VOL. 41 | NO. 48 | Friday, December 01, 2017
Better than 2006-07? Preds scoring at record pace
By John Glennon
Jason Arnott, left, and J.P. Dumont celebrate a goal against the Ottawa Senators during the 2006-07 season. The Predators scored a record 110 points and collected 51 regular-season wins, records that still stand. -- Photo By John A Russell/Getty Images
It was just more than a decade ago that the Nashville Predators roared through the NHL regular season, compiling franchise-best totals of 51 victories and 110 points. The 2006-07 Predators were almost certainly the most talented in team history, a club that featured six 20-goal scorers and a franchise-record 272 goals.
This year’s Predators might have just as much talent – perhaps even more so – than that 2006-07 squad, based on results to date.
The Predators have won 10 of their last 13 games, including Thursday night's 5-3 loss to Vancouver, averaging four goals per contest during that stretch. Nashville also has won seven of its first nine games since adding center Kyle Turris via trade.
There’s a long, long way to go in the season, of course, but the Predators are on pace for 50 wins and 111 points, both of which are in the neighborhood of the franchise marks set by the 2006-07 team.
“It’s really tough to compare eras because the game has changed a lot in just the last 10 years, but I think this current team is right there with the (2006-07 team),” says Chris Mason, a goalie on Nashville’s roster that season and now a Predators TV broadcaster.
“I think this team, with its top four defensemen and now with Turris, is definitely close. Whether they get 110 points or so, that’s yet to be determined. But this is probably one of the most skilled teams that can compare to that one.”
The 2006-07 Predators were loaded, an upgrade even on the 2005-06 squad that totaled a record 106 points.
They were deep at center, where Jason Arnott and David Legwand each scored 27 goals that year, and that was before the team added future Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg at the trade deadline.
Talent on the wings included the likes of Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont, Martin Erat, Scott Hartnell and Alexander Radulov.
“We could really score some goals that year, which was a change for us,” Mason points out. “We had a bunch of guys who were game-changers, whereas in years past, we didn’t have that much firepower. It was a cool feeling to be on that team.”
There also was plenty of grit and physicality on the third and fourth lines, thanks to the likes of Vern Fiddler, Scott Nichol, Jerred Smithson and Jordin Tootoo, among others.
“I think it had all the ingredients of what you try to build into a team,” adds Paul Fenton, Predators assistant general manager. “We had some skill, speed, some size, some character and some guys with the intangibles – guys who were willing to pay a price in so many areas of the game like blocking shots, winning face-offs and killing penalties.”
Defensively, the 2006-07 Predators featured a host of recognizable names like Kimmo Timonen, Marek Zidlicky, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Nashville was a bit green on the blueline, though, considering Hamhuis was in his third full season, Suter in his second and Weber in his first.
“We had potential all-stars and Hall of Famers on the back end, but they were at the start of their careers,” Mason acknowledges. “Shea Weber and Ryan Suter weren’t necessarily in their primes yet, even though Webby had (17) goals that year.”
Anthony Bitetto, center, celebrates his only goal so far this season against the Colorado Avalanche with teammates Kevin Fiala, left, and Craig Smith. Fiala is the more productive scorer of this trio with two goals and 12 assists, 14 points, when the week began, while Smith had eight goals and four assists for 12 points. -- Photo By John Russell/Nhli Via Getty Images
Mason and Tomas Vokoun split regular-season duties that season, helping the Predators post a .922 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average – the latter figure eighth-best in the NHL.
“Never had a center group like this”
As for the 2017-18 team, the Predators very likely have their deepest set of quality centers with Ryan Johansen, Turris, Nick Bonino, Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons able to provide both offense and strong two-way play.
“We’ve certainly never had a center-ice group like this,” Fenton says. “It’s still early with Nick Bonino, but he has a track record of being a really good two-way player. You add Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons, who are growing, as well, and we feel good.”
On the wings, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Scott Hartnell all have 30-goal seasons to their credit, and Craig Smith has topped 20 goals on three occasions. There also is intriguing offensive potential among the likes of Kevin Fiala and Pontus Aberg, while worker bees like Austin Watson, Miikka Salomaki and Cody McLeod have supplied the grit.
Overall, the 2017-18 forward group is younger than the 2006-07 bunch that finished fourth in the league in scoring.
“That’s a fair assessment,” Fenton admits. “The good thing, though, is that with our team, it looks like we have the potential to be a really good team. We have youth. We think we have a window here for several years.”
The strength of this year’s team is its defensive corps, especially the top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Subban, Josi and Ekholm already rank among the team’s top six scorers, and the Preds will be even more potent when Ellis – who hasn’t played a game yet this season – recovers from offseason knee surgery sometime around Christmas.
In goal, Pekka Rinne is off to a great start, as his .931 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average through 18 starts were even better than the numbers Vokoun and Mason amassed in 2006-07.
The one question that remains here is whether the Preds will be able to count on either Juuse Saros or Anders Lindback consistently when the 35-year-old Rinne needs a break.
“No real weakness”
The 2006-07 Predators actually lost their first three games, so enamored with goal-scoring that they forgot to defend. Nashville allowed 17 goals in its first three contests before righting the ship.
But the Predators were hard to beat once they put everything together, rattling off stretches of 9-0-1, 8-1-1, 8-2 and 10-1. The Preds were in the chase for the Presidents’ Trophy until the final week of the season, finishing just three points behind Detroit and Buffalo.
But the playoffs were a disappointment, a five-game, first-round loss to San Jose. Part of Nashville’s postseason problem that season was injuries. Sullivan missed the entire series, a hampered Erat was limited to three games, Forsberg was dealing with foot and abdomen injuries, and Vokoun was bothered by an injury to his left hand.
“That was a pretty special team,” Mason says. “It was just too bad at the end of the year we had too many big pieces getting hurt.”
This year’s Predators were only 5-5-2 after the season’s first 12 games, but that’s when they launched a five-game win streak – which included a victory over defending Stanley Cup champ Pittsburgh – and then cranked up another four-game win streak after a loss at Minnesota.
The Preds shut out the best team in the Western Conference, St. Louis, last Friday and have marched closer and closer toward the top of the conference in recent weeks.
“This current group and the way this team can skate is definitely reminiscent of the (2006-07) team” Mason explains. “We could play with anyone. We could run and gun. I feel like this Nashville team does that very well. They can score goals but when they have to get in those tight, gritty games, they’re able to do that, too, because of the players. So there’s no real weakness on this Predators team, I don’t think.”
Fenton likes what he sees so far as well, but wants to tap the breaks on superlatives at this point of the season.
“If you’re comparing this to a 110-point team, I wouldn’t get that carried away yet, to be honest,” Fenton adds.
“But we certainly like the team and the potential we have. On paper, I feel great about what we have, and every game we play, I start to feel better and better.”
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.