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Hockey notes

For Predators, time to pounce

Team hopes patience will be rewarded now

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

Let the record show that constructing a core around young defensemen can take half a decade.

In 2002, Nashville Predators management (general manager David Poile, assistant GM Ray Shero, and director of player personnel Paul Fenton), with input from amateur scouts, recognized a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The 2003 draft projected to be one of the deepest ever, prompting Nashville to stockpile 13 picks.

"We made a game plan to try and get a core group of defensemen that could go out and play," said Fenton, the ex-Boston University Terrier who is now Poile's assistant. "In essence, we really thought we had five defensemen we were sure could play, then we took wild swings at guys who might pan out. That was our philosophy going in - shore up our defense, hopefully, for the next 10 years."

In 2008-09, Fenton and the Predators are hoping the core of their 2003 draft - defensemen Ryan Suter (drafted seventh overall), Kevin Klein (No. 37), Shea Weber (No. 49), and Alexander Sulzer (No. 92) - can push Nashville, a first-round playoff loser four years running, to a deep postseason run.

Before the 2004-05 lockout, Poile and his staff emphasized the characteristics that Detroit mastered en route to its latest Stanley Cup: young, mobile, puck-moving defensemen; skilled forwards; and inexpensive goaltending. For the upstart Predators, bound by market limitations, it was crucial that their vision came true.

Suter, the first defenseman selected in 2003, was always considered a blue-chipper. Not so for Weber, taken four slots after the Bruins swiped Patrice Bergeron. During his draft year, Weber didn't play when Kelowna, his Western Hockey League club, advanced to the Memorial Cup finals.

"They were going with a veteran crew," said Fenton of Kelowna. "People thought, 'Aw, he didn't play in the Memorial Cup finals.' But he just wasn't getting ice time. From a strategy standpoint, our staff gets great marks to be able to recognize that."

On June 23, Weber (6-14 -20 in 54 games in 2007-08) signed a three-year contract extension worth $4.5 million annually. A week earlier, Nashville had locked up Suter with a four-year, $14 million deal. The emergence of Weber and Suter, combined with the presence of 25-year-old Dan Hamhuis (4-23 -27 in 80 games last season) and the promise of Klein (re-signed to a two-year, $1.3 million contract Wednesday), Sulzer (7-25 -32 in 61 games last season for Milwaukee, Nashville's AHL club), and Ville Koistinen (only 48 games for Nashville last season) allowed the Predators to ship 30-year-old Marek Zidlicky to Minnesota for forward Ryan Jones and a 2009 second-round pick.

The D-corps will play in front of goalies Dan Ellis, who swiped the top job from Chris Mason last season, and Pekka Rinne, who will earn a little more than $2 million combined.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pound Jones, who will compete for a job in camp, could add beef to a skilled attack with four 20-goal scorers in 2007-08: J.P. Dumont, Jason Arnott, Alexander Radulov, and Martin Erat.

"With Detroit last year, everything was up, out, and down the other end by putting the puck in the hands of their skill forwards," Fenton said. "I think we're very similar to them in the way our defense is built and the way our forwards are. We're just a younger version. We don't have defensemen who are wrap-it-around-the-wall types of defensemen. We're very confident our guys are going to mature and get that much better."

The wild card is Radulov, in the middle of a tug of war between Nashville and Salavat Yulayev Ufa of Russia's Continental Hockey League. Radulov has one year remaining on his Nashville contract, which could void his deal with Ufa. Radulov, 22, broke out with a 26-32 -58 season in 81 games in 2007-08.

"Obviously, we're waiting for the NHL to make a decision on the Radulov situation," Fenton said. "We think he's under our control and under contract. We expect him to be back. If that's the case, our team is basically in place. If not, we do have some pretty good players to compete for that position."

Philosophical differences?
More of the same from Islanders

On Monday, Islanders general manager Garth Snow fired Ted Nolan with a year remaining on the coach's contract, citing philosophical differences. A top candidate to replace Nolan is ex-Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, who once coached Cornwall (AHL) when Snow played there.

The timing of the move was unusual, given that most terminations occur earlier during the offseason to give the team the deepest pool of applicants and the ex-coach an opportunity to find employment elsewhere.

"We talked over the weekend on another issue," said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin, a former Islanders assistant who coached at the University of Maine, Snow's alma mater. "He never brought anything up. I was tiling a bathroom, so we didn't talk that long. It surprised the crap out of me. I'd heard all the stories about friction there, not through Garth. It surprised me, but it doesn't surprise me in the same sense."

Cronin understands how critical it is for a GM and coach to share the same vision. In 2003-04, his first year as coach in Bridgeport, the Islanders' AHL affiliate, Cronin led the PlanetUSA squad in the All-Star Game. At the time, Mike Milbury was in charge of all things Islanders.

