For each of the past few seasons, the Predators have gone through a regular season content with a starter, only to enter the following season with a new man between the pipes.
Tomas Vokoun finished the 2006/07 season with a 27-12-4 record and a career-high (at the time) five shutouts. A Hand injury did limit Vokoun to just 44 games that season, and in that time Chris Mason proved to be able to handle the rigors of an NHL starting gig as well.
Mason himself went 24-11-4 with five shutouts in 40 games, which in turn made Vokoun expendable. After a brief first-round exit, the Preds traded Vokoun for a second (2007), a first (2008), and a conditional second.
Many figured that Mason had himself a job in Nashville. Like Vokoun, he signed an extension before the season started and like Vokoun, Mason expected to be the man for his team between the pipes.
Mason was ineffective though. His save percentage dipped below .900 and his goals-against average was too close (2.90) to 3.00 for the Preds liking.
Over the course of the season, Dan Ellis saw more action, and even tended over the Preds playoff season.
That offseason Mason was traded (for a fourth rounder) and Ellis signed to a two-year contract extension.
This season however, it was no different. Dan Ellis was the former starter to struggle, and Pekka Rinne came in as the new hot shot goalie to nearly carry the Preds to the playoffs.
What the offseason holds between the pipes for Nashville though, could be a variety of things.
The eighth-round selection in 2004, Rinne shouldn’t be going anywhere and, like previous seasons, he’ll be expected to be the starter and even better next year.
Dan Ellis shouldn’t be going anywhere either.
The former Dallas Stars product did have an off-year, but he did get better as the season wore on, only allowing more than three goals twice in his last ten.
Unlike Vokoun and Mason, Ellis is also younger. At 28 and with Rinne at only 26, the Predators have two young goalies who have proven, if only with one good season out of each, that they can play at the NHL level.
If Rinne were to arise the starter and Ellis were to back him up, the battery of these two tenders could provide Nashville with a solid rotation for the next few years.
With the 11th overall selection in this draft (depending on trades up or down), the Preds could easily find a power forward with great finishing ability, but that player would need time to develop.
If they were to package Ellis with other picks, prospects, or players, they could find that strong, hard-nosed finisher to nab them a few more goals.
Free-agent wise there wouldn’t be much to interest the Preds with regards to a backup goalie. They seem to be quite happy consisntently filling that hole from within so seeing Mark DeKanich or Drew MacIntyre get a chance wouldn’t be surprising.
Both MacIntyre and Dekanich had good seasons for the Milwaukee Admirals. MacIntyre spent the season as the starter, and the 25-year old was spectacular, registering 34 wins, a 2.30 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage, and four shutouts.
He also went 7-4 in the playoffs with just a 1.65 goals-against average.
Dekanich was also great, putting up 15 wins with a sparkling 2.09 goals-against average, but the 23-year old didn’t see any playoff action.
It’s fair to say that either of them could see NHL action next season, but how soon depends on what happens with Rinne and Ellis.
19-year old Chet Pickard is also in the future of the Preds, but even his stellar season in the WHL (35-12-3, .921, 2.28) shouldn’t be enough to rush the notoriously patient Predators on the Tri-City American.
But you can never say never when it comes to the men between the pipes, and the Predators have certainly taught us that over the past few seasons.
While a move doesn’t seem likely in Nashville this offseason, it’ll still something to keep tabs on as, both on and off the ice, the Preds always seem to surprise.