A few hearty souls showed Wednesday morning to view an open skate at Bridgestone Arena as the Nashville Predators got reacquainted with their old digs.
Come Saturday against Central Division rival Columbus, the Predators will christen a new season, albeit an abbreviated one of 48 games, including 24 at home. The opener is already a sell-out, and Monday’s 5 p.m. home matinee against St. Louis is headed that way, too.
Following those home games, the Predators head out on the road for seven games, making eight of their first 11 contests played away from the friendly confines of lower Broad.
The fast and furious singular week of training camp that leads to Saturday’s opener hasn’t afforded the Predators the opportunity to work out on the “real” home ice. They had been skating and will return today and Friday to their practice facility at Centennial Sportsplex for final tuneups, thanks in large part in the latter part of the week to a Justin Beiber concert at Bridgestone Arena Friday night.
Oh, fun. But we digress.
From the moment Predators officials could talk officially about the 113-day lockout that nearly derailed an entire season, there has been a sincere apologetic tone for what has – or, better yet, -- hasn’t transpired, and that’s a full season of hockey.
The battle over a new collective bargaining agreement between NHL owners and the league’s players was a few pay grades above the Predators. But with the new deal, they were beneficiaries in the end of a favorable 10-year collective bargaining agreement that guarantees eight years of hockey without worrying about such labor strife.
Instead of a lockout, the Predators were eager this season to follow up on the continuing success that last season provided. A first-round series playoff victory over Detroit moved the Predators into the second round of the playoffs, and ultimately helped ease the pain of falling disappointingly to upstart Phoenix in the second round.
Even with the departure of star defenseman Ryan Suter via free agency to Minnesota, the Predators return a core that features even bigger star defenseman Shea Weber, whose $110-million contract offer from Philadelphia through restricted free agency was matched by the Predators.
It not only showed the Predators’ faithful, but those around the hockey world as well, that the Predators had long moved past status of franchise in trouble to one not afraid to mix it up with the big boys. Heck, the Predators were willing to match Suter’s $98 million deal with Minnesota and sign Weber as well.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne is one of the best in the world. He’s paid that way, too. The compressed schedule will test all players, but especially goalies, making the return of veteran Chris Mason as backup even more key.
Sure, the defense will miss Suter, especially on power plays and penalty kills. But there is quality depth along the blue line with veterans Weber, Kevin Klein and Hal Gill mixing with up-and-comers Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi, who will pair with Weber in Suter’s place.
Per usual, the Predators’ offense won’t blow you away, but it does feature seasoned producers in Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Paul Gaustad and Patric Hornqvist.
The strength of the team, though, is in the steadiness of leadership from general manager David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz, the only persons to hold those positions with the Nashville Predators.
That stability in leadership and coaching, coupled with minimal roster change (defenseman Scott Hannan and Mason were the only free agent additions), should be an advantage for the Predators heading into a season with little training camp, no exhibition preseason games and the sprint to the playoffs the compressed schedule provides.
Yes, it’s good to have hockey back. After the Titans’ dismal season, this market is anxious for its other top professional team to keep on keeping on.
Greg Pogue is host of the The First Quarter fueled by Wendy’s on 102.5-FM The Game ESPN Radio Nashville. E-mail him at GregPogue@1025thegame.com.
Photo: Shea Weber/Getty Images