"I remember asking Mike, 'What are we? What are we doing? Are we a big, strong, physical team? Are we quick?' He got all [upset] at me, thinking I was questioning his direction. I was trying to prepare guys for the NHL and wanted to know what identity we were trying to replicate down here."

Milbury's reaction: classic Mike.

"He threw a napkin at me and told me to shut up," Cronin said with a laugh. "Something about, 'You're the All-Star coach in the AHL so you think you know everything.' Mike was all about balance. I know that isn't a real sexy word. But he wanted bigger defensemen with mobility and forwards for a fast-paced game, forwards that relied on possession."

Speak up

"We find it imperative to build from the draft. In the first couple rounds nowadays, a small-market team has to turn them out. We have to be better than anybody else and we have to be right in order to be successful."

Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton, on the importance of small-market clubs, such as the Predators, drafting well.

The list

Bruins vice president Cam Neely is one of a group of recently retired NHL stars working in hockey operations departments around the league. The following is an All-Star lineup of current executives:

LW Brett Hull (co-GM, Dallas). Moves to the off wing to open up for one-timer.

C Steve Yzerman (vice president, Detroit). Just noses past Carolina assistant GM Ron Francis.

RW Neely. Can settle all front-office fights.

D Al MacInnis (vice president of hockey operations, St. Louis). Straight shooter.

D Don Sweeney (director of hockey operations and player development, Boston). Is in better shape than most current NHLers.

G Garth Snow (GM, New York Islanders). Although Wrentham's finest is too busy looking for a new coach to strap on the pads.

By the numbers

In 2008-09, the Bruins will commit $5.433 million in cap money to their two goaltenders (Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez), the fifth-highest total among Eastern Conference teams. In contrast, Montreal will carry a goaltending cap number of $2.975 million for Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, the lowest in the conference. Here are the top three goaltending cap numbers in the East:

$7.6 million
New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist, Stephen Valiquette).

$6.25 million
Florida (Tomas Vokoun, Craig Anderson).

$5.887 million
New Jersey (Martin Brodeur, Kevin Weekes).

Etc.

Bear on a bike: Earlier this month, Don Sweeney oversaw the Bruins' development camp. But Sweeney also kept tabs on the Tour de France. "Those guys are in scary bike shape," Sweeney wrote in an e-mail. "Not sure I would like the descent part at 50 m.p.h." Sweeney, 15-20 pounds lighter than during his playing days, has ridden with a group out of Lynnfield. For his four-times-a-week rides, Sweeney pilots a Trek Madone (longest this year was 70 miles). Sweeney also competes in sprint triathlons (half-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike, 3.1-mile run), riding a Cervelo P3. "Heading in the direction of half ironman in August," Sweeney wrote. "Lots of motivation when guys are flying past you to serve up a slice of humble pie!" Next month, Sweeney will ride on the Bruins' team in the 192-mile Pan-Mass Challenge.

Net investment: Marc-Andre Fleury's new deal has him minding the Pittsburgh goal through 2015, making his contract the second longest among goalies behind the Islanders' Rick DiPietro. One young puckstopper possibly in line for a similar extension, if he continues his development, is Montreal's Carey Price. Given how fickle goalies can be, however, long-term signings are risky. "I wouldn't have given him seven years," one NHL assistant coach said of Fleury.

Mac attack: The Bruins made a bid to retain the services of pugilist Steve MacIntyre after July 1, but the mammoth forward (6 feet 5 inches, 265 pounds) with 213 penalty minutes on his 2007-08 Providence résumé signed a two-year contract with Florida. While MacIntyre might end up with Rochester, Florida's AHL affiliate, the winger could challenge veteran heavyweight Wade Belak for the role of enforcer in Panthers' training camp. "They really came after him hard and consistently," Jay Fee, MacIntyre's agent, said of the Panthers. "They traded for Belak, but he's rehabbing from a shoulder operation. In Mac, they see a guy who can play that heavy-hitter role and be a decent player on the fourth line up and down the wing." MacIntyre, who worked out with Boston skating coach Paul Vincent this summer, wants to arrive at camp weighing 250 pounds, making himself leaner for possible NHL duty. "They certainly wanted to re-sign him," Fee said of the Bruins. "We had probably 11 teams interested in his services. I think what it came down to was evaluating the role of enforcer and where the opportunities were. Boston did a great job of developing Steve last year in Providence, with Paul Vincent working on his skating and [Providence coach Scott] Gordon and [director of player development Don] Sweeney being great and supportive. But with [Jeremy] Reich and [Shawn] Thornton on the fourth line here, he was looking for an opportunity to play more in the NHL than AHL." Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning said he's talking to several players about filling MacIntyre’s role in Providence in 2008-09.

