Solid draft picks, astute trades put Predators in position for Cup run
They have a hotshot No. 1 goalie from Finland. A shutdown strongman with one of the league’s hardest shots. A no-nonsense coach who insists on structure and accountability. A general manager with a degree from a Beanpot school.
But unlike the plummeting Bruins, the Predators are playing as though they want to make a run into June.
In five of its last six postseason visits, Nashville has lost in the first round. This year, after welcoming ex-Northeast Division players Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Paul Gaustad before the trade deadline, the Predators have no plans for an early dismissal.
Entering last night’s game, Nashville was 41-21-8 for 90 points. They are pushing for home-ice advantage in the first round.
“We’re much closer,’’ said assistant general manager and Springfield native Paul Fenton. “This is not a one-time thing that we’re going for here. We know it takes pieces to build the ultimate championship team.’’
GM David Poile, a Northeastern alumnus, and coach Barry Trotz, the only men to hold those positions for the franchise, have been in place since the summer of 1997. They built their bedrock in 2003 by drafting defensemen Ryan Suter (No. 7 overall) and Shea Weber (No. 49). A year later, they added their third piece when they grabbed goaltender Pekka Rinne with the 258th pick.
Now, almost nine years after drafting two of the league’s best blue liners, Nashville is pushing for a Stanley Cup. Last season, they traded their 2011 first-round pick to Ottawa for Mike Fisher. The former Ottawa alternate captain had term remaining on his deal ($4.2 million annual cap hit through 2013), indicating he was part of Nashville’s long-term plan.
Before this year’s deadline, they shipped Blake Geoffrion, Robert Slaney, and a 2012 second-round pick to Montreal for Gill, a 2013 second-round pick and a 2013 fifth-rounder to the Canadiens for Kostitsyn, and a first-round pick in 2012 to Buffalo for Gaustad and a fourth-round pick.
In return for that bounty, the Predators now have an experienced shutdown D-man, a top-six wing, and a third-line center who is one of the league’s best faceoff men.
Nashville is all in.
“We have a very strong feeling that we’ve added the right pieces,’’ said Fenton, a 1982 Boston University graduate. “The right people can make a difference to give ourselves a chance to win.’’
As the Bruins showed last year with Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, and Dennis Seidenberg, a hot goalie and a dam-’em-up defense tandem can lead a team to greatness. The heart of Nashville’s identity is Rinne, Weber, and Suter.
To complement their stars, the Predators have maximized their efficiencies in two areas: at the draft table and in Milwaukee, their AHL proving ground.
The Predators have racked up currency in the draft’s later rounds: Patric Hornqvist (Mr. Irrelevant in 2005), Martin Erat (No. 191 in 1999), Anders Lindback (No. 207 in 2008), Craig Smith (No. 98 in 2009), and Gabriel Bourque (No. 132 in 2009). Primary development takes place in Milwaukee.
By hitting with cheaper mid- and lower-tier picks, Nashville can pay its stars. Rinne will carry a $7 million annual cap hit starting next season. Weber is earning $7.5 million this season because of a record-setting arbitration case. It’s possible the Predators could have enough cash to re-sign Suter, who should ask for double his $3.5 million current annual salary.
With those assets, the Nashville bosses could afford to ship out the future first- and second-round chips that other clubs would be wary of dealing.
Fenton, who leans on fellow ex-Terrier Jeff Kealty, the team’s chief amateur scout, said the scouting staff has done “a very good job to build the cupboard. Even though we’ve given up high-end assets, if you really look at it, we haven’t just laid our hat on the first two rounds. In the latter part of the draft, we really get guys.’’
Fenton recalled scouting Hornqvist (Sweden) and Rinne (Finland). In each case, Fenton trusted his boots on the ground: European scouts Lucas Bergman and Janne Kekalainen.
Bergman told Fenton to monitor Hornqvist during the World Under-18 Championships prior to his draft year. Hornqvist wasn’t a smooth skater, but Bergman liked how he competed.
