There appear to be as many questions as answers for the 2005-06 edition of the Nashville Predators.
Thomas Vokoun and Chris Mason are penciled in as the starting tandem between the pipes, while five players on the blue line corps are a near lock. Kimmo Timonen, Mark Eaton, Dan Hamhuis, Danny Markov, Marek Zidlicky likely constitute the core for 2005-06, and the Preds possess the tremendous depth on the farm in this area. The current stable of gifted young offensive-minded players may be a good as any league-wide. Finding room for these prospects will be a challenge, both this season and in the future.
The Predators coughed up a cool $9 million during the offseason to sign veteran forward Paul Kariya. The NHL rule changes should serve to provide more space on the ice for Kariya, enabling the organization to benefit from an injection of star power and increased offensive prowess. What remains to be seen is how big everyone else plays now that Kariya has arrived.
The likes of Dave Legwand, Scott Walker, Steve Sullivan and Scott Hartnell have provided adequate offensive production during their NHL careers, though the Preds will need them to elevate their performances this season. Expectations are high in Nashville this season, given the Preds gritty play against Detroit during the 2003-04 playoffs.
The Preds have not been able to avoid the injury bug during training camp as Walker, Kariya, Legwand and Zidlicky have all been slowed. To become serious contenders this season, the Preds will need a prospect or two to emerge. Fortunately, a few potentially key contributors find themselves still hanging around as the regular season approaches.
Ryan Suter, D
2003 Entry Draft: 1st Round, 7th overall
Suter has impressive bloodlines. His father Bob was a member of the 1980 United States Olympic gold medal team and his uncle Gary won a Stanley Cup as a member of the Calgary Flames. Pedigree will often secure opportunity, but it doesn’t guarantee success.
While he may have the best skill set to fit in right now, the Predators cannot be certain Suter can contribute consistently over the course of an 82-game NHL campaign. Last season, in 63 games with the Milwaukee Admirals, Suter contributed 23 points, 70 penalty minutes and finished with a +10 during his rookie campaign. Proving his mettle at the NHL level is the next test for him.
At 6’1, 191 pounds, one challenge is showing the Predators he can withstand the physical demands associated with controlling larger opponents in front of the net. For the 20-year-old defenseman, finding balance as an offensive catalyst while keeping the puck out of the Predators net will be a demanding assignment.
In preseason play, Suter has struggled with defensive assignments and decision-making with the puck. While there may be some pressure to keep the former first rounder with the club, the Predators will have to expect some serious growing pains as he adjusts to the NHL level.
Kevin Klein, D
2003 Entry Draft: 2nd Round, 37th overall
Following his draft year, the offensive catalyst with the Kitchener Rangers was asked by the Predators to focus on making a more defensive contribution. Attending his third training camp, Klein has responded favorably, adding depth to the Predators already solid core of young defenseman.
At 6’1, 190 pounds, Klein brings a disciplined approach to the ice, however the Predators would like to see him play a more physical brand of hockey as he matures. Last season, Klein proved his durability in Milwaukee, appearing in 65 games.
While he has been impressive in camp, showing poise and good defensive positioning while playing on both special teams, Klein could find himself at least beginning the year with Milwaukee.
Shea Weber, D
2003 Entry Draft: 2nd Round
Shea Weber is trying to convince the Preds he’s ready to step directly out of his Kelowna Rockets uniform on to NHL ice. Weber has made a habit of overachieving throughout his junior career, but an assignment with Milwaukee is most likely.
A native of Sicamous, BC, Weber’s distinguished junior career included three consecutive trips to the Memorial Cup. A leader offensively in Kelowna and on the Canadian Junior team roster, Weber arrives as a solid physical presence at 6’0, 214-pounds.
Scottie Upshall, RW
2002 Entry Draft: 1st Round, 6th overall
Upshall played a total of 15 NHL games in a Predators jersey prior to the NHL lockout. Some early injuries could provide an opportunity for the speedster to force the Preds to find him a roster spot.
In 62 games with the Admirals last season, Upshall became a reliable offensive contributor with 19 goals and 46 points. The Fort McMurray, Alberta native seemed intent on making a physical impression, as the Predators should take notice of his 108 penalty minutes. To maintain an in-your-face approach at the NHL level, Upshall may have to add some bulk to his 6’0, 187-pound frame.
A member of the 2003-04 Calder Cup champions, Upshall has surely matured through the rigors of the lengthy playoff run. If he can crack the Predators roster this season and build on his scoring output in the AHL, he will be lending some much-needed support to the consistent yet unspectacular Preds offense.
On The Farm
Ryan Parent (D), Cody Franson (D) and Cal O’Reilly (F) have been sent back to junior, while Sheldon Brookbank (D) looks to a lock in Milwaukee. Timofei Shishkanov (D) may stick in Milwaukee as well, while Pekka Rinne (G) will be looked upon to push incumbent Brian Finley (G).
Glen Erickson and Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.