" approach to personnel management under Laviolette than we did under Trotz. Further, I think that the veteran free agents who just joined us over the summer are on the roster partly as production gambles and to mentor the youth movement, but also to generate competition for ice time.
I think the younger skill guys will see top-6 minutes, especially early in the season. You never want to burn out your younger guys, especially if they're not accustomed to an 82-game season. But Jarnkrok spent time on the top two lines down the stretch last year, and Filip Forsberg looks ready to step into a full-time scoring role after bulking up physically and honing his North American game in the AHL last year. He certainly had an impressive rookie camp and preseason, though that may not say much about his abilities to match up against the likes of San Jose or Chicago's shutdown units. So we'll see the younger guys early on - Nashville needs to set the tone for a different kind of hockey coming out of the gate, after all - but as I said earlier, there's enough depth at forward now for Laviolette to be really selective with his roster choices. If you don't contribute, someone else will.
3) Update on two former Senators: where does Mike Fisher fit in the Nashville line-up once he returns from his Achilles injury? Who will be Anton Volchenkov's partner? How much ice time will he see?
I'll answer these in reverse. I would expect to see Volchenkov in the second pairing with Seth Jones, with some extra time on special teams. Last year, the Preds had to rely on Shea Weber so heavily on the PK that by the time they got fresh legs out there to try to swing the momentum with some scoring chances, Weber was totally gassed (and he still set career highs in points last year, so just imagine what having a few extra moments of rest will do for him...). Volchenkov will help absorb some of those minutes.
As for Mike Fisher, this is a much cloudier picture at this point. It's really going to depend on what the team needs most whenever he does come back. For all the leadership ability Fisher brings to this team, I think they have been asking him to punch above his weight in terms of scoring in the time he's been here. He's a much better fit on an energetic, fore-checking, shut down role than on a top line. So if the train is rolling, they might work in him on the PK a bit, and share some second or third line minutes to make sure he's playoff-ready (again, we're crossing our fingers down here). But because of the nature of his injury, the fact that he's not under contract beyond this season, and that he and Carrie Underwood want to have kids, he may not factor in the lineup at all going down the stretch if the Preds aren't clearly in the playoff picture.