Yesterday I previewed the defense and goaltenders, and on the eve of the Preds season opener tomorrow night in Columbus, it’s time to preview the most scrutinized and criticized group of Preds year in and year out: the forwards.
- Niclas Bergfors – On July 3rd, amidst all of the hubbub surrounding free agency, general manager David Poile made another under-the-radar signing, bringing in forward Niclas Bergfors on a one-year, $575,000 deal. The underachieving former first-round pick comes to Nashville looking for some stability, as he is with his third team in the past two seasons. After being drafted 23rd overall by New Jersey in 2005, Bergfors spent four years in the AHL, and in his first full season with the Devils, was sent to Atlanta as part of the package that sent Iyla Kovalchuk the other way. He was on the move again at the trade deadline last season, as the Thrashers sent him and Patrick Rissmiller to Florida for Radek Dvorak. Bergfors had enough offensive upside for Poile to take a flyer on him, and after seeing what Barry Trotz did for Sergei Kostitsyn’s confidence last season, it will be exciting to see what he’ll be able to get out of Bergfors. All he needs is an opportunity.
- Martin Erat - After consecutive 57 point seasons in ’06-’07 and ’07-’08, David Poile signed Martin Erat to a 7-year, $31.5 million contract, as the summer of uncertainty loomed
over Nashville with the Preds for sale. In the three years since then, Erat has had seasons of 50, 49, and 50 points, mostly because he has had a difficult time staying healthy, playing 71, 74, and 64 games in that three year stretch. Last season’s 50 points in 64 games is actually a pretty impressive number, but as Erat enters the fourth year of his contract (his most expensive, as he’ll earn $6 million), expectations for Czech Republic native remain high. If Erat stays healthy, I could see him having a career year, but based on his track record, that’s a pretty big “if”.
- Mike Fisher - Nashville is a franchise that believes in building from the ground up, and prefers developing their own prospects rather than trading for established players. Having this mindset means David Poile values each and every draft pick. Going into last season, however, he was also aware that the fanbase wasn’t going to take another first-round exit out of the playoffs lightly, and he kept an eye out for a player or two that could help if the Preds made the playoffs. When he traded two draft picks to Ottawa in exchange for Mike Fisher in February, he made both the team and fanbase aware that he believed that this team was the one that would take the next step. Fisher struggled a little offensively at the start, but his play down the stretch and in the first round of the playoffs was nothing short of outstanding, and Nashville finally got the first-round monkey off their back. Fisher had shoulder surgery in the offseason and will be on IR to start the season, but a full season with Mike Fisher, especially with how young the team is, will pay dividends this season.
- Blake Geoffrion - On February 26th, Geoffrion became the first native Tennessean to play a game in the NHL, as mounting injuries resulted in his call-up; not even a year had passed since he had graduated from the University of Wisconsin. The former Hobey Baker Award winner held his own in the 20 regular season games he played, scoring a goal in his 3rd game, and even notched a hat trick at Buffalo in an incredible come-from-behind win. Geoffrion was performing well in training camp before a skate blade cut his wrist, and his camp, short, but his performance up to that point was good enough to earn a spot on the roster. If his playing time dwindles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Milwaukee to get him a little experience.
- Matt Halischuk - When Jason Arnott was traded to New Jersey last summer, the 2nd round pick was probably more valued than the prospect that was also included in the package. Little did we know, Matt Halischuk would find his way to Nashville for two stints last season, sticking with the team the second time around when both he and Blake Geoffrion were called up. He performed well as a bottom-six forward, and scored a big goal in the 2nd-round series in Vancouver, tallying in double-overtime to keep Nashville from going down 2-0 in a series they eventually lost. Halischuk re-signed for two more seasons over the summer, and will look to continue his solid play this season.
- Patric Hornqvist - Last season was a disappointing one for Hornqvist, as he failed to match the 30 goals he notched in 2009-2010. Hornqvist normally serves as a Tomas Holmstrom-like role, constantly battling in front of the net, picking up garbage goals, and picking up more facewashes than I’m sure he’d care to have. He’s stated that he’s been working on his wrist shot to help improve his offensive ability, and hopefully that will lead to a return to the 30 goal column for the young Swede.
- Sergei Kostitsyn - Last season, David Poile traded the rights of Dan Ellis and Dustin Boyd to Montreal for the rights of troubled forward Sergei Kostitsyn. Poile signed Kostitsyn to a one-year, $550,000 deal, giving him a second chance to turn both his life and his career around. Kostitsyn’s first two months were rocky, as he registered two goal and an assist, but once the calendar turned to December, he took off. His 23 goals led the team, and his 50 points were tied with Martin Erat for the team lead; he set career highs in every major offensive category. Kostitsyn was awarded with another one-year deal, but got a decent pay raise, as he’ll now be earning $2.5 million this season. Barry Trotz has been imploring SK to shoot the puck more, and it will be up to the young forward to prove that last season was not a fluke.