Older but wiser: On its surface, the Bruins made a nontraditional move by signing Jeff Penner, a relative graybeard (20-year-old freshman at Alaska-Fairbanks), after the defenseman spent but one year in college. Penner got a late start on school because he spent two years playing for Dauphin of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Sweeney, however, believes more players will take similar routes — playing juniors, then starting in school as 20- and 21-year-olds and perhaps making themselves more attractive to pro teams. "I think we'll start seeing it more and more," said Sweeney of NHL clubs signing older undrafted collegians. One of the most successful cases is BU defenseman Matt Gilroy, who played two years of juniors before becoming a Terrier. Gilroy, who turns 24 today, will not be bound to the NHL's entry-level system when he turns pro, freeing him to seek his own terms for his first contract.

Calling Wilson: No word yet on whether forward Colin Wilson, selected seventh overall by Nashville in last month's draft, will return to BU for his sophomore season. "Waiting to hear," Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton wrote in an e-mail. "Still no confirmation." As a freshman, Wilson had 12 goals and 23 assists in 37 games for coach Jack Parker. One of the questions surrounding the 6-1, 215-pound Wilson is whether he projects as a top-six forward in the pros. "He can definitely be a third-line guy, with his puck possession and how he grinds against the wall," said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. "Does he have that skill set to be a top-two-line guy? I think he does."

Greening the Island: Whoever ends up behind the Islanders' bench in 2008-09, it’s a guarantee he will be leading more youngsters on the big league roster. The top two candidates for full-time promotion are forwards Jeff Tambellini (38-38—76) and ex-Bruin Ben Walter (20-46—66), the top two scorers for Bridgeport, New York’s AHL team, in 2007-08. Walter, a former UMass-Lowell star who accepted his qualifying offer last week, has proven to be a playmaking AHL centerman who might add some pop if given a role other than fourth-line duty. "With Ben, he needs an opportunity to skate on the first three lines," said Fee, Walter's agent. "That comes with coaching — giving skill guys an opportunity to perform in skill situations. You so often see kids called up and put in a fourth-line checking role. That's not his strength. He'll do it and do it effectively. But for Ben, if you look at his numbers in the American League, they’re consistently excellent. It's a question of pushing himself in there and taking a job, or waiting for a break. I fully expect him to be an NHL player."

Back for more: After participating in the Bruins’ weeklong development camp, prospects Zach Hamill and Matt Marquardt remained in town for a week for more on-ice work and weight-room agony under the watch of strength and conditioning coach John Whitesides. Hamill is expected to be Providence’s No. 1 center in 2008-09. Marquardt, acquired from Columbus for defenseman Jonathan Sigalet, is a shoot-first winger who is projected to be a top-six forward in Providence. But if Marquardt keeps up his conditioning, he could turn into a steal because of his off-the-charts shot.

Loose pucks: Brutal road stretch for the Bruins, combining the preseason and the first month of the regular season. During the preseason, they'll use Halifax, Nova Scotia, as base camp for four nights, and also perform team-building exercises in Stowe, Vt., for three nights. That precedes October, when the Bruins play a league-high eight road games . . . Chris Aldrich, former assistant equipment manager in Boston, is moving to the hockey hotbed of Des Moines, the new home of the Iowa Chops, Anaheim's first-year AHL team. The team relocated from Portland, Maine, now home to Buffalo's AHL club (formerly the Rochester Americans) . . . One of the reasons the Rangers and Lightning were tabbed to open the 2008-09 season with back-to-backs in Prague was the heavy Czech influence on the Blueshirts' roster, starting with Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka. This summer, Jagr signed with Avangard Omsk of Russia's Continental Hockey League, while Straka bolted Broadway for HC Lasselsberger Plzen of the Czech Extraliga ... While activity has calmed down on the free agent market, additional pieces are expected to fall into place once Mats Sundin makes a decision on his future. Sundin, still debating whether to return in 2008-09, could land in Montreal, Vancouver, or New York if he decides on a final go-around. ‘‘There will be a ripple effect,’’ said one club executive ... Neither Rochester nor Portland of the AHL has decided on coaches for 2008-09. Florida, Rochester’s parent club, has asked permission of Buffalo to interview Randy Cunneyworth, the Americans’ most recent coach. Kevin Dineen, who coached Portland to a second-round upset of Providence in the playoffs, hasn't decided whether to move to Iowa, the team’s new home. Both Cunneyworth and Dineen, along with Providence’s Gordon, are considered future NHL material ... The East Coast premiere of "Pond Hockey" is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Aug. 7 at Columbus Theatre in Providence as part of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. The documentary, which explores the game outdoors, features appearances by P.J. Axelsson and author Jack Falla, who has a rink in his Natick backyard. For more information, visit pondhockeymovie.com.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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