Banner Year for Preds?
A year ago, not many pundits thought the Nashville Predators were a playoff team, let alone a true contender. New coach Peter Laviolette brought his aggressive, up-tempo style of hockey to Music City and changed the identity of the team. For ¾ of the season, the Preds were tops in the NHL. Nobody, not even the most die-hard fan could see that coming. Unfortunately, they struggled down the stretch and lost the division title to St. Louis. That led to a matchup against the playoff juggernaut known as the Chicago Blackhawks in round 1. Although Nashville dominated the majority of play in the series, they went out in 6 games after blowing multiple goal leads and losing twice in OT. So where do they go from here?
Many fans were nervous about what the team’s forwards would look like since all but 5 on the main roster had expiring contracts. However, GM David Poile retained all the key contributors, including 4 of the top 6 forwards with new deals. Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro each signed two-year deals to stay on board and patrol the middle of the ice, while restricted free agents Craig Smith and Colin Wilson were rewarded with long-term contracts. Poile also made sure to keep fellow RFA’s Gabriel Bourque, Calle Jarnkrok and Austin Watson. After buying out the disappointing Viktor Stalberg and letting go of free agents Matt Cullen and Mike Santorelli, Poile made some depth signings to try and bolster the team’s third line.
Fresh from leading the KHL in scoring, Steve Moses came back across the pond to give the NHL a try. Moses signed a very low-risk, high-reward 1-yr deal to see if he can translate his scoring touch on the bigger ice surface to that of the NHL. Camp didn’t go as well as expected for Moses and although he’s starting the season in Milwaukee, he’ll no doubt be one of the first call-ups once the inevitable injuries occur. Another “Poile special” signing was that of former Buffalo Sabres center Cody Hodgson to a 1yr, $1.05M deal. The former 10th overall selection was bought out by Buffalo just 2 years into a 6 yr, $25.5M contract after suffering his worst season as a pro with just 13 points. The Preds hope he rekindles some of the spark he showed two seasons ago when he tallied 20 goals and 44 points. His best season was the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign in which he scored 34 points in just 48 games. Hodgson is penciled in as the team’s 3rd center, moving Jarnkrok to the wing in hopes of getting more production from what was a disappointing season a year ago.
This Predators prospects of forwards is also infused with more talent than ever before. Among them is Kevin Fiala, who many believed was a sure thing to make the roster out of camp. Fiala debuted last season in a home game vs Montreal and was robbed of a goal by Carey Price, but in addition, showed glimpses of what type of stick-handler he is. I look for him to be called up if the 3rd line is failing to contribute once again. By all accounts, youngsters Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomaki, Vladislav Kamenev and Yakov Trenin had impressive camps, so the cupboard that seemed all but empty a couple years ago, is full of potential star-power.
On the back end, Poile (rightfully) let Cody Franson go and signed 13-yr veteran Barret Jackman. Jackman will pair up with Seth Jones to start the season in the hopes of giving the 21-yr old phenom the freedom to roam the ice and show more of his offensive upside. The Preds tried this last year with Anton Volchenkov with lackluster results.
Neal/Ribeiro/Forsberg- The ‘9’ line shaped into the Preds’ top point producing combination last year after Bourque was quickly demoted. Forsberg stepped in and had a Calder Trophy caliber season (NHL, I’m looking at you) leading the team with 26 goals and 63 points. As I stated before last season began, the coup of the off-season was Nashville landing Ribeiro. At his worst, with impending legal and personal problems, he tallied 47 points. He proved me right by notching 62 points, his best season in 3 years. Though age will soon become a factor, he should have very little drop-off, if any this season. Neal by far was the most disappointing of this group. Even though injuries forced him to miss 15 games, Neal had his worst season since his rookie campaign. Despite his underwhelming 37 points, he still tied for the team lead in GWG with 6. I look for a bounce-back year and closer to 30 goals and 60 points from “the real deal”.
Wilson/Fisher/Smith- Colin Wilson finally seemed to make some strides last season. Year after year he has been the fan base’s trade fodder for acquiring a top forward. Laviolette’s open style seemed to help Wilson reach more of his potential. Although he hit a dry spell late in the season (who didn’t?), he came on strong in the playoffs with 5 goals. Despite being eliminated after just 6 games, Wilson led the NHL in playoff PP goals with 4. We didn’t know what to expect from the 34-yr old Fisher after coming back from a torn Achilles. Fisher exceeded all expectations and proved to be the team’s best two-way center and scoring 7 times with the man-advantage. Smith earned his lucrative contract by accumulating more than 20 goals for a second straight year. His performance even got him some time on the 1st line later in the season to shake things up, but I expect nothing less than another 20-25 goal campaign from the honey badger.
Arvidsson/Hodgson/Jarnkrok- Here is the line that was up for grabs during camp. Arvidsson surpassed several others out of camp to stick with the club for now. He proved his scoring touch at the AHL level, leading the Admirals with 55 points a season ago. However, in 6 games with Nashville, he was held without a point. That’s a small sample size with limited minutes to judge, but the fact he beat out Moses and Fiala for this spot says something about his improvement. As I mentioned, Hodgson is coming off an awful season for a terrible team. I suspect that was more a product of his surroundings for a Buffalo team tanking, than his actual skills. “Iron-hook” should also see a boost in his production, being teamed up with far more talented players than Olli Jokinen and an aging Matt Cullen among others. He’s had an excellent camp leading up to now, even seeing 2nd line time. I think he’s motivated to have a breakout year as there are plenty of forwards willing and able to take his spot away. My big concern for this entire group is how they perform if they get trapped in our defensive zone. Look for Laviolette to give them some protection in that aspect with plenty of offensive zone draws.
