It's been quite a while since I had a chance to actually sit here and type something up that was really long enough to post as a blog. Plus, with all the holiday shopping, education, and a few lady friends along the way
I've definitely had my hands full.
But now, with the holidays over and a couple of sound thrashings at the hands of the very talented Chicago Blackhawks (haven't used that one in a while), I think it's time to get back to business.
God, where to start... well, the Predators are 43% of the way through the schedule, and it isn't exactly all mai tais and Yahtzee in Music City. The team is in 14th place in the Western Conference and dead last in the division. The whole organization, in six short months, has gone from a perennial contender to a team that looks more like the Milwaukee Admirals than the Nashville Predators.
So, as we approach the turn, I figure I should go ahead and dole out grades for the season so far... let's start with the forward corps:
- The new Captain stepped into his role relatively quickly, but the team really struggled and a lot of angry die-hards wanted the "C" pulled off his sweater. That being said, Arnott is probably the most vocal captain in the franchise's history (admittedly, the franchise has only had 5 captains, but still) and will go out and confront the refs. On the ice, he's definitely NOT been the big, lumbering power forward many had expected him to be. He plays more of the perimiter game that the Predators have used the last couple of years, but it's really not what the team is set to play right now.
Overall, Arnott has been a major impact player for this team, leading them in goals and overall scoring so far this season.
- This free agent signing seemed to be on his way out of the NHL, but he's really impressed a lot of the folks here in Nashville with his team-first attitude and an instance or two of late-game heroics- he banked a puck off Jerred Smithson's tuccus into the net with 12 seconds left to beat Florida. He's seen a lot of time on Nashville's second power play unit and has played on the team's third line with Jerred Smithson and Jed Ortmeyer.
Bonk is second on the team in goals, but has gone quiet lately, with a two goals and two assists in December. He's also a team-worst -13. Overall, Bonk's had a solid season but his sluggish second quarter nets him a C+
- Dumont has to be one of the most inconsistent players to ever pass through Nashville. He has nights where he looks like Wayne Gretzky, but then he'll have a few nights where he looks like Darcy Hordichuk. He also has a bad habit of passing pucks into skates. That being said, he's still produced decent numbers for this struggling team and is fourth in overall scoring as well as 3rd in goals.
Overall, I would've expected more from Dumont, who's in a contract year and would want to perform to the best of his ability, plus his being an alternate captain. But I've seen him at his best and this is not it.
- Erat has quietly emerged as one of the better players in the NHL. Under the tutelage of future HoF'ers Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg over parts of the last two seasons, Erat has really emerged as a strong all-around player. Erat has played in all situations for Nashville and worn an "A" for Nashville during parts of the season (as have Bonk and Dan Hamhuis). Erat has spent a lot of time on the top line with Arnott and Dumont so far this season, but recent injury problems have kept him sidelined or to limited minutes.
On the whole, Erat's had a solid season. However, he has to stay healthy going forward or he'll never emerge as one of the NHL's truly elite players.
- Fiddler has had a good season so far, on pace to surpass all of his career offensive highs. He plays in all situations and has been a solid asset for the Predators on the penalty kill. That being said, he has no real "hockey sense," and has blown a lot of offensive opportunities playing on a line with David Legwand and Alexander Radulov for almost the entire season. To put it bluntly, the guy is almost totally worthless in the offensive end.
Fiddler is having a solid season, so as a player I'm giving him a B
, but one has to wonder why Trotz continues to put him on that second line when he has better talent available to him...
- Gelinas was expected to be a solid addition on the second line for Nashvile who could put up 40-45 points for the Predators. However, a nasty cut during the Ft. Campbell training stint, plus a shoulder injury have slowed him down. He's been all over the place, line-wise, playing at times with Jordin Tootoo and Scott Nichol, as well as Bonk and Jed Ormteyer, and Legwand and Radulov. Considering the ups and downs, he's had a solid season, providing a veteran presence in the locker room and one of the few forwards that truly sticks with his man on defense.
- The guy's only played 13 games and averages less than 5 minutes a game. I'm going to give him an "incomplete" here because he doesn't play anywhere near enough for me to legitimately give him a grade for the season.
- The franchise's all-time leading scorer started the season off with a bang, including a hat trick against Dallas on 10/6. Legwand has since gone the way of Radek Bonk- since November 19th, he's had just 8 points. That's 8 points in his last 16 games, and he's had just 2 goals since November 4th. This can be contributed to three things- the struggling Alex Radulov, the offensively worthless Vern Fiddler, and really crappy shot selections.
However, Legwand is still one of the team's top defensive forwards. If only he could do that and still generate some offense.
Legwand is getting a D+
from me. He's got to start earning that extension right now.