Rinne was the backup to Niklas Backstrom for Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. Backstrom was more prominent in scouts’ viewings and signed with Minnesota as a free agent on July 1, 2006. But Kekalainen liked Rinne’s character and work ethic, and Rinne has rocketed past Backstrom as one of the NHL’s elite puck-stoppers.
“I trust our people,’’ Fenton said. “I trust what they’re telling me. But you have to get lucky and be right. Then these things all fall into place.’’
Five years ago, the Predators were in a similar situation. They had high-end talent in Paul Kariya, defensive consistency with Kimmo Timonen, and goaltending stability with Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason. Then they acquired Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, a 2007 first-round pick, and a 2007 third-rounder.
Nashville believed Forsberg would be a difference-maker, but he was slowed by an ankle injury. He had two goals and two assists in five playoff games, as the Predators lost to San Jose in the first round.
The Predators are in a better position this year. They have more game-breaking talent, with Rinne leading the pack. As the Bruins did last year with the acquisitions of Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley (an ex-Predator), and Chris Kelly, Nashville used its assets to address multiple areas.
For all that, they’re currently slotted for a first-round showdown against Detroit. Cruel, no?
“Hey, it is what it is,’’ Fenton said. “You’ve got to go through everybody.’’
Providence dealing with its own issues
Entering the weekend, the Providence Bruins had 61 points in 63 games, putting them next to last in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. With eight teams fighting for the last two playoff spots, Providence will have to put together a push to extend its season.
Providence hasn’t been to the postseason since 2009, when Tuukka Rask, Johnny Boychuk, and Brad Marchand were leading the charge.
“You’re walking a fine line between developing players and getting them ready, and winning,’’ said Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney. “Winning is the ultimate goal.
“They’ve had ups and downs as well as a real good stretch. It’s been a combination of injuries, and they don’t score a lot of goals. But it’s a really hard-working group down there. There’s no quit in them. That’s a lot of the reason we ended up winning up top last year.’’
In lockstep with the big boys, the AHL club has been affected by injuries. Goalie Anton Khudobin would have been backing up Tim Thomas after Rask’s abdomen/groin strain, but he is unavailable because of an injured wrist. Center Max Sauve is shelved because of a hip injury suffered during his NHL debut last Sunday against Pittsburgh. Forwards Lane MacDermid, Trent Whitfield, Carter Camper, and Josh Hennessy have been promoted and reassigned within the last month.
Of the prospects, MacDermid made the most positive impression during his five-game stint with the parent club. MacDermid filled in well for Daniel Paille, showing that he could be in for a longer stay next season.
“He started out as a kid who was really, really hard on himself all the time,’’ Sweeney said. “He realized you can’t play the game that way. You have to execute and be in a confident state. He worked hard at that.
“Systems-wise, he’s much more acclimated. Down there, he kills penalties and is developing the finer details to his game. He’s imposing his will all the time.
“It takes ability to think and react out there. He’s done a good job at that. The other parts of his game come in fits and starts. He’s not the smoothest of players out there. But he works at it and he’s responsible.’’
Desharnais arrives - at a bargain price
When queried earlier this season about the league’s most underrated player, two Bruins agreed on one name: David Desharnais. Montreal has had little to sing about this season, but Desharnais’s development gives them a go-to No. 2 center behind Tomas Plekanec. In 71 games entering last night, the 25-year-old Desharnais had 16 goals and 39 assists while averaging 18:08 of ice time. The Canadiens signed the undrafted Desharnais as a free agent on Nov. 5, 2008. The year before, he ripped up the ECHL as a member of the Cincinnati Cyclones (29-77-106). The 5-foot-7-inch, 177-pound Desharnais is built like a Mini Cooper: squat, stable, low center of gravity. For a club with two contractual millstones in Scott Gomez ($7,357,143 annual cap hit) and Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million), the Canadiens have a bargain in Desharnais ($850,000). The center will be a restricted free agent after 2012-13.
