Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Five questions heading into 2011-12 season

August is here and a new hockey season is right around the corner. The Nashville Predators have had an interesting off season to say the least. From the qualifying offer issues with RFA's to the recent developments with Shea Weber, it's been a tough off season at times for Predators fans. However, a new year is on the horizon and so is a new Nashville Predators team.

Here are the top five questions that I have for the 2011-12 edition of the Nashville Predators going into the season:

#5. How will the departure of role players from last year's team affect this year's team?

Nashville lost J.P. Dumont, Cody Franson, Marcel Goc, Matthew Lombardi, Shane O'Brien, Steve Sullivan, and Joel Ward from last year's squad. Lombardi, of course, played in only two games for the Predators before he suffered a concussion that ended his season, and his tenure with the Predators. Franson and O'Brien were the number 3 defensive pairing on the team. Nashville has plenty of depth on defense, which is why it's not worrying to lose Franson and O'Brien. Dumont and Sullivan were two of the most loved players in the history of the franchise, but they simply were not as productive as they have been in the past. The loss of Goc and Ward is going to be the most interesting part to this question. While neither one packed a huge offensive punch, both had specific roles. Goc was a guy who could play a strong defensive game, while chipping in on the offensive side on occasion. Ward was a grinder that did well on the penalty kill, and really turned up his offensive game in the playoffs. The Predators have guys that are capable of filling the roles of these players, and possibly being more valuable. They just have to do it.

#4. Will Sergei Kostitsyn be more productive than he was last season?

Sergei Kostitsyn has the potential to be David Poile's best bargain acquisition in the history of the franchise. He has the potential to be an offensive force, and showed that at times last year. He was the team leader in goals scored(23) and tied Martin Erat for the team lead in points(50). Kostitsyn has to raise his game to a higher level this season if the Preds want to build on last year's success. Nashville really needs a 65-70 point year out of a guy like Kostitsyn to contend for a Central Division title, and to make a run for the Stanley Cup.

#3. Will Nashville's "young guns" take further steps in their development?

Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile talks about the "window of opportunity" on a regular basis. The Predators are a young team. Players like Colin Wilson, Blake Geoffrion, Cal O'Reilly, Matt Halischuk, and Nick Spaling are all still in the development stage of their careers. When you throw in the possibility of three out of six defensemen being rookies(Jonathon Blum, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi), Nashville is relying heavily on the younger players to step up and be an assets rather than liabilities. The younger players must produce if Nashville hopes to have a successful year.

#2. How will the lingering contractual negotiations of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne affect team chemistry?

The long-term future of Nashville's "Big 3" is uncertain. Both Rinne and Suter are unrestricted free agents after this season, and Shea Weber is a restricted free agent without the possibility of going through another arbitration hearing. This topic is going to be heavily discussed as the year progresses, so you have to wonder whether or not it will be a distraction for the players. The core leadership group of the team is going to be making a decision on whether or not they want to be in Nashville for the long haul. Poile will obviously be trying to get a deal done with all three players during the year, so you also have to wonder what kind of a toll that will take on the performance of the "Big 3".

#1. Will David Poile make a move to bring in enough scoring to compete for a Stanley Cup?

Every year, there is one gaping flaw in the framework of the Predators. You can always bet that they will be a great team defensively and with their goaltending. That's how they play and that's how they are competitive in nearly every game. However, once playoff time rolls around, they simply don't have enough scoring to get the job done. Poile has said that he will make a move to get scoring help this year. If there was ever a time for him to make that move, it would be this year. Not only will it make Nashville a serious threat for a Stanley Cup, it could have a positive impact with the "Big 3". Obviously, the "Big 3" wants to be in a position to win. Added scoring help will make Nashville a serious Cup contender for a number of years, and I think that may be all that Weber is waiting on. Poile has to show him that he's committed to winning now, and in the future. Adding scoring help would make Nashville a complete hockey team for the first time in team history.

In two months, the regular season will begin and all of these questions will be put to the test. If Nashville responds with positive answers to these questions, it could be a very special year. If not, it might not be so good.

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