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Aaron Portzline v. Cell Block 303… FIGHT!

For those of you who read Aaron Portzline’s article in the Columbus Dispatch yesterday, you probably noticed that he predicted the Nashville Predators would finish dead last in the Central Division this upcoming season.

Look, Aaron… you were one of our first guests on The 303:30 podcast, we follow you on Twitter because you’re extremely knowledgable and we enjoy your writing style tremendously…

…but we respectfully disagree.

While we’ll admit that the Central Division got more balanced with the vast improvement (not to mention the “go for broke” attitude) of the Chicago Blackhawks on July 1, the foresight that Nashville didn’t get any better is not entirely accurate.

You’ve just got to read between the lines a little.

Let’s start with the forward position. The resigning of Steve Sullivan was a monsterous move by this organization because, when healthy, he’s our only pure dynamic player that can change the game on any shift. Letting him go elsewhere would ensure that our team would look exactly like the basement team from October 2008 to January 8, 2009. The Predators team that went 18-20-3 while near the bottom of the Western Conference before his miraculous return. Once Sully returned, the Preds posted a 22-14-5 record to close out the season, missing the playoffs by a single game.

But that’s not the most telling stat.

An argument could be made that Sullivan naturally had to find his legs again (and his stats would suggest that) having posted only 5 points in his first 16 games. But once he got his legs under him, he went on a tear, posting 27 points in his final 25 games. That point-per-game average after missing nearly two years of action is what has Preds fans so excited. If he can stay healthy, just think of what he can do in a full season. The same team (with only one significant subtraction in Greg Zanon) will be on the ice with more confidence, more speed and more playmaking ability. Not to mention the younger guys will have the experience.

And the word “experience” brings us to goaltender Pekka Rinne. And yes, as Predators fans, we know all too well that the starting goaltender in October might not be the starting goaltender in November. But the consensus among Pred Nation is that Rinne is the real deal. He showed absolute consistency through most of the season, he literally kept Nashville in games single-handedly and he even forced the local news shows to show hockey thanks to his nightly highlight reel saves. In a season where he absolutely should’ve been nominated for the Calder Trophy but was snubbed, Rinne gave Nashville a fighting chance in every game. And with that experience under his belt, things really look positive between the pipes this upcoming year.

Add to those arguments that we’re not completely sold on Columbus. Sure they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and sure they’ve got a Stanley Cup winning coach (if you believe that Brett Hull’s “winning” goal in 1999 was actually a goal) and sure you have one of the brightest young stars in the league in Rick Nash. We’re not denying any of those things. What we do have an issue with is goaltender Steve Mason.

Yes, he won the Rookie of the Year, we know. But we also know that he had a defensive system in front of him which rarely required him to win games on his own. Counting the playoffs, he only managed to post two wins in his final 12 games which suggests he hit a wall late in the season. Additionally, when faced against the Red Wings in the playoffs, he found himself with an inflated 4.26 GAA, having allowed at least 3 goals in every game. That’s a far cry from the 2.29 he put up in the regular season.

I mean, on The 303:30 you said it yourself: “This is a good system for a goaltender to be in… In three or four of (Mason’s) shutouts, he’s made 24 or 25 saves and you can’t remember too many that were awesome. He’s had to be solid but not spectacular.”

We don’t mean to single out Mason, but everyone knows you can’t win in this league without goaltending. The Bruins had a guy named Blaine Lacher in 1995 who everyone in Boston thought was going to be the next Andy Moog. He never lasted a full season after his rookie campaign. The Capitals had a guy named Jim Carey who even won the Vezina Trophy in 1996 but became a journeyman NHL goaltender after that sophomore season.

Obviously there are plenty of examples that support Mason could be the next big thing (Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek) but, let’s be honest, those guys are the exception to the rule. And hey, Rinne could end up in that class too, but we see one major difference that seperates both him and Mason: Mason showed that he could be average on any given night while Rinne showed he can be brilliant on any given night.

All that being said, we agree with the Red Wings and the Blackhawks battling it out for division supremacy. We also agree that St. Louis will be markedly better if Paul Kariya can stay healthy and Chris Mason continues his stellar play. With the Blues’ promising youth movement (T.J. Oshie, Brad Boyes, Erik Johnson), St. Louis looks to a playoff-calibur team for years to come; a true testament to the job John Davidson has done there.

So that leaves Columbus and Nashville fighting it out for the 4th spot in the Central and, naturally, we think Nashville will easily take the 4th position, if not the 3rd position this upcoming season.

So our prediction – if the season were to start today – would be (in order): Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Columbus.

Sorry Columbus. You might have to wait yet another year to win a playoff game.