By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com
While the Anaheim Ducks are the sexy pick to represent the Western Conference in the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, the Nashville Predators are the thinking man's pick. Slowly, quietly, GM David Poile has built a deep, powerful squad in the Music City. Never mind last year's first-round exit versus San Jose -- the Predators were without No. 1 netminder Tomas Vokoun, whose season was cut short with a mysterious blood clotting condition. Vokoun has enjoyed a complete recovery and the Predators have made key additions in the form of Jason Arnott, Josef Vasicek and J.P. Dumont that should give them a potent offense to go along with a deep blue line. Perhaps the most troubling question dogging the Predators is whether enough people, especially people with money, will care as the team makes its first serious bid for a Stanley Cup.
Offense: The Predators' top priority was to get bigger and better down the middle, and they did that by signing Arnott. The free agent is coming off a terrific season in Dallas, where he had 76 points, one behind team leader and captain Mike Modano. Sure, there are questions about Arnott's personality and whether he's too much of a "me" guy. But with leaders like Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan around, Arnott should thrive. Vasicek was plagued by injury most of last season and played in just 23 games. But he's big (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and has pretty good skills. He'll certainly get a chance to showcase those skills playing with wingers like Kariya, Sullivan and Dumont, who was cut loose by the Sabres after an arbitrator figured he was worth $2.9 million. Dumont missed the first third of last season with an abdominal injury, but returned to score 20 goals in 54 games and then added 14 postseason points in 18 games.
Defense: It might have been helpful from a veteran-presence standpoint if the Predators had managed to re-sign Brendan Witt, whom they acquired at the trade deadline for a first-round pick from Washington. But Witt signed with the Islanders and the Predators will make do with a youthful albeit highly skilled group. There will be questions about size and physicality because many of Nashville's bigger players have little experience. But Shea Weber (6-foot-3, 213 pounds), Dan Hamhuis (6-foot-1, 200), Kevin Klein (6-foot-1, 195) and Ryan Suter (6-foot-1, 196) all have bright futures ahead of them. If there is a learning curve, expect it to be a short one with the team hitting its stride by Christmas. It helps that Nashville plays in the league's weakest division -- learning is a lot easier against teams like Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus.
Goaltending: Nothing helps a young defensive corps develop like the play of a goaltender of Vokoun's caliber. Provided he stays healthy, it will be a surprise if the Czech native is not a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. He was 36-18-7 with a .919 save percentage until he was knocked out of the lineup during the last month of last season. Those numbers should improve this season because the team is better. Chris Mason was an outstanding sub for Vokoun, and that, in part, was why the Preds offered him another contract instead of letting him go to free agency. Pekka Rinne is still a year or two away.
Coaching: Barry Trotz is the only coach the Predators have known, and logic suggests that unless the Predators enjoy a deep run in the playoffs (or barring some other kind of extenuating circumstance), there will be pressure to make a coaching change. Not that Trotz is the kind of guy who lets such things bother him. Many critics liked Nashville's chances last year and Trotz used that as a way to up the ante for his players. They responded with a franchise-best 106 points. That ante will be upped again this season and Trotz, with his no-nonsense style, seems perfectly suited for a team ready to make a jump.WHERE THEY'LL FINISH1st Riding an explosive offense, great goaltending and an emerging defense, the Nashville Predators will end the Detroit Red Wings' reign atop the Central Division and finish with the top seed in the Western Conference.BUZZ FACTORStock even. Last spring, the Preds made the unfortunate decision to threaten to black out home playoff games in the first round unless the games were sellouts. The move backfired. That kind of publicity may be far more debilitating than a Vokoun injury.
FANTASY AND THE FUTURE TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS The Predators won't surprise anyone this season (even though they're actually a better team this time around), both in the NHL and in fantasy. Tomas Vokoun is in perhaps the best fantasy situation of any goalie, making him a solid No. 1 option. Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan and Jason Arnott are all top-100 fantasy picks, if not better, and Martin Erat and Scott Hartnett aren't far off, either. Plus, Nashville has two of the more underappreciated offensive defensemen in the game in Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky. There's tons of depth here. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Predators:
1. Alexander Radulov, 20, RW, Quebec (QMJHL)
Statline: 62 GP, 61 G, 91 A, 101 PIM
2. Ryan Parent, 19, D, Guelph (OHL)
Statline: 60 GP, 4 G, 17 A, 122 PIM
3. Brian Finley, 25, G, Milwaukee (AHL)
Statline: 18-7-2 record, 2.70 GAA, .908 SV%
4. Kevin Klein, 22, D, Milwaukee (AHL)
Statline: 76 GP, 10 G, 32 A, 31 PIM
5. Konstantin Glazachev, 21, LW, Yaroslavl
Statline: 29 GP, 7 G, 4 A, 6 PIM
• Subscribe to The Hockey News
Nashville Predators When We Last Saw Them ... Record 49-25-8 (106 points) Division Finished second in Central Conference Finished fourth in West Playoffs Lost 4-1 to San Jose in first round Who To Watch Now ... Center: Jason Arnott This will be Arnott's chance to prove he's not just a big, talented creature down the middle, but a leader. He's got the tools for it, now does he have the head and the heart for it? Winger: Steve Sullivan The diminutive native of Timmins, Ontario, is one of the most underrated players in the league. A perpetual point-a-game player, not having Sullivan at full strength in the playoffs hurt the team. Defense: Dan Hamhuis Quiet and unassuming, Hamhuis boasts a terrific blend of rock-hard toughness and above-average offensive smarts. A Norris Trophy may be in the cards somewhere down the road for Hamhuis, who signed late in the going but shouldn't miss a beat. Goalie: Tomas Vokoun His recovery from the blood clotting ailment that kept him out of action down the stretch and through the Preds' playoff loss to San Jose appears to be a non-issue. It better not be an issue. Without Vokoun, the Preds are in the middle of the pack, maybe even below the playoff bubble. With him, they could be Cup-bound. Key Moves When a team is getting pushed around down the middle and brings in Arnott and Vasicek, it has a GM who's in tune with his team's needs. Throw in a 25- to 30-goal scorer in Dumont and that's a job well done for David Poile. Nashville won't miss the overrated Witt as much as people think. The Preds will miss Yanic Perreault, who remains the game's best faceoff man and who posted 57 points in 69 games. SportsNation Rating the Predators The Nashvlle Predators finished fourth in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Predators in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!