Flames vs. Predators: Five Questions with On the Forecheck

Frederick Breedon

The Flames will try to keep the wins (or at least goals) rolling against the Predators. Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck checks in for some background info on tonight's opponent.

1. Gotta ask - how's our old friend Eric Nystrom doing?

Nystrom has fit in extremely well with the culture of the Preds - he's a hard-working, scrappy player with an engaging personality, who isn't shy about throwing a hit or dropping the gloves to stick up for his teammates. Unfortunately, the downside is that he also fits in with Nashville's low-scoring, low-skill tradition as well (it's been exactly one month since he recorded a point). He has just eight points in 44 games and there's little reason to believe that an increase in scoring is just around the corner. In short, he's a fun guy to have on the team, but I don't think his signing (to a 4-year, $10 million contract) has helped address Nashville's needs.

2. The Filip Forsberg trade is looking like a steal for you guys. He's played in the NHL this season, was named the MVP of the World Juniors, and looks like he's putting up good numbers in the AHL. Where do you see him in the Predators organization going forward?

That touches on a couple of hot-button issues among the Predators fan base right now. First, should Forsberg play in a featured role at the AHL level for the rest of this season and continue acclimating to the North American game, or jump right into the deep waters of the NHL? Hopefully as soon as this fall he'll take a right wing spot on one of the top two lines along with Patric Hornqvist, but Barry Trotz hasn't seemed comfortable enough with Forsberg's all-around game at this point to trust him with that responsibility at the present time.

Secondly, there's that question of earning Trotz's trust, and that's something which has proved a struggle for offensively-oriented young forwards here in Nashville over the years, from Alexander Radulov a while back to Colin Wilson and Craig Smith today. Many critics believe that Trotz's system grinds the creativity out of young scorers over time, and given that only one homegrown talent has reached the 30-goal mark as a Predator (Patric Hornqvist), that's a charge which may have some merit. Fans are eager to see a game-breaking talent among the forward ranks, but they may be disappointed not to see Forsberg play regularly at the NHL level any time soon.

3. Seth Jones fell to fourth in the draft, leaving Nashville with one of the highest regarded defenceman, but having them miss out on the big three offensive prospects. Are the Preds hurting from not getting one of MacKinnon, Barkov, Drouin, or even Nichushkin, or has Jones' play made him the best choice?

By all appearances Jones has what it takes to be a cornerstone NHL defenseman quite soon, which is remarkable given how patient the Predators usually are with developing blueliners. While Nashville also needs help up front, the maturation of Jones could help address those concerns via trade - for example, David Poile could conceivably trade either Kevin Klein or Ryan Ellis in exchange for the help which isn't available in the prospect pipeline, while also freeing up ice time on the right side that Jones could take on. Nashville has let too many defensemen get away without much in return (Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter) to allow that to happen again.

In the meantime, Jones has been one of the bright spots of the season for Preds fans, and while it's fun to get behind a goal-scorer, I don't think there are any regrets about Nashville ending up with him.

4. Carrying on with that train of thought - the Predators have a young defence this year with three 23 year olds, plus Jones. Is the youth and inexperience noticeable this season? Do you expect the team to have a strong defence core for the next several years?

Yes, the youth has had its moments where guys get caught watching the puck, allowing an opponent to get a prime scoring chance due to a split-second lapse in judgment (see Corey Perry's goal from last Thursday night for a perfect example), and they aren't asserting themselves physically very often, which makes them vulnerable to teams which commit to driving the net. How each of these guys matures into playing a steadier game in the defensive zone will determine who stays and who goes over the next few seasons.

That said, the puck-moving and -carrying abilities of this bunch are remarkable, and there's every reason to believe that the blueline will be a competitive strength for Nashville for the foreseeable future.

5. Pekka Rinne is one of the Preds' most recognizable players, but he's been sidelined most of the season with an E. coli infection. Who's been filling in for him in net, and how have they fared? Is there a timetable for Rinne's return, and are the Predators eager for him to come back?

Carter Hutton was signed on the first day of free agency to back up Pekka, a prospect out of Chicago's system with one game of NHL experience coming into the season. Once Rinne went on Injured Reserve the Preds tried to let Hutton run with the job, but failed to make a great impression, so the team called up Marek Mazanec, a 6th-round draft pick from 2012 who was expected to be the AHL backup this season. Instead, Mazanec got off to a strong start (he earned Rookie of the Month honors in November), before running into his share of issues.

All in all, Hutton & Mazanec aren't ready for full-time NHL duty right now, and sub-par goaltending has been one of the key factors in the Preds' disappointing season. While goaltending coach Mitch Korn has worked wonders previously, the gamble this summer on Hutton (which Korn had a critical part in) has turned out to be a bust, and ultimate responsibility there has to rest with David Poile, who has patiently watched this situation unfold. Pekka Rinne was recently cleared to begin weight-bearing exercises and start getting himself back into game shape, but after months of inactivity it will be a while before we see him in a game, even assuming there are no further setbacks. As far as most fans are concerned, it's going to be too late for him to save the season, so simply making sure he gets back to 100% is the priority.

Thanks to Dirk for his answers and Preds knowledge! Be sure to visit On the Forecheck for more information on the Predators as they get set to host the Flames tonight.

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