- David Legwand - Some fans look at the team’s first ever draft pick (and only inaugural Pred remaining on the roster) and wish that he had more offensive ability, or that he was instead Vincent Lecavalier or Simon Gagne, who were also taken in the first round of that same draft. While his numbers from his junior hockey career have never transferred over to his playing days with Nashville, he has found another niche instead, becoming a top shut-down center, assigned the opposing team’s top line every game. He has performed very well in this role, and while it may not warrant the money he’s making ($4.5 million this season), he earns his paycheck every night, and I can live with that.
- Cal O’Reilly - In his contract year, O’Reilly was placed on one of the top two forward lines and was off to the best start of his career (18 points in 38 games, a career high) before suffering a broken leg on January 2nd, cutting short a promising season. David Poile felt confident enough in O’Reilly to let Marcel Goc go to Florida, and re-signed the center to a one-year deal, giving him another chance to prove he belongs.
- Craig Smith - “The road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.” This phrase is well-known throughout the organization, as essentially every prospect in the Predators organization spends at least some amount of time in the AHL before making their way to the big club. Enter Craig Smith, a rare exception to this case, and a somewhat strange one at that. After completing his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin, Smith was invited to try out to play for the United States in the World Championships. Not only did he make the team, he shocked everyone in the seven games he played, tallying three goals and three assists while playing alongside NHL talent like Derek Stepan. After the tournament, Smith insisted he was returning to Wisconsin for his junior year, where he was slotted to be the team’s captain. However, David Poile somehow persuaded Smith to turn pro. After tallying six goals in two rookie games against Florida, Smith has impressed the coaching staff with his hustle and willingness to shoot the puck from anywhere, and lo and behold, Smith made the roster without getting a sniff of Milwaukee. He is easily the most intriguing player to watch as the season gets underway, and it will be interesting to see if he does get sent to Milwaukee for top-line minutes once Mike Fisher returns.
- Jerred Smithson - Smithson is your typical Nashville Predator. He hustles every game, plays hard, and every once in awhile gets rewarded for his efforts. Smithson has never been known as an offensive player, in fact, he hasn’t registered a multi-point game since January 19th, 2008. Instead, Smithson does his damage on the penalty kill and in the faceoff dot, where he excels. Although he’ll never put many points on the board, he’ll never be forgotten by a single Preds fan for his overtime goal in Game 5 in the first-round series with Anaheim. It was only fitting that a player who had worked his tail off all season long with little to no fanfare get a goal of that magnitude.
- Nick Spaling - Spaling was one of the last players sent back to Milwaukee last season, but was called back up eight games into the season, and hasn’t looked back. Spaling is a bottom six forward who does a great job on the penalty kill, with the ability to chip in offensively every now and then. Much like Smithson, Spaling came up big in a big moment, scoring the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win over Anaheim. Spaling signed a two year deal over the offseason, and will return to doing much of the same this season.
- Zack Stortini - With Jordin Tootoo looking to take on less of the enforcer role, David Poile brought in Stortini from Edmonton to help try and offset that and the loss of Shane O’Brien. Stortini took no time in endearing himself to Preds fans through his facebook page, and wasted no time in embracing his role with his new team. He knows when to fight and when not to, as he showed in the preseason opener by drawing a double-minor on Troy Bodie, resulting in two powerplay goals that changed the course of the game.
- Jordin Tootoo - It was a tale of two seasons for Tootoo. Before December 26th, Tootoo was having a pretty nice season, serving as the team pest while putting up some pretty decent offensive numbers. Then came the stunning news that he had checked himself into the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavior Health program. When he returned on February 19th, it was clear he was a changed man, and he played like it, especially in the playoffs, as he earned the primary assist on both Smithson’s Game 5 OT winner, as well as Spaling’s series-clinching goal. Tootoo has only cracked double digit goals once in his career, but if can put together a full season like he did following his return on February 19th, 20 goals is definitely a possibility.
- Colin Wilson - At the ripe age of 20, Colin Wilson was expected to significantly contribute to the offense after a good rookie season. Although he played in every regular season game, he only tallied 34 points (16G, 18A), and was benched during the playoffs. Wilson is coming into this season with something to prove, and judging from his performance in the preseason, he’s off to a good start.