I haven’t posted since the Predators finished their season in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals. I wasn’t sure how other Preds fans would take my rather laissez-faire attitude. You see, to me, it was all “bonus hockey.” Hockey that honestly had no business being there, but as long as it was, you rode the wave and enjoyed it for what it was. What it was, was eye-opening, tantalizing, joy filled, and galvanizing… in addition to being incredibly lucky, well-timed, and frankly, a bit fairy-tale-ish. The Preds were solid. Quite solid for the first two rounds, a bit more mortal in round three and good enough to be competitive, but over-matched at times in the final round. All in all, a hell of a ride.
Then came the aftermath. We got jobbed! This was all the officials fault! Sissons scored (remember that name for later in this blog-piece.) and the whistle blew, and it shoulda counted, and where’s the review, and what about that goal in Calgary, and the refs hate us, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…
Two weeks before the end of the regular season it was not even fait accompli that the Preds would be IN the post season. Remember that? Like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, the team came together and went on this amazing run, spearheaded by a hot goalie (in ’12, Quick… in ’17, Rinne.) The crowds got louder and louder and all of a sudden, Nashville was center stage. Everyone was talking Nashville, talking Predators, wearing Predators garb, putting Predators signs on their lawns and in their windows. The city was galvanized. The world seemed galvanized. The Preds were Cinderella and everyone wanted to attend the ball. Writers, pundits, broadcasters alike all proclaimed “NASHVILLE IS A HOCKEY TOWN.”
Well, guess what? Nashville made strides, absolutely… but to call it a “hockey” town? To me that’s a bit to the extreme. Here’s what Nashville is (and was, and will always be:) Nashville is a PARTY town. Nashville is a COMPETITIVE town. Nashville is a SPORTS town. All of the above. Top of the list. No argument. No question. But ask some of those people wearing Preds garb, or decorating their homes or cars with Preds flags and banners… Hey, who are the players on the team? You may get a “Pekka” out of them… you may even get a Mike Fisher or a Filip Forsberg. Some may mention Shea Weber or David Legwand, but If Nashville was a hockey town, there’d be more than 10-15,000 that could name the core four defensemen (and not spell Ekholm “Elkhome” as a number do on Preds Facebook Fan boards.) They’d know what icing is, or the difference between high sticking, and playing the puck with a high stick.
So it was Game Four of the third round of the post season, and the team was deadlocked against Anaheim. Two major forwards were lost to injury by game’s end. Mike Fisher’s concussion, and Ryan Johansen’s immediate thigh surgery. Both coming after forward Kevin Fiala’s broken leg, suffered earlier in the playoffs. With the two new losses, it appeared the Preds were expected to lay down and die against Anaheim, but they made adjustments, and substitutions, and found themselves winning the next two games, allegedly both certain defeats, and moved on to play Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Preds won two games, to the Penguins four. Who was credited with the game winning goal in both Nashville victories? That would be undrafted rookie Freddie Gaudreau, who had spent the better part of the last three seasons in Milwaukee. The kid had scored 9 goals in his first professional season, netting 4 in Milwaukee, and 5 in Cincinnati. The following year he scored 15 in Milwaukee. This past season, he had 25, and 3 more in the AHL playoffs, so his three in the Stanley Cup Finals put him at 31 goals this season. (Hold THAT thought.)
Then there’s 23 year-old winger, Pontus Aberg from Sweden. Drafted in the early part of the second round in a 2012 draft that included Colton Sissons and Jimmy Vesey, Aberg came to North America and got his game in order over time. In his first year, his 16 goals, 34 points were 5th on the Admirals. Next season he improved to 25 goals, 40 points, and this past season he lit the lamp 31 times in just 56 games for Milwaukee, and added three goals for the Preds. It may be too soon to call him a 30 goal scorer in the NHL, but his trajectory is not far off from that of Viktor Arvidsson.
And, let’s talk frankly for a minute about Viktor Arvidsson. In 2015-16, Arvy posted 8 goals and 8 assists in 56 regular season games for the Preds. He added a lone goal and assist in 14 playoff games, as well as eighteen points in 17 games for Milwaukee. I own the jersey in which he scored his first NHL goal. I am a huge fan. I was a believer that coach Laviolette UNDERUSED him for the better part of his rookie season. Virtually no power play time, no time with top 6 linemates, and the rap that he was too small and too easily moved off the puck to make a significant impact on the Nashville roster. Just five times during the 2015-16 season did Arvy log 15 minutes in a regular season game, and when the year was up, he tallied just one single power play point (a goal in a 5-2 loss at the tail end of March, 2016.)
At the start of this past season, these are facts: (a) Arvidsson was NOT considered a top 6 or even a POTENTIAL top 6 forward by the coaching staff or the majority of the fanbase, (b) After David Poile had signed Calle Jarnkrok to a 6 year, $12M contract at the end of the previous season, with full knowledge of the expansion draft forthcoming, the choice for Nashville was obvious: Forsberg, Johansen, Neal and Jarnkrok would be the four protected forwards, along with the top four defensemen and goaltender Rinne.
