To go along with our '30 in 30' off-season feature, we'll be asking a blogger from each team some of the burning questions surrounding their club this summer.
RLD: 1. How in the world do the Preds improve the special teams? Buddy Oakes: If there were an easy answer to this one, we would not have suffered through a franchise long problem with play on the man advantage. At the end of the season, both David Poile and Barry Trotz indicated that this was a key focal point for the off-season and that the staff was going to work on it over the summer.
One point that was made was that too many of the same players were on the power play as well as the penalty kill, which diluted their effectiveness in both areas. Another point made by Dirk Hoag this week, is that the Preds had the league worst face-off percentage on the power play. A final issue that has been evident to all is that the team always appears hesitant to shoot the puck.
Last season there were brief stretches where the power play did work and the key at those times was aggressive play with plenty of shots coming from Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Cody Franson that would create loose pucks around the net, creating secondary scoring opportunities. Hopefully, during the summer-long review, the film will yield answers for improvement next season.
Mark Willoughby: The Predators special teams were anything but special this past season. The power play connected on a meager 16.4% success rate, good for 24th in the NHL. The penalty kill was successful 77% of the time. Both are sub-par and have to improve for the Preds to have success next season.
On the power play, the team looked too immobile; too many people standing around, and with the exception of Patric Hornqvist, no one willing to go to the front of the net. Too often, this team took the easy way out and was content to shoot from the blue line. While this can be effective, this can't be the only option. The Predators have to get better at entering the zone and moving the puck effectively once in the zone. This team has the talent to do this, but it is going to take a fundamental change in mindset for them to embrace this philosophy. They cannot pass up the shot they have, as this past season it appeared that the players on the PP unit were either looking for another pass or were hesitant to take the shot.
The PK was not up to the standards that the Predators have established in years past. Too often they would lose a man at the side of the net or just break coverage to set up a quality scoring opportunity for the opposition. This is a matter of experience, as some young players were moved into the PK role. Experience can be a harsh teacher, and the PK learned some hard lessons this year. This is also a matter of discipline. Players have to know their roles on the PK and perform when called upon. Often, the PK unit looked a bit undisciplined, with players out of position forcing the goalies to attempt to prevent a good scoring chance.
The experience of this past season will help these units, but special teams are a matter of heart and determination. Players have to commit themselves to do whatever is necessary to score a goal or kill a penalty. In the upcoming season, the Predators need to have players that are committed to their role on special teams and they have to ramp up the effort.
RLD: 2. If you had to choose between keeping Dan Hamhuis and Denis Grebeshkov, who would you pick? BO: That is a very complex question that goes beyond skill-sets and style of play. I predict that Hamhuis will be one of the most overpaid players coming out of the upcoming free agent market. I would rate his market value somewhere between $3-4 million but I can easily foresee someone offering a long-term deal in excess of $5 million a year. This completely removes the Preds from consideration.
I also don’t see Grebeshkov sticking with the team for the coming season. A minor increase would boost his salary into the $3.5 million range which is more than the Preds can afford with increases going to Patric Hornqvist, Cody Franson, Francis Bouillon and the need to sign a backup goalie.
Back to the original question, contrary to what you might think, I would keep Hammer with all things being equal.
MW: Dan Hamhuis has been the source of many a Preds fan's ire with the untimely defensive lapse or turnover. Yet, when you look at the body of work that Hamhuis has put together, you see a defenseman that plays a lot of minutes against top quality forwards and has been a solid player.
Early this past season, it was apparent that the pairing of Hamhuis and Klein was not working for whatever reason, and the breakdowns between those two often resulted in the puck in the back of our net. That negative perception should not cloud the overall view of Hamhuis and what he brings to the team. Once that pairing was split, his performance improved significantly. Hamhuis likes it here in Nashville, and will probably give the Preds a hometown discount. The question is what is his worth on the open market? It may be difficult for the Preds to keep Hammer if significant dollars are dangled in front of him.
Denis Grebeshkov is tough; there is no question about that. His ‘lower body injury’ kept him out of the lineup for the most part since being acquired at the trade deadline. His brief time on ice with the Predators showed that he has offensive talent and is not a defensive liability. His ability to move the puck and find the open shot provided a boost to the power play and gave the team some extra pop at even strength.
Both players would cost the Preds $3-4 million per season. I consider both players as equals on the defensive side of the equation, but Grebs give the Predators much more offensive upside. I would keep Grebeshkov.
RLD: 3. In your opinion, does Pekka Rinne become a Vezina contender with the expected increase in starts in 2010/11? BO: Depending on who the backup is for next season, Pekka could easily play in excess of 65-70 games. His career high was 65 at Milwaukee in 2007-08 and he appeared in 58 during the past regular season. He has played his best hockey when he knows that he is in net almost every game.
After signing a new contract in February, he assumed the mantle of being the clear number one and had numbers down the stretch that would put him in Vezina territory if projected over an entire season. With a solid defense in front of him, there is no reason why he can’t do it in the coming year.
MW: Pekka has the potential to be a Vezina finalist, possessing the mental and physical talents that can make him an elite goaltender. The aspect of Pekka's game that needs attention is the occasional soft goal that he is prone to allow. Pekka needs to have the starting job locked down, and he needs to play steadily. He is young and gets stronger the more he plays.
The rotation with Dan Ellis last season hurt his game, but once he was securely in the starting role, his game flourished. I expect Pekka to get the bulk of the work this coming season with the presumed departure of Dan Ellis, and this should allow him to build a case for the Vezina if he plays true to form.
RLD: 4. If the captaincy changes, who's the best candidate to don the 'C'? BO: I don’t think that there is any question that Shea Weber will be the next Predator captain after Jason Arnott either steps aside or goes to another team at the end of his contract next season.
No one is more competitive on the ice or has the will and determination to win than Weber. I feel certain that the Preds will try to lock Weber down with a contract extension before the puck drops in October. He wore the ‘A’ for the first time this past season and the ‘C’ would go well with a new contract that would place him in that role for years to come.
MW: Shea Weber. Vocal, respected, and leads by example.
RLD: 5. What do you expect from the 2nd-year players Colin Wilson and Cody Franson next season? BO: Colin Wilson was hampered with a groin injury for almost half of the last season that slowed the pace of his development. I don’t think he was thrilled to be in Milwaukee initially, but appeared to mature as the season went on. At times, he was one of the best players on the ice as the season ended. He appeared to take a step back in his first NHL postseason.
Cody Franson was the biggest surprise of the year for the Predators. Scouting reports said that his defense was suspect and that he wasn’t ready for the NHL. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was second only to Patric Hornqvist in plus/minus, in spite of playing part of the year in the AHL. He was a spark on the offensive side with his big shot from the blue line, scoring several key goals and putting the puck on net giving rebound opportunities to others.
Next year, I expect to see a big improvement in Wilson’s numbers. He should get more playing time and increased opportunity on the power play. I think steady improvement would be expected from Franson. With an increase in minutes, he will have to focus more on defense, which could slow the growth in offensive categories. I do expect both to grow and become major contributors in the coming season.
MW: I expect to see both of these guys to stick on the roster coming out of camp and a jump from the first year to the second for them, much like what we saw out of Patric Hornqvist. A year of experience will slow down the game for them, and there are fewer surprises or situations for which they are unprepared. They know what it takes physically and mentally to compete at a high level for an entire season, and as a result, their confidence should grow. They should get physically stronger. As a result, their productivity should improve.
We thank these two for taking time out to answers these burning questions in Nashville! You can find Buddy's work at PredsOnTheGlass (and on Twitter) … Mark's work is at The View From 111 (and on Twitter). I recommend following both!
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.