Hunting Without Headlines: Nashville Predators Have Potential to be Dangerous

The main sporting concept that became popularized out of the book/movie combo of Moneyball, was the idea of replacing a big piece with multiple little ones. When the Oakland Athletics lost Johnny Damon, Billy Beane threw away the traditional route of replacing him like for like, and found a number of players who could fill the gap that Damon had left together. All this to counteract a financial playing field that is far from even in professional baseball.

The storyline may be a little bit different, but the Nashville Predators have always felt like hockey’s version of the Oakland A’s, and this summer was no different. They aren’t necessarily replacing anything that has departed the team, but instead trying to counteract the incredible depth and star power of the Western Conference with several less flashy signings. As a result they have yet to print themselves in the headlines the same way the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues or Vancouver Canucks have.

This doesn’t mean, however, that they are not one of the hockey teams that have most improved themselves over this offseason, and all of the sudden should be considered a legitimate playoff contender in the superb NHL West.

Let’s start at the beginning of this narrative, draft day. The Predators had what could be categorized as a good draft, acquiring the incredibly talented Kevin Fiala with the 11th pick. But it was a trade that would be the real statement, acquiring James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was the first step for a team looking to address an historically stagnant offense.

In fact, Neal is already one of the best offensive players to ever wear the Predators sweater. If not for late career appearances from Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg, he might even be considered for the top spot. While his production will absolutely take a hit while not playing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, Neal will also be given every opportunity to succeed. He adds an element of offensive danger that this team has lacked since Alexander Radulov’s brief tenure.

But the Neal move isn’t where this team will draw the Moneyball comparisons, it’s in the free agent acquisitions. While other teams were overpaying attractive talent to improve their team, the Predators were paying less for players who were circumstantially less attractive than those who drew the headlines.

It begins with the one that is too old, 35-year-old Olli Jokinen. The Predators signed him to a fairly low risk one year, $2.5 million contract. The thing is, Jokinen hasn’t declined as quickly as many would have expected. His reputation took a serious hit when he had only 14 points during the lockout season. But last year with 18 goals and 25 assists, he demonstrated that he still has plenty to offer his new team.

Another player who many consider to be past his expiry date is Anton Volchenkov, another one year signing by the Predators. One of those parties is the New Jersey Devils, who used their compliance buyout on the 32-year-old.  The Predators, however, may be the beneficiaries of this oversight. Volchenkov is still a solid possession player, albeit on a solid possession team. He is also still a good shot blocker as well as physical presence. As per usual, he will also be a big positive for the team’s penalty kill.

Then there is the player who has been crippled by injuries, former Buffalo Sabres captain Derek Roy. At 31, Roy is absolutely trending downwards after leaving the Sabres, as a byproduct of his declining health. But the talent is still there, as the former 80 point player has shown flashes of that past form when he is healthy. On the Predators he will be given an opportunity to re-establish his offensive career and could well do it.

The only category that has been left out of the equation is the trouble child. That was filled on the very same day that Roy was aquired by Mike Ribeiro, whose talent is only matched by his poor reputation. After his recent fallout with the Arizona Coyotes, the latter has definitely surpassed the former, as they made sure his reputation was as damaged as possible.

This may just turn out to be a positive, though, as Ribeiro will be incredibly motivated to show his worth this season. While there has been no doubt that he has been a talented player over his career, motivation has not always come naturally. A combination of both could make him very much worth the risk Nashville have taken on him.

These players join a Predators team that is already trending upwards. Pekka Rinne will be back next year and healthy, primed from a great performance at the World Championships. Shea Weber is in his prime, and leads a defensive corps that includes Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. The forward group isn’t exactly a strong suit for Nashville, nor has it ever been, but Viktor Stalberg, Paul Gaustad, Gabriel Bourque, and Colin Wilson aren’t terrible. Add Mike Fisher to that list when he returns to health.

Bringing in offensive-minded coach Peter Laviolette is another savvy move by the Predators front office that will very likely pay dividends. He has plenty of success on his resume with every stop of his career. Even if it isn’t this season, Nashville will likely be no different, as he provides a breath of fresh air coaching-wise to a team that hasn’t had much change in that department of late. This isn’t saying Barry Trotz is a bad coach, or he did a bad job, simply that change eventually needed to be made.

In a conference that includes the Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, and Dallas Stars, the Nashville Predators are far from contention. They aren’t even a favourite to make the playoffs next year. But they are undoubtedly improved from last year, where they only missed the playoffs by three points.

If they can get themselves into the postseason, who knows what kind of damage they can cause. Many forget that two years ago the Predators actually seemed like a real threat to take the Cup before internally imploding against the Phoenix Coyotes. This team isn’t all that different from that squad; once again, a David Poile assembled collection of optically underwhelming pieces.

They won’t make the headlines, they likely won’t play the most attractive brand of hockey. But the Nashville Predators are quietly, and surely, trending in the right direction. That direction might just take them higher than most would predict.

Thank you for reading. Please take a moment to follow me on Twitter – @mitchrtierney.  Support LWOS by following us on Twitter  – @LastWordOnSport – and “liking” our Facebook page.
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