Not a stay-at-home defenseman
There is no NHL defenseman more dynamic than Erik Karlsson. If you can’t see him on the ice, it’s because he is flying through the neutral zone and picking through opponents. Karlsson has a coolness that makes it seem as though he is playing with a cigarette dangling from his lips. In 71 games entering last night, Karlsson (a dead ringer for ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka) had 71 points. As much as Zdeno Chara changes the game defensively, Karlsson affects outcomes offensively. But for all his brilliance, Karlsson doesn’t deserve the Norris Trophy. The critical phrase of the criteria is “greatest all-around ability.’’ Where Karlsson falls short is on defense, specifically the penalty kill. Through 70 games, he was averaging just 32 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game. That ranks 206th among league defensemen. Karlsson is more deserving of the Hart Trophy as MVP than the Norris.
Eagles ready to fly
The Rangers are eager to see whether Chris Kreider will say goodbye to The Heights and hit Broadway once Boston College concludes its playoff run. But while Kreider, the 19th overall pick of the 2009 draft, is considered a can’t-miss kid, the Hurricanes are hopeful that another Eagle from the same class is thinking about going pro. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin, Carolina’s second-round pick from 2009, is ready to move on from college hockey, according to one local scout. The left-shot defenseman from Biddeford, Maine, has 6 goals and 20 assists in 39 games. Dumoulin is one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. The 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pounder is an offensive-minded defenseman who skates well and makes good decisions with the puck. Carolina already has two good young defensemen in Jamie McBain and Justin Faulk. “He’s had an outstanding year,’’ said BC coach Jerry York during a recent conference call. “He’s had a tremendous career here at BC. This is his third year with us. There’s been improvement in all facets of his game. Clearly he is one of the top defensemen in our league. If you’re in that category, you’re one of the best in the nation. He certainly has an effect on the game, whether it’s defensively - making a stop or breaking the puck out of the zone - or on offense.’’
Through 70 games, Patrice Bergeron had 836 faceoff wins, most of any player in the league. He is so good on the draw because he targets two objects: the puck and his opponent’s stick. When Bergeron leans into the faceoff, he likes to aim for the shaft of the other center’s stick, just above the blade. By doing so, he eliminates his opponent’s stick from the battle, leaving him free to swipe the puck cleanly. One drawback is that such force weakens Bergeron’s stick. Bergeron snaps his sticks regularly because of the trauma inflicted through repeated jousts on the draw.
Hard to believe that Providence’s Josh Hennessy was the 43d overall pick (by San Jose) in the once-in-a-generation 2003 draft. Some of the centers San Jose bypassed were Bergeron, David Backes, and Joe Pavelski. Backes could draw consideration for the Hart, given how St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock leans on him in every situation . . . One interesting observation from the MIT Sloan Sports Conference held earlier this month: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli’s admiration of Detroit’s Europe-to-AHL culture. The Red Wings have hit by drafting European players in the lower rounds. But Detroit’s management team has insisted on an acclimation period in Grand Rapids, the Wings’ AHL affiliate. Valtteri Filppula (Finland), Niklas Kronwall (Sweden), Jiri Hudler (Czech Republic), Jonathan Ericsson(Sweden), Jakub Kindl (Czech Republic), and Gustav Nyquist (Sweden via University of Maine) are current Wings who are Grand Rapids alums. “What they’ve done is created a culture in the organization where European players come over and spend some time in the minors,’’ Chiarelli noted. “That’s hard to do. You’ve got these European players, when you draft them, playing in an elite league in Europe. They’re being paid well. The league is really good. They often think it’s a step down to come over and play in the American League to learn their craft a little bit over in North America.’’ Case in point: Carl Soderberg, the Swedish pivot the Bruins acquired from St. Louis for Hannu Toivonen on July 23, 2007. Soderberg has been wary of a Providence pit stop . . . Certainly looks as if Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft, has leapfrogged over No. 2 selection Drew Doughty. In 71 games entering last night, the smooth-moving St. Louis defenseman had 11 goals and 32 assists while averaging 24:29 of ice time. In 66 games entering last night, the Kings’ Doughty had 9 goals and 23 assists while logging 25:02 of action per appearance. Pietrangelo has a year remaining on his entry-level deal . . . The only smiling face around the Bruins dressing room after last Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh? Mark Recchi, saying hello to his former teammates. More proof that nothing beats going out a winner.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.