- Nichol is a solid 4th line center who has a seeming mastery of the faceoff circle (63%) has him in the upper tier of NHLers in that category. However, his 5-game suspension for cross-checking Patrice Bergeron in Montreal put the team in a real bind for five games. And it just so happened those five games were five very important games in which the team flailed like a goldfish on the countertop. It's only a matter of time before Nichol's short fuse burns this team again.
- Jed was really committed to Nashville. He signed on the first day of free agency, amid all the uncertainty of the organization. Jed shows flashes of being a quality third line forward. He's had some great offensive chances that he probably should have buried, and with those he could easily have 7 or 8 goals instead of 3 at this point in the season. "Orty" is also a solid penalty killer who earns his paycheck in his own zone. He's second among team forwards with 13 blocked shots and logs a lot of minutes on the penalty kill and on the team's shut down line with Bonk and Jerred Smithson.
My only beef with Jed is his inability to really capitalize on scoring chances. Other than that, he's been a good addition to the 3rd and 4th lines and is a really good "heart and soul" type player. Good enough, anyway, to have Max Pacioretty model his game after him. (This according to Darren Dreger's article way back on draft day last June.)
- Smithson is a versatile forward, capable of playing all three positions and playing them quite effectively. Smithson has always made his living on the bottom half of the roster, and this year is no exception. He's been a key penalty killer for Nashville and leads all team forwards in blocked shots with 23. His "butt goal" against Florida is one of those rare instances where you get to see a guy who works and works and works finally rewarded for his efforts.
That being said, Smithson has to be one of the least physical grinders I've seen. He doesn't play the body very much at all, but then again, neither does most of the rest of the team.
Jerred gets a B-
from me. And now, on to everyone's favorite player. A man who needs no introduction.
That's right, Jordin Tootoo
. Coming into this year's training camp, many followers of the team felt Tootoo was on his last leg with the organization. His lack of any real development and late nights of partying, plus the hinderance that his on-ice reputation had become, seemed to indicate that he would not be qualified at the end of this season.
Boy how things have changed.
Apparently, Tootoo's offensive prowess has started coming in little by little from Brandon, and he's really emerging as a much better offensive player this season. He has one of the hardest shots on the team (behind Shea Weber) and now he's getting it on goal more often. A big part of Tootoo's game was that he was a loose cannon. He left his feet on a lot of hits. But it seems that ever since Craig Weller clotheslined the guy in the 10/11 game against Phoenix, Tootoo has exerted much more self-control. He doesn't take stupid penalties anymore- he even had a streak of 13 games without a penalty minute. He only fights every now and then (including tonight at the end of the game). And overall he is finally emerging as a solid 3rd line presence who can step in on an as-needed basis as a top six forward.
That's not to say Tootoo doesn't still need work- quite the contrary. His passes are almost as firm as his shots. He needs to use the wrist shot more often. He still needs to be careful about leaving his feet on hits.
I'm giving Tootoo a B+
for the first half of the season. He's really impressed me by coming out, working hard and playing the way he needs to play to stick with this organization.
And now, for the defense. I know, some of you are probably asking, "Nashville has a defense?"
I'm going to omit Kevin Klein, because he's only played 5 games this season.
Greg de Vries
- "Deep Freeze" was acquired to be a sound stay-at-home defensman an a big veteran presence on the blue line. So far he really hasn't done much of the former. He hardly ever plays the body, despite having numerous opporunities to do so. He has, however, done a great job on the penalty kill, racking up 42 blocked shots, good enough for second on the team. He's one of only two defensemen with a plus rating and looked great alongside Greg Zanon earlier in the year before being paired with Dan Hamhuis. Still, he's been a pretty big disappointment.
- The fellow they call "Hammer" looks like he gets hammered before every game. Hamhuis has somehow found a way to regress in his development as a defenseman. He has a fantastic hip check but hardly ever uses it. Sometimes he goes for the body check and bounces off the guy like Suter. He doesn't really have the tools to be on the power play, but he's there just the same. I'm not totally sure I understand what's going on with him, but it's definitely not good and he's hurting this team more than helping on the ice. And actually, I think Hamhuis actually means "Man Who Plays With Head in A**" in Inuktituk.
- The young Finnish defenseman has clearly claimed the #7 slot on Nashville's defensive depth chart. The 25 year-old has shown flashes of being a solid power play asset and has a really good point shot. The only problem is that he can't keep it low, which is what you need to do from the point in hopes for the re-direct. Koistinen can skate backwards fairly quickly, but in terms of forward movement he's easily the slowest skater on the roster, and he's been burned more than a few times because of it, leading to a few goals. Koistinen has seen limited ice time and tallied 4 assists in 19 contests. He's still young, so he has potential going forward, but based solely on this year's performance, I'm giving VK a C
- Suter has finally started to emerge as a solid offensive defenseman and has been a great asset on the second power play unit with his powerful shot from the point. And he, unlike some people *coughZIDLICKYcough*, he actually uses it. He has 5 goals so far this year, which leads all team defensemen. He could still use a little work in his own end. He has to play a more positional game because he really doesn't have the size to shove guys around in the corners. Once he gets that down, he's gonna be a big-time force for this blue line.
