In the Corners : Predators Preview
The waiting is over and the 2015-2016 NHL campaign is about to begin. For the Nashville Predators many things are the same, but it’s the expectations that have changed at the dawn of this season. Head Coach Peter Laviolette will begin his 2nd year in Nashville with a roster full of players now accustom to his system. There are some subtle changes that could bolster the lineup, but the core is the same and many are hoping they will grow from a year ago. Let’s get down to the different groups of the club and then end with some expectations that I feel are fair for this years Nashville Predators.
DEFENSE: Why not start with is not only the greatest strength of the team but also a top 3 unit in the NHL if not THE top unit. The top pairing of Shea Weber and newly named alternate captain Roman Josi is the only one in the NHL that should yearly have Norris Trophy votes for both players. There is a ground swell of fans who now think the time to trade Shea is approaching, but I don’t fall into that camp just yet. I don’t think analytics tell the full story on the Captain. His value is still higher than a trade return at this point. If this season proves that the Preds can’t make it to the Western Conference Final without a high quality 1st line Center, then I’ll reassess the subject. Lastly comes the 3rd Pair which for me is going to be an X-factor all season. Seth Jones will now have #5 Barret Jackman alongside him. The former St. Louis Blues defenseman has been brought in to secure the stay-home portion of the pairing while letting 3rd year D-man Jones continue to grow into the player he is and further unlock his offensive potential. I think of all the D-men, Seth Jones is the one to likely have a “career-year”. My expectation is for him to find a way to 10 goals and 25 assists and break out into the top 4 D-man we’ve expected. The 3rd pairing is now the familiar combo of Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. If this pair continues to grow in maturity and making the right choices of joining into the offensive zone it could produce a pair of 10-goal defenseman each. What will be interesting to see is if moving this combo to the 3rd pairing opens up more scoring for them. All in all I would imagine the 2nd and 3rd pairings will have very similar ice time once you look at just 5 on 5 TOI. The extras on the blue line will be familiar faces of Victor Bartley and Anthony Bitetto. It is interesting that the Preds will start the year with 8 D-men. This makes me wonder if there is a lingering injury they want to monitor in the first couple of games but we’ll see for ourselves soon enough.
OFFENSE: With many contracts settled the Preds forward corp looks very much like it did last year. This isn’t a bad thing so long as many of them produce at the same levels, or the ones who don’t produce as much have others on the team make up for their shortcomings. Here’s what the initial lines could look like: 1st line will be Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, and James Neal also known as the “Nine” line. With his knack for timely goals I felt early on last year that the Preds had won the Neal-Hornqvist trade. I think this upcoming season will really prove they did. I expect a big year for James and even more #HeroicNealGoals. The question on the line is will Forsberg produce like he did at the first half of last season or the last half? That alone can determine how successful the top line attack will be. On the 2nd line is what I’m calling the re-signed line, consisting of Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, and Craig Smith. The pair of Colin and Craig get to prove their new contracts were worth it. Consistency will be the key to how I view this line. If they are creating chances night in and night out things will be fine. If they have a piece go cold it could be very hard on nights. That’s due to the top 2 lines really being the driving force of the goals produced. The Preds GM David Poile recognized this and went out this offseason to try and find a way to get the 3rd line chipping in more frequently. Well, enter the new 3rd liners in #38 Viktor Arvidsson (played 6 NHL games last year in Nashville), off-season acquisition #11 Cody Hodgson who plays Center, and now a winger Calle Jarnkrok. This line has some real potential and I feel is a better threat going into the year than last year’s Opening Night 3rd line was. Hodgson is on a 1-year contract (aka the Ribeiro) after a poor year with Buffalo caused them to use a buyout on him. If you recall Cody was the 10th overall pick back in the 2008 Entry Draft for the Vancouver Canucks and was the piece swapped with Buffalo in the 2012 Zack Kassian trade. Arvidsson we saw briefly last season and seemed better suited to the pace of the NHL for now than say Kevin Fiala. He spent last year in Milwaukee and totaled 22 goals and 33 assists in 70 games. The play of the 3rd line is what has me believing that the Preds will do so well this season. I’m thinking these guys will find a way to contribute weekly in those games where the opponents are able to key in on the top 2 lines. Finally we have the 4th line. This is where you have 2 familiar faces and a competition from a young rookie. The expectation is that Eric Nystrom will be on the left, the center remains Paul Gaustad, but the right side is where we are likely to finally see #51 Austin Watson suit up for the Preds on a regular basis. The key to the season for this group is health at the center position. The Preds are depending on Ribeiro and Fisher to produce, despite them being 35 years old. If you believe the results from last year will replicate for them then you should expect a special season.
GOALTENDING: This is a simple category in many people’s eyes because Pekka Rinne is great. He’s even ImPEKKAble at times. That is true and so long as he is healthy the reality is Rinne should be a Vezina finalist yet again. The real concern here is if Pekka can’t play in say 65+ games this season. Carter Hutton is an average backup. That’s going to get you average results. My real hope going into training camp was that Juuse Saros would outplay Hutton. Saros is the 4th Round pick from the 2013 Draft. All signs point to one day he being the next starter for Nashville. He will begin the year in Milwaukee with Marek Mazanec. I tell you all these names to just say that I have very real fears about Hutton getting 15+ games this year. I’d love to see Rinne actually place around 58-60, but Hutton makes that a risk considering the Central Division depth. So while the main netminder is fantastic, the depth here is what scares me most going into the season.
Having looked at those groups let’s end on expectations. Going into last year we just couldn’t know how quickly and effectively the Laviolette system would take root. The Preds were a top team almost all season. They stunned many around the League and plenty in Nashville too. So after that you have to grow and get better. Last year just getting back into the playoffs was a goal. Mid-way through the season I think many of us felt 2nd Round was the expectation. So what standard should I hold them to this year? My feeling is they will challenge for the Central crown again. I think this may be the year they finally get the top spot. For me, the expectation is a 2nd Round with the ceiling being a Western Conference Final. That’s the standard I will judge them by this year. It is baffling to me to see how many pundits feel the Preds will not return to the playoffs. I guess their belief is that last year was a fluke. I see no reason to think this team won’t grow from last year. It’s going to be a fun season sure, but I really believe this could a special season we all remember.
Join me this year as my weekly In the Corners column will return. I hope to get one out each Sunday or Monday. In it I will recap the previous week and give a preview of the week to come. It’s got a format that I think is fun to read, but I’m always open to suggestions as to what you the reader would like to see. Use the comments section here on each article to do so. Many of you know I am very active on Twitter throughout the year (I’m not giving up on #WeWantWeber friends), so feel free to follow me @brandon_felder for some hockey talk all year long. I like to use the #PredsItC (Preds In the Corners) to keep track of the year long discussion with you guys and gals. This year I also want to become more involved with Periscope. This is a video feature with Twitter. Years ago when I covered the team using media credentials I would stand outside in the hall during intermissions and engage in great hockey discussions with many of you. I miss that so much and Periscope gives me a chance to interact somewhat live. Be on the look out for that and go ahead and download the Periscope app if you don’t have it yet.
It’s going to be a great year here at PredNeck Nation. I hope you are excited as I am to get this season started. Thanks so much for reading and interacting. Till the next time, take care…