The Milwaukee Admirals and Cincinnati Cyclones didn’t make their respective playoffs. Meanwhile, the Admirals parent club the Nashville Predators concluded their season following an opening round playoff defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks in a tight six-game series.
To get some perspective on the Predators season and some insight on the off-season to come I reached out to Penalty Box Radio’s Justin Bradford to do a Q&A with Admirals Roundtable. I had some Q’s on the mind. He was kind enough to provide some A’s!
Admirals Roundtable: The Nashville Predators were one of the great stories of the regular season with Peter Laviolette in his first year with the franchise and rookie Filip Forsberg leading the team in scoring. With how things came to an end how would you describe this season?
Justin Bradford: The expectations of the team certainly evolved over the course of the season. In October, the organization and the fans had the expectations for the team to make the playoffs. That in itself would have been a success. With how the team played and stood going into 2015 however, the expectation levels began to rise as the team clicked. Many were beginning to see them as potential Stanley Cup contenders. Then, the slump hit. The team backed into the playoffs with home ice advantage, and they were lucky to even have that. Having said all of this, while the team didn’t go any further in the playoffs, you can rate the season as a success simply because the Predators played a completely different style of hockey. It was the kind of hockey that head coach Peter Laviolette wanted to instill in the team. The play was exciting to watch and the team scored goals. There was also the emergence of Filip Forsberg, the rebirth of Mike Ribeiro and Roman Josi coming out of the Weber shadow. Is there extreme disappointment? Of course, but there are a lot of positives for the future that will come off the 2014-15 season.
AR: It seemed like the story of Nashville’s opening round playoff defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks boiled down to being able to maintain a lead. What were some of the problems with the Predators towards the end of the season and are they correctable moving forward?
JB: What we saw at the end of the season were other teams adjusting to the upbeat play of the Predators. Teams began to forecheck much harder and that completely threw off the blueliners that would carry the puck out of the defensive zone. One of the other big problems all season was special teams play. Nashville ranked 25th on the power play and 18th on the penalty kill. Specials teams must click in order to win in the playoffs. While the Predators showed some success on the power play against Chicago, it was the taking of dumb penalties and allowing Chicago to score that really doomed them. Another thing we also saw was a back-to-earth Pekka Rinne near the end of the season and in game one, two and three against Chicago. Rinne was well below average to end the season and one of the keys to Nashville winning the series would have been Rinne stealing some games.
AR: Is it safe to now call the acquisition of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli for Nashville’s 1st Round Pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Brendan Leipsic, and Olli Jokinen a loss for the Predators or do you think it was a move that needed to be made?
JB: I definitely believe it is. General Manager David Poile even admitted in his end of the year press conference that Franson just wasn’t a perfect fit on the blueline. Mike Santorelli was scratched for multiple games as well. In hindsight, yes, the Predators needed to bolster the defense with one more piece and they needed a bottom six forward with penalty kill experience that could also contribute offensively. Neither of these things happened with the two players acquired. I’m not sure which will hurt the organization more in the future, the pick or the loss of Leipsic, but Poile did elude to the fact that he will look into trading at the draft to acquire more picks or possibly move up in the second.
AR: On a brighter topic, just how good is Filip Forsberg and can he improve upon all that he did this season – next season?
JB: Really really freaking good. I think all of us here in Nashville could see just how good the kid was going to be during the rookie tournament back in September. The thing that sets Forsberg apart from other players is that he’s deceptively physical. Some may think he’s small, but he’s not. He uses his body and loves to throw it; especially using his now-Nashville-famous butt check. Forsberg uses his body on the forecheck and he’s turning into quite the two-way forward. He has a ridiculously fast wrist shot and has excellent vision. Can he improve? Absolutely. There were times when his inexperience showed and he turned the puck over when he could have passed the puck, but this certainly shouldn’t be held against him. He’s going to continue to bulk up and only get better.
AR: It’s now sadly off-season mode for the entire Predators organization. Nashville are out. Milwaukee and Cincinnati didn’t even make the playoffs. It seems like there are loads of moves that can be made this off-season. Who do you see leaving or staying on-board?
