Preseason is one of my favorite times of the hockey season because everyone’s enthusiasm is so earnest it could hardly be more adorable.
How’s it going? It’s going awesome, is how it’s going. Everyone here is in the best shape of his life. Everyone is excited. Everyone is totally gonna pull on the same rope. This team has so much character, and the boys work so hard, and we play the right way, and that’s why the hockey gods will reward us.
Did we mention how close we all became in captain’s practices before training camp even started? Super close, stink-on-hockey-gear-close. (Figuratively, of course. Rest assured we have not been close literally, no closer than six feet. And we wear three layers of masks, four layers if you’re a goalie. Also, we wash our hands with OCD frequency. Anyhow, the point being we’re Team Tight-Knit.)
The Nashville Predators’ contribution on this front is how stoked they are to have added some grit to a lineup that apparently lacked it last season, and how determined they are to be – checks notes – a harder team to play against, whatever that means. Feels like someone is going to write that the Predators have added sandpaper to their pedigree and, oh, look, I just did.
Is grit the missing ingredient that will get the Predators back over the hump and into contention for the Stanley Cup? That’s probably a stretch, but grit is totally gonna rock the rink if 2004 NHL breaks out. (Gonna lug the lunch pail, get pucks in deep and get to work!) Conventional wisdom is grit will prove particularly handy in this truncated 56-game season in which the Predators will play only the seven other teams in the realigned Central Division now sponsored by a credit card I do not possess. The thinking is grit will be a premium quality given eight games against every opponent, and a consistent pattern of back-to-back games against the same opponent, which is how the schedule unfolds. The presumption is players will become surly, like in the playoffs. We hope and pray it is so because bitter hockey is just the best.
These new-look Predators jettisoned several regulars, particularly upfront – so long Craig Smith, Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino, for instance – and mostly added depth in forwards Erik Haula, Luke Kunin, Brad Richardson and Nick Cousins, and defensemen Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki (pronounced MAHRK, you’re welcome). The common thread among that group assembled by general manager David Poile is you couldn’t have picked any of those guys out of a lineup. So, no “name’’ free agent signings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – just ask Titans general manager Jon Robinson, whose offseason swing-and-a-giant-whiff signings of alleged “pass rushers’’ Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney proved the equivalent to taking a blowtorch to $22.5 million. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but Beasley and Clowney combined for the same number of sacks you did.)
Anyhow, the Predators also “added” free agent winger Mikael Granlund, who you may remember as a Predator last season before Poile in the offseason signaled the Finn would not return to the Music City, which was before Poile pivoted and added Granlund. It was all very coy, and very dizzying. In any event, Granlund was one of several Predators forwards who produced poorly overall last season, though Granlund did bag 13 goals in 37 games with John Hynes as coach after longtime bench boss Peter Laviolette got the gate. (Laviolette, who is known as Lavvy in the biz because hockey types are so cleverly inventive with nicknames, landed softly behind the Washington Capitals bench and will be able – sigh of relief — to make his mortgage.)
Not surprisingly, the Predators’ fortunes this season hinge heavily on “if.’’ If centers Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene can significantly boost their production coming off weak seasons…if Viktor Arvidsson can regain his groove…if Filip Forsberg can stay healthy and flash his goal-scoring chops more consistently…if Eeli Tolvanen can crack the lineup and add something more than the dreaded “potential’’…if rookie teenager Philip Tomasino can debut…if the second line can finally…if the third pairing can simply eat some minutes…– you get the picture.
As always, goaltending will only be more important than anything. Juuse Saros supplanted franchise icon and fellow Finn Pekka Rinne as the Predators’ No. 1 masked man last season, and this will be the first time in his NHL career Saros is asked to lead from the start. Given the squeezed schedule – 56 games in just 116 days – the Predators will need Rinne, too, and they’ll need him to rebound strongly from last season’s bummer. Also in camp is newcomer goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, who you will be shocked to learn is a Finn. I call him The Vegan Vlogger (look him up on YouTube), and I already have a soft spot for him because he played college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth and I met my wife at The Pioneer Bar in Duluth (yeah, it’s a real Hallmark Channel movie). The fourth goalie in camp is Connor Ingram, who was somehow granted access to the crease even though he is not a Finn, though he is from Saskatoon, so presumably, he’s a good Canadian boy.
And that about wraps it up for a preseason that really isn’t a preseason in the traditional sense because, well, zero exhibition games. Instead, we have to make do with a couple of Predators scrimmages. Man, don’t know if I have the grit for that. Might have to wander over to YouTube and see what The Vegan Vlogger is whipping up for dinner.