- Weber's been sidelined by a knee injury for much of the season and has missed the last two games with an ankle injury sustained in the Los Angeles game. Weber still has a booming shot from the point and uses it fairly effectively- though it's only yielded one goal for him, it's also generated a lot of rebounds and secondary scoring chances for guys in front of the net. However, he still isn't quite back to his previous form. That may take a bit longer, but Nashville will certainly exert a great deal of patience for their franchise player.
- Better known as "The Zanonnator" to die-hards, Zanon has easily been Nashville's best defensive defenseman. He's among the league leaders in blocked shots, and blocked his 100th shot of the season tonight. He's approaching the 300 mark for his career. He's been the cornerstone of the penalty kill and makes very few real mistakes. Greg has been one of the best, if not the best player on the team this season. I'm giving him an A-
for the first half of the season.
And now on to the opposite end of the spectrum...
- Two years ago, when Zidlicky signed his massive new 4-year deal, he was a balls-to-the-wall offensive defenseman who knew what to do with the puck when it was on his stick. However, a combination of a nasty shoulder injury in 05-06 and Barry Trotz have caused him to lose a lot of his offensive prowess. Now, his defensive flaws have become much more apparent- he constantly gets beat by his man and seems to pinch in way too often. He also shoots to score more than shooting low and looking for the deflection or the rebound like Weber. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, except Zidlicky can't seem to put the puck in those tight corners. Admittedly, he leads the defense corps with 18 points (2-16a), but with his skill and salary, those numbers, especially his goal count, should be substantially higher.
I'm going to give Marek Z_licky a "D"... because he needs to lear how to play "D," and fast.
Now on to goaltending.
- Ellis was supposed to be in Milwaukee this season. Coming into camp, Ellis expected to fill the gap that was left by Rinne in the minors when he assumed the backup role for the Predators.
Funny how things work out, huh? Ellis went from being another AHL signing to the team's backup to the team's "1-B" goaltender in a very quick span of time. Ellis has played above and beyond expectations and has kept Nashville in a few games here and there and has definitely bailed this team out a few times, most notably in a strong 34-save performance against the LA Kings(yes, it's LA, but he still made a lot of big saves on the team's bigger players in a close game), which included a very painful-looking glove save on Jack Johnson late in the game.
Ellis still has his weaknesses, though. Sometimes he'll get too aggressive coming out of the net and leave the opportunity for some really bad goals. But overall, he's got all the tools of being a solid goaltender in the NHL. That, plus the team seems to play better in front of him. His numbers are solid and hopefully he'll continue to play strong.
- When Mason was signed to a 2-year, $6M contract extension over the summer, it kinda caught me off guard. I expected Poile to wait a little longer and see if Mason could handle being the "real" #1 guy for this team, and then sign him mid-season. He didn't, and at the start of the year, it looked like a good move. Mason played phenominally in the first two games, posting a shutout on opening night and conceding just one goal two nights later. But since then... well, it's been pretty ugly. His GAA is hovering just over 3 and his save percentage at .893 is hardly what you want from a $3M/year goaltender. He's had a lot of problems dealing with shots up high and he, and Ellis as well, have given up several really soft goals that just kill your team's morale.
Now, the coaching staff... very few surprises here.
Peter Horachek, Assistant Coach
- This guy doesn't have a coaching brain cell in his head. Period. End of story.
Brent Peterson, Associate Coach
- Has done well with the penalty kill, but just couldn't seem to get the power play going. Lost the power play duties to Trotz and may very well be on his way out of the Predators organization, at least in a coaching capacity. Grade: D+
Barry Trotz, Head Coach
- I used to be a supporter of Trotz. Then the Predators traded for Vitaly Vishnevski and he played all of 2 minutes a night. Then along came the playoffs and, with a team that some experts suspected could go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, bombed out in the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, 4-1, for the second consecutive season. After that, I was ready for change. Now, I'm ready to hang a "Fire Barry Trotz" banner over Section 306. Trotz has forced every defenseman into the same mold, which is why the defense has struggled and why players like Vishnevski will never see decent ice time in this team's system. He uses line combinations that really aren't all that effective and plays musical chairs with his goaltenders. He gets so caught up in playing the system that he forgets who his best players are (example: Weber never sees time on the penalty kill, despite being one of the team's best defensemen). Plus, the players have all but shut Trotz out at this point.
So the question stands now... what needs to change? Where do you start? That'll be the subject of my next blog.