The first four games of the season saw Arvidsson in much the same role that he had the previous year. Averaging about 12 minutes a game, he found the score sheet with a goal in a loss to Chicago, and an assist in a loss at Detroit. Game five was the famous “food poisoning game,” and Arvidsson stepped up with two goals and 20 minutes of ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The roster stabilized a bit four days later as the club got pasted 6-1 by the Anaheim Ducks in Southern California, and Arvy was held off the scoreboard in just 13:20 of ice time. The next night the Kings hosted Nashville in a game that went into overtime, and Arvy was given just 11:51 of ice, but he made the best of it with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 OT loss. He had just a lone assist over the next six games with varying degrees of ice time, but it was a 5-0 win against the Ducks at Bridgestone where Arvy netted a pair of assists in 14 minutes of ice time that the confidence of Lavy started to kick in. Just six or seven times over the remainder of the season saw Arvy under the 15 minutes of ice time, including the penultimate game of the season, in Dallas, where Arvy delivered two goals (his 30th and 31st) and two assists in a 7-3 rout, with Viktor only needing 14:47 to get his job done. The “JOFA” line established, Arvidsson ended the season with 9 power play points and 7 shorthanded points, including 5 goals! Suddenly, two new facts were made obvious: (a) Arvidsson established himself with the coaching staff and a majority of the fan base. He had arrived, as witnessed by the huge number of shirts that joined mine in the arena on any game day, and (b) Poile was now faced with a much different decision come Expansion Draft Day: Neal? or Jarnkrok?
With Arvidsson locked into a top 3 forward spot for David Poile’s Predators, the choice was Neal’s production and term (1 year remaining @ $5M) vs. Jarnkrok’s upside and term (5 years remaining @ $2M) — to me, it was a no-brainer, and here’s where some incredibly ugly things were said within the fan base on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In a Twitter vote, 57% believed Neal was the player to be protected, but I never flinched leading the charge of the remaining 43%. Calle Jarnkrok brings far too many intangibles, and as a versatile forward who can play up and down the lines at either center or wing, his abilities made it clear to me that he was the keeper. I speak about the “culture” within the team’s room, and a cursory look at the roster shows an abundance of Swedes, Swiss and Finns. Jarnkrok and Forsberg were both acquired at a time of transition and the two became immediately close. Ekholm and Josi both became powerful NHL defensemen as part of this transition, and draft choices Fiala and Aberg added to this culture. Neal, while a very solid offensive player, and part of the team’s leadership group, was deemed expendable, though that’s where the line is drawn. If he was as essential to the team’s offense as most fans thought he was, why did Poile not choose to either sign him to an extension or trade him prior to allowing Vegas to pluck him up for nothing? Here’s a fact: Poile believes in his younger “next-tier” players. Aberg, Fiala, Watson and Sissons (as well as Gaudreau) should make big contributions to the team in 2017-18. Neal’s production (to me) was enigmatic. The guy was clearly one of the most gifted offensive snipers in the NHL for much of his time with Dallas, Pittsburgh and Nashville. BUT… everyone asks “How are you going to replace Neal’s thirty goals?” Here’s a couple of answers to that question. The first is that this past season, Neal’s thirty goals were actually twenty-three, which land closer to twenty than thirty, and his eight power play assists left him with just TEN even strength assists for the entire campaign. You think TEN assists won’t be made up by a group of forwards over the course of 82 games? You think scoring one goal in the team’s first 10 games, and two goals in the team’s last 10 games (both coming in the same game) is irreplaceable? James Neal has an amazing release. He and Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter are probably the most dangerous shooters within a split second of gathering the puck on their sticks. For SURE. It’s a treat when Neal connects on one of “those” goals, and they come in streaks, but if a player like Arvidsson could be given the chance to succeed over the course of a season, and raise his totals from 8 to 31, then let’s trust David Poile and Peter Laviolette and see what a healthy Fiala can do, what a matured Aberg can do, what a hungry Sissons can do, what a grateful Gaudreau can do… and throw in Watson, and possibly a Kamenev or a Trenin later in the season, if their trajectory warrants recall from Milwaukee. The experience gathered in the post season, playing “bonus hockey” gave us a glimpse of how these kids CAN play if given the chance. Will they all pan out? I’d like to think that they will all go on to legitimate NHL careers. Nine consecutive seasons of 20 goals or more, ala Neal? Perhaps not, but like guys who have seasons like Craig Smith usually does, the object is to stay OFF the milk carton. Play consistently with consistent line mates and keep working knowing you have something to prove, replacing a scorer as prolific as James Neal. Will Poile buckle and grab a free agent, or make a trade (that would probably include a guy like Smith) to acquire a scoring forward? It’s possible I suppose, but I guarantee he’s breathing a lot easier knowing he didn’t lose any of the young kids who were developed in the Nashville system over the past five years. The time has come for them to reprise their roles established during the playoffs, and show the NHL how strong and galvanized this team has become.
A linchpin will be the announcement from Fisher as to his status for the upcoming season, but I actually don’t doubt his wanting to return, and expect him to play a pivotal role, reprising his Captaincy in 17-18.
I expect to see:
Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson
Aberg – Jarnkrok – Fiala
Watson – Sissons – Salomaki
Wilson – Fisher – Smith (I don’t really expect this to be the “fourth” line)
Gaudreau, McLeod, (hopefully re-sign Harry Zolnierczyk)
Ellis – Josi
Subban – Ekholm
Weber – Irwin – Bitetto
Rinne – Saros
A TEAM I COULD MORE THAN LIVE WITH! BONUS HOCKEY ABOUNDS!