JB: Let’s start with the UFAs. With how each player and David Poile spoke of the situation, I expect Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro to be back. Matt Cullen will most likely retire, and I highly doubt Franson and Santorelli will return. Anton Volchenkov could come back on a one-year deal. The big questions will be with RFAs. Unless a major trade offer comes in, I think Colin Wilson and Craig Smith will sign deals with Nashville. Taylor Beck and Gabriel Bourque are toss ups because I think the organization is ready to give players in Milwaukee opportunities to make the club. One big question that we all seem to be talking about is what to do with Austin Watson. He’s NHL ready, but is there room for him in Nashville? I would like to see him get that chance, but we will find out soon enough. David Poile said that he will meet with the coaching staff to see what the needs are and what their thoughts are on the team in the coming week, so I wouldn’t expect much on contract for a week or so when it comes to extending.
AR: Nashville pulled off a bit of a shocker at last year’s NHL Draft when they acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh. Do you think there could be another big name trade to come at this year’s draft?
JB: I don’t think there will be a blockbuster trade for Nashville this year, but I do believe there will be a trade. Looking at contract situations with goaltenders in the system, both Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec are RFAs. Could one of those be traded? Possibly. If anything, it would be part of a package deal, I assume. The biggest need for the Predators right now is a true number one center. They need a power forward that can win face offs, dish the puck and score. If Ribeiro could boost his face off percentage, he’d be closer to it, but he just isn’t.
AR: You had the chance to hop on down to Milwaukee this season and get a good look at some prospects up close. Who are a few of the players who impressed you and could any of them make a dent in the NHL next season?
JB: So many to name. The cupboard is much fuller now for the Nashville system. I wrote a scouting report on multiple players following my visit and was very impressed. Right off the bat, I think Kevin Fiala makes the team next season. As stated above, I think other players could replace Beck and Bourque, so I think Miikka Salomäki also has a full time opportunity. Viktor Arvidsson and Colton Sissons may also make that push. Nashville is still chock-full of centers, so it may be more difficult for Sissons, although I would love to see him in Nashville on the third line. Any way you look at it, there is a lot of offensive potential in the depth of the organization now. On the other hand, I don’t see any defenders ready for the full time role with the big club yet. With that being said, I’d like to see the Predators use some of their higher picks on defensemen. While there are some solid defenders in Milwaukee, the organization needs depth for when you look at four to five years from now.
AR: What players should Milwaukee fans get excited about seeing either next season or down the road?
JB: If Juuse Saros does indeed come to North America next season, get ready. He’s going to excite the fans with his play in the crease. I think most are seeing him as the potential replacement for Pekka Rinne. I also think that Arvidsson will continue to excite the fans because he loves to shoot the puck, from anywhere. In his few games with Nashville and in the game I experienced in Milwaukee, Arvidsson isn’t afraid to create offense, and that’s something the organization has needed.
AR: As one of the younger teams in the AHL this past season I am expecting the Admirals to rebound next season. Do you think the same could be said of the Predators in 2015-16?
JB: Barring major injuries, I expect the Predators to finish second or third in the division, all things being equal now. The more important thing now is that the players now really know what to expect out of Peter Laviolette’s system, and I think they can prepare and train better in the off season. Hopefully this helps reduce the tired legs we saw late in the season. Defensively, we saw Roman Josi shine bright this season. Added to that, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm really excelled as high end defensemen as they also saw plenty of minutes against some of the league’s best. Seth Jones continued to mature and his point production didn’t slip a bit. The biggest thing the Predators will have to focus on is taking the experience from the end of the season and the playoffs and apply it to being able to finish games. The young players are another year older, and the only way to get more experience is to keep playing.
* * *
Cheers to Justin Bradford for taking the time to answer these questions. If you haven’t already, check out Penalty Box Radio for its write-ups and especially its fantastic radio show. You can find Penalty Box Radio on Twiter and Facebook as well as follow along with Justin Bradford on his personal Twitter account where you can send him tweets with #wifehim. Just trust me on that hashtag. It makes sense.
What are your answers to the questions above? How busy will this off-season be for both the Nashville Predators and Milwaukee Admirals? Will the Predators be building from within or making some trades using some of the talent pool currently in Milwaukee?