Saturday, September 17, 2011

Smashville roundtable: Training camp edition

Training camp has arrived for the 2011-12 NHL season. The Nashville Predators will begin their on-ice session today at Centennial Sportsplex. There are many intriguing storylines going into this year's training camp. Some of the local blog scene for the Predators took the time to answer one very simple question I had for them. What are you most looking forward to for training camp? Here is what they had to say.

Buddy Oakes from predsontheglass.com:

There is so much to look forward to at this year's Nashville Predators preseason camp that it is difficult to narrow it down to one thing. To me, the most exciting thing that I want to see is how this years version of the Preds will come together by opening night. This is the most wide open camp in years as far as the number of players who have the opportunity to have a great camp and survive the final cut.

On defense, there are probably six or seven players that have a chance to stick around for two or three slots. On the offensive side, if everyone remains healthy, there may be only a couple of slots to fill unless one of the regulars at the end of last season fails to make the squad. Craig Smith has made a great splash and has a good shot at one slot. If the Preds keep an enforcer, Zack Stortini may also have a chance to make the team. Taylor Beck would like to be in the mix too.

In goal, the only question will be if Anders Lindback will be able to hold off a challenge from Jeremy Smith or even Chet Pickard if he has truly found his game. As usual, since the core of the team will be a completed puzzle of 22 or 23 players in Nashville on opening night and another ten or so that will see NHL action at some point this season, nothing will really be final for the last players sent to Milwaukee. It will be an interesting run from now until October 6 to see what happens.

Jeremy K. Gover from section303.com:

Because everyone else is going to say "the battle of the rookie blueliners" and "if Craig Smith makes the big club out of camp," I'm going to go against the grain. The battle I'm looking forward to this training camp is the goaltenders.

Obviously Pekka Rinne is the starter. He was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and took fourth in the Hart Trophy voting for crying out loud. But what about the rest of the pack? Mark Dekanich is gone (signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets) so the starting gig in Milwaukee is up for grabs. While Jeremy Smith has the inside track, Atte Engren is highly touted and will play his first full season of North American hockey this year and Chet Pickard is looking to rebound from such a disappointing season that he found himself in the ECHL.

Even if the Admirals' starting slot is Smith's to lose, what does the organization do with Engren and Pickard? Do they keep all three goaltenders in the AHL? if so, does it stunt their growth as a player? Do they go with the traditional "one starter and one back-up" and put the odd man out in the ECHL? If so, what does that say to that player? If you're Pickard, and you're back with the Cincinnati Cyclones, it may deal your confidence such a blow that you never recover. If you're Engren, you wonder if it was worth it to come over to North America to begin with.

Then there's the trump card. Is Anders Lindback trade bait for that "Top 6" forward we've heard so much about? Trading the giant Swede, while not a popular scenario, would loosen the logjam in goal and things would get a heck of a lot easier to manage.

It's going to be very interesting to see how the goaltending depth chart plays out. There's going to be a lot of tough decisions for the coaching staff to make. And, despite Rinne being the clear-and-away number one, the tough decisions don't stop at forward and defense.

Ryan Porth from smashville247.net:

First of all, with the summer we’ve had in hockey, I’m looking forward just to seeing hockey again!

As a lead in to what I’m specifically looking forward to, a lot of Preds fans will be interested to see how Craig Smith does in his first training camp – especially following his six-goal outburst in the rookie games this week. He’s excited for the opportunity, so we’ll see in the next week or two what he’s really all about.

Though the depth chart is four lines deep already, there will be a nice battle at forward. Along with Smith, Blake Geoffrion and Taylor Beck will also be jostling for a spot on the opening night roster. Geoffrion has the most experience of the three and is polished the most. Meanwhile, Beck was really close to making the team prior to the season.

All of the attention is focused on the blue-line, but it will be interesting to see whether Smith, Geoffrion, or Beck force Barry Trotz’s hand and push their way into the lineup here in training camp.

Amanda DiPaolo from insidesmashville.com:

After the rookie camp, I'm most excited to see if Craig Smith can keep up his level of offense when playing against and with players who have NHL experience. With 6 goals in 2 games against the Panthers and Tampa Bay rookies, Predators fans are excited, not to mention hopeful, that Smith could be the missing piece of the Predators offense that could take them to the next level. We saw glimpses of his excellence during the World Championships.

