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VOL. 46 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 7, 2022

Preds players motivated to stay among elite NHL teams

By Tom Wood

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Matt Duchene is confident about his team’s chances this season of making a long playoff run.

-- Photo By Tom Wood | The Ledger

Is this the year? That’s the predominant question facing the Nashville Predators as they launch their 24th season Oct. 7 in the NHL Global Series in Prague, Czechoslovakia, against the San Jose Sharks.

Is this the year the Predators will win their first Stanley Cup crown?

There are plenty of reasons to think the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Say it out loud, Smashville: Yes, the Predators have a legitimate shot at winning their first-ever NHL championship. Feels good, doesn’t it? It’s never too early to dream, though oddsmakers – not quite as confident as Smashville fans – see Nashville as a middle-of-the pack contender. DraftKings, for example, puts the Preds as the No. 13 team to win the Cup at +3500 (meaning a $100 bet would pay $3,500 if it happens) while others rank the team’s chances lower. The website sportsbettingdime.com features a graphic of each team’s shot to win the Stanley Cup “by calculating the average odds for each team from a variety of online sportsbooks.” In that compilation, the Preds are tied for 16th with the Capitals at +4000.

Predators center Matt Duchene says his team is motivated to prove they are an upper echelon team.

Goaltender Juuse Saros signs a jersey for a young fan during preseason practice session.

-- Photo By Tom Wood | The Ledger

“We’ve got all the pieces here on paper but the game’s not played on paper,” Duchene says. “We love our team, we’re confident and I think we’re coming in a little bit under the radar, which is a great spot to be in.“Our day to day is managing expectations, and you can’t win the Stanley Cup in November. You can’t win it in October. You can’t even win it in April. So, you’ve got to make sure that we’re just setting short-term goals and achieving that as we go.”

After a disappointing exit from last season’s playoffs – the Preds were swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche – Nashville re-signed star forward Filip Forsberg to an eight-year, $68 million contract worth $8.5 million annually and added defenseman Ryan McDonagh and left wing Nino Niederreiter as key pieces to solving the Stanley Cup riddle.

When Forsberg signed the contract that runs through the 2030 season and includes no-move and no-trade clauses, he called the Stanley Cup quest his “ultimate motivation.” The 28-year-old Swede hasn’t changed his Music City tune going into the new season.

“We can’t take any of our success from last year for granted. A lot of guys had career years and that’s great, but you have to go earn it again,” Forsberg says. “Obviously, guys that we bring in are going to have to do the same thing.

“(McDonagh and Niederreiter have) proven themselves, so I’m not necessarily worried about it from their perspective. But at the same time, our strength has always been working and I think that’s kind of where we have to start. We have to put the work in in (training) camp and we’re definitely a better team than we were a year ago.”

The Predators’ only Stanley Cup Finals appearance came in the 2016-17 season, when the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them in six games.

Captain Roman Josi says Colorado is still “the team to chase” but quickly adds that they have made all the right moves to challenge for the title.

“There’s a lot of confidence in our room. The (2021-22) season obviously didn’t end the way we wanted and I think we took a good look in the mirror at what it takes to win in this league,” Josi adds.

“We took a big step toward the right direction … and now this year with some more guys coming in and guys having another good year, I think we could take another step.”

McDonagh, who will likely be paired with Josi and Mattias Eckholm, is the key acquisition. He knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, helping lead the Bolts to back-to-back crowns before losing to the Avs in last year’s Finals.

“I think the most important thing with this group is you’re not trying to think big picture too much,” says McDonagh, 33, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Grant Mismash and defenseman Philippe Myers.

“We’ve got a great mixture of experienced veteran guys, older guys that have played a while in the league, and a great mixture of young guys that are still hungry and trying to establish themselves. So, we’ll just take it one day at a time, one practice or game at a time, and I think that’s going to be our mentality going forward.”

McDonagh understands the hunger and desire Nashville players and fans have to celebrate what would be Nashville’s first major pro team sports championship.

“There’s no greater feeling (than winning a Stanley Cup). It’s hard to describe. And as soon as you do get a taste of it, you definitely want to repeat that again and go through the process and go through that journey with the group of guys, and just feel that reward at the end of all that hard work,” McDonagh says. “We’re building our identity here early in the season, the way we want to play, what’s expected of us each day, and we’ve got a great coaching staff that’s going to put together a plan and put guys in position to succeed.”

Coach John Hynes doesn’t want to put the Stanley Cup cart before the proverbial NHL horse, saying that building his team’s identity is the first step toward a winning record and a spot in the playoffs.

“We want to be a tough team to play against and an even tougher team to beat. So, I think when you do that, you want to make sure that we play fast,” Hynes points out. “We want to be very competitive with the puck. We want to be able to play with structure and when we don’t have the puck that guys are committed to be able to check the right way.“And then I think like in everything, the sport is difficult, so we want to have mental and physical toughness.”

And that toughness is essential for the long haul of an 82-game regular season.

Veteran team broadcasters Terry Crisp, who retired after last season, and TV play-by-play announcer Willy Daunic like where this team is headed on the road to the Stanley Cup.

“The last couple years they were getting a lot younger and some young guys have really started to build a good nucleus,” Daunic says. “And then last offseason, I think they were able to go add a couple of veterans to mix in at the spots that they needed them. So, hopefully, that means it’ll be a better team and maybe more equipped to win in the postseason – not just make the postseason but to get to the postseason and win.”

Crisp says the Stanley Cup team’s chances depend on all phases coming together at the same time.

“It always hinges on your goaltending, no matter what you say or how you slice it,” Crisp says. “Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne and now (Juuse) Saros (who suffered a season-ending lower body injury just before the playoffs). We have Saros back … so the goaltending looks solid for us,” Crisp explains.

“What we’re looking for is leadership for the youngsters. That’s what you’re looking for all the time. And then the rest depends on the forwards. Can Forsberg and Duchene and (Ryan) Johansen continue the years that they had last year for the team? That’s imperative.”

Following today’s opener, the Predators and Sharks will play a second Global Series game in Prague on Oct. 8 before the Preds fly back to Nashville for their home opener on Oct. 13 against the Dallas Stars at Bridgestone Arena.

While the team’s silver anniversary celebration of its inaugural 1998-99 NHL season is still a year away, Smashville fans hope for a gold rush this season.

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