The Nashville Predators have been absent in the playoffs the past two years. While the team struggled to win games, it did not help being part of the most competitive division in the NHL. The Central Division is as strong as ever with major acquisitions over the summer. Predators general manager David Poile called this summer an “arms race” in the Central, and rightly so after the Dallas Stars signed Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza; the St. Louis Blues added Paul Stastny, Carl Gunnarsson and Chris Butler; the Chicago Blackhawks nabbed Brad Richards; and the Colorado Avalanche acquired Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla to account for the loss of Stastny.
Meanwhile, the Predators look to be a better team with a new head coach, healthy goaltender and a top-goal scorer in James Neal. A playoff appearance will be tough for the Predators in a difficult division, but it will happen. Below are four reasons why.
1. Healthy Rinne
Nashville went 51 games without Pekka Rinne due to a second hip surgery to remove an E. Coli infection. Without the Vezina-caliber goaltender for a large portion of the season, the Predators missed the playoffs by just three points. Nashville surely would have qualified with a healthy Rinne, despite mediocre scoring production. Goaltenders win games, and when Rinne is hot, there are not too many players who can put pucks past the 6-foot-5 Finn.
2. The Real Deal James Neal
At last, the Predators have acquired a natural goal-scorer. The acquisition was made via trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first round of the draft in Philadelphia. Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling were traded to Pittsburgh in exchange for James Neal. While it is difficult to let go of a hard-working Hornqvist, adding Neal makes up for the loss. Neal, 26, scored 61 points (27 g, 34 a) in 59 games last season and is tied for 5th in the league in goals scored since the 2011-12 season with 88. Many wonder, however, if that scoring production will continue without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby by his side. Nashville does not have anyone comparable to those two, but it is likely that Neal will be on a line with the team’s most consistent scorer Craig Smith.
“You see a team that missed the playoffs by three points in the tough Western Conference,” Neal said on June 30. “They missed it by three points without their best player in Pekka. So everything is there, and I hope I can come in here and supply offense for a team that was lacking a little bit of offense. Nothing but a bright future ahead. That is something I’m looking forward to. I need to step up and be a top guy on this team and be a leader. I’m excited for that challenge.”
3. Out With the Old, In With the New
After fifteen solid seasons as head coach, Barry Trotz was fired and replaced by Peter Laviolette. Poile looked outside the organization to find someone that would completely alter the Predators’ style of play. Laviolette filled those qualifications. His offensive-minded, up-tempo style is something that the organization has not yet seen. Matt Cullen, who played under Laviolette in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, related Laviolette’s coaching style to the way the Predators played in the final twelve games of last season when the team went 9-1-2. Defensemen were given more liberties to carry the puck, which increased the offense.
“Early on as a coach, I wanted to play fast and I wanted to play with the puck,” Laviolette said on June 2. “And I didn’t want to do so in a reckless manner. At the end of the night, you want [the opponent] to say, ‘man it was difficult to score against that team, man it was difficult to get the puck back from that team, and they got a ton of chances in the offensive end.’”
4. Forward Depth
Solidifying the offense was critical this off-season to support Laviolette’s system, especially after losing center Mike Fisher for half the 2014-15 season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Adding Neal was a great move, but the team needed more scoring depth. Derek Roy, Mike Ribeiro and Olli Jokinen met Nashville’s needs and were each signed to one-year deals. Many considered Nashville’s low-risk trio signing the steal of free agency because Poile signed them for a combined $4.5 million.
“I bring a lot of offense to the table,” Roy said on July 16. “I’ve done that my whole career. At the same time, I like to play both sides of the puck. I play defense first, then move quickly to the offensive zone. This year, there is going to be a lot offense from me and I’m willing to take on that role and willing to put up some numbers.[Laviolette] definitely plays an offensive game, which fits my game real well.”
Nashville has realistically 17 forwards competing for an NHL roster spot at training camp. With great competition comes motivated individuals and a greater selection of players to choose from. Training camp should be interesting to see how everything plays out.