Nystrom/Gaustad/Watson or Bourque- There’s not much to be said about Nystrom and Gaustad. They know their roles and are willing to shut their opponents’ mouths. If this line contributes 15 goals the whole season, that’s an A+ job on their part. They will almost exclusively be placed in defensive zone face-offs to win possession, get the puck out, and punish d-men on the forecheck. Watson is the newbie on this line as I suspect he’ll see more time on the ice than Bourque. Watson’s play in pre-season has impressed the coaching staff and proved he can kill penalties, even scoring a SH goal on one of the best netminders in the League, Sergei Bobrovsky. All around, these scrappy Americans should be able to provide a momentum boost with their physical play and the occasional throw-down. Sorry Bourque, but I think you’re the odd-man out.
Josi/Weber- Simply put, this is the best defensive pairing in the NHL. Period. Stop. Weber finished 4th in Norris voting and Josi placed 5th. Despite that, those in the analytics crowd think Weber’s play has dropped off. I’ve been watching hockey for 30 years and I don’t see it, but you know…fancy stats. Weber will continue being the most intimidating blue-liner around with his physical prowess and shinguard-splitting slap shot. Josi had his coming out party last year with 15 goals and 55 points, placing him 5th amongst all defensemen. I expect the Preds to utilize what I’m calling the ‘triangle’ of Josi/Weber/Forsberg more on the PP to improve what was an underachieving unit most of the year. Josi is also the best bargain dman in the NHL because not only is he the quarterback of the top PP unit, he was in the top 5 in blocked shots. You don’t see Erik Karlsson doing that. I predicted this pairing would score 100-110 points last season and that’s exactly what they did. Look for more of the same this time around.
Ekholm/Ellis- Ah… the Corsi/Fenwick darlings known as the Preds combo of Ekholm and Ellis. Ellis, as undersized as he is, has the best slapshot on the team outside of Weber. He’s also perfectly equipped for Laviolette’s style that encourages the defense to jump into the play. He has tremendous offensive upside as he proved with 27 points in just 58 games. He’s only going to get better and although he may play protected minutes and start very little in the defensive zone, the guy can bring it (even without his beard). Ekholm also benefitted from the reins being let loose by coach Laviolette and had his most productive season. Ekholm is in a contract year and suspect he will continue improving as he gets even more comfortable with the aggressive style of play.
Jackman/Jones- Speaking of contract years, we come to Seth Jones. He really couldn’t get comfortable last season with any partner, whether it be Volchenkov, Bartley, Ekholm, Bitetto, Josi, etc. I understand fans tend to have a fall guy on defense (see Kevin Klein), but Jones’ production equaled what he did his rookie year. Yes, he had the tendency to try and do too much on his own and turn the puck over, the kid JUST turned 21. As Josi burst onto the national scene last year, so too with Seth Jones this year. As of now, his body of work likely means he’ll get a bridge contract of 2-3 year at $2-3M/yr. In order to avoid that and get his big payday, he will have to be more consistent in his game. We’ve seen flashes of his skillset with the puck, but he needs to be better in his own zone. If he makes that jump, and I suspect he will, look out. Jackman will not show up on the scoreboard much (averages 18 pts per year), but he is here to stabilize the defensive zone and stay at home when Jones rushes up the ice. He also brings a physical presence and another penalty killer on the team to help reduce some of the tougher minutes played by Josi and Weber.
Pekka Rinne- With such an aggressive style of play that Laviolette preaches, there’s bound to be odd-man rushes against you. Those attacks were met with the wall that is Rinne. At the halfway point of the season, Rinne was neck-and-neck with Carey Price for the Vezina and potentially even the Hart Trophy. He was magnificent between the pipes until a sprained knee sidelined him for a few weeks, and he just never seemed to be the same. The biggest question going into this year will be the amount of games Rinne plays. Even while missing time, he started 64 games last year, winning 41 of those contests. He turns 33 next month and has had injury issues the last 3 years, so if the Preds want to prolong his career, they need to put him on a bit of a ‘pitch count’ so to speak. I think he should max out at 60 games during the regular season and try to keep him healthy and rested for a deep playoff run. In order to feel comfortable enough to give him rest, you need a solid back-up.
Carter Hutton- Look, I like Hutton. He’s a nice guy and will be the most entertaining and insightful part of the TV broadcast when he gets his minute or two on camera. But he simply can’t be trusted to start 20-25 games and still have this team in position to win a division. I understand it’s difficult to have any groove as a goalie when you play about once every two weeks, but there are other options available for Poile to consider if Hutton should be sub-par once again. On a side note, his “thanks for having me guys” at the end of every interview is the absolute best, so I’m rooting for him.
Overall, the boys in gold have just about everything you could ask for in a team competing for a Stanley Cup. Last year I said they were a playoff team under Laviolette while many had them near the bottom of the League. Chicago finished 3rd in the division last year even with their full roster, and they’re certainly not better this year. Dallas may have improved on defense and added ANOTHER forward, but their goaltending is questionable. Minnesota was near the bottom of the conference before getting on an unreal hot streak by a life-long average goalie. St. Louis did nothing to improve, while keeping their beleaguered head coach as a lame duck for a second season in a row. Winnipeg doesn’t have the scoring to make a realistic run and Colorado doesn’t have a blue-line worthy of a playoff team. If they’re ever going to put up a banner, it’s going to be this year. They will win the Central Division when the regular season is over. I expect them to get to the Western Conference Finals against Anaheim and at that point, it’ll probably come down to who is healthier. Will the Preds be the first team since the 2001 Avalanche to host the All-Star Game AND win the Stanley Cup in the same year? It’s certainly plausible.