Playing for the USA, Smith scored 3 goals and added 3 assists for 6 points in 7 games. He was named one of the top three players on the squad. He said that success was one contributing factor in his decision to leave Wisconsin and turn pro. Let's hope that decision pays off.

Patten Fuqua from puckscene.com:

The battle for the third defenseman pairing is extremely intriguing. While the names that are generally thrown out are Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Teemu Laakso, new acquisitions Jack Hillen and Tyler Sloan will also be competing for the position. Is this the year that Charles Olivier-Roussel decides to make more than a passing appearance at camp? As past training camps have shown, the player who is perceived as the best player from the outside is not always the coaches' choice for making the roster.

In 2009, we saw Dan Ellis beat out Pekka Rinne for the initial starting goaltender spot. We've seen a completely unknown Ellis beat out Rinne for the backup spot. We've seen Joel Ward make the team out of camp and we've seen Ryan Ellis get sent back to junior - twice. The most intriguing part of the whole bit is whether a darkhorse will step up to the task or whether it actually will be one of the "Big 4".

Mark Willoughby from theviewfrom111.blogspot.com:

The aspect of training camp that I most eagerly await, and which I believe will be critical to the success of the Predators this season, is the development of some of the young forwards.

Everyone is excited- and rightfully so- about Craig Smith. That excitement ramped up another level after his performance in the rookie games. I think Smith can be a valuable contributor to the effort of the team this season. However, if the Predators are going to make a strong run to the playoffs, Smith will not be the horse that is pulling that wagon alone.

This is a critical season for players like Nick Spaling, Blake Geoffrion, Colin Wilson , Sergei Kostitsyn, and new addition Nic Bergfors. Each has a lot to prove this season. Can Spaling and Geoffrion take their games up to the next level and provide solid scoring? Is Colin Wilson finally going to get his mental game to catch up to his physical game and become a well rounded player? Was Sergei Kostitsyn a flash in the pan or will he improve on his production last season? Will Nic Bergfors become a consistent scorer and solid two way player?

Training camp is going to give an answer to those questions, or at least bring the answers into sharper focus. The fact remains that the team, as presently constructed, is going to rely heavily on positive answers to these questions, and there will be ample opportunities for the young guys to step into prominent roles. To me, this is the most important aspect of camp for the Predators.

Kristopher Martel of thepredatorial.com:

My interest in training camp has accelerated from one battle to two battles now. First off, most definitely the defensive battle for the final spot on the Predators blue line. You have Hillen/Ekholm/Josi/Laakso/and Ellis all realistically fighting for 1 (maybe 2) spots on Nashville's defensive corps. I believe Hillen has the upper hand on the other four, however you can't count out any of the rookies at this point. Laakso was drafted 6 years ago and has been in the Predators development ranks for the last 3. Being signed to a 1 year contract over the off-season frankly makes it a "make or break" training camp for him. If he doesn't come up with an excellent camp and ends up not cracking the roster, it could hurt his morale for the upcoming season and you may see him part ways with the Predators next off-season. Ekholm/Josi both play the same style of game, but have a little more of an offensive presence on the blue line than Laakso does. Both are hungry and want to make the team. Then you have Ryan Ellis. Ellis has conquered the OHL, there is nothing left for him there. The AHL? He may end up spending the first part of the season there if he doesn't make the opening night roster. Will Ellis have a shot at the lineup? Absolutely. Do I think he makes it? No. Not out of camp.

Secondly, my eyes are going to be split between the aforementioned defensive battle and Craig Smith. Smith's 6 goals in his two rookie games is utterly incredible. Weber has been on record as saying he is "ultra-skilled" and Poile thinks that Smith could crack the lineup out of camp. Before the rookie camp begun, most of us were skeptical (to say the least) about Smith's ability to make the opening night roster. But now? No one is laughing any more. Dare I say...could Smith be the missing piece to the Nashville Predators puzzle? I'd love for that to be the case and you can believe that I will be heavily watching him over the next couple of week along with the rest of the coaching staff.

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