The long awaited start of the 2015-16 season is nearing arrival as teams around the league are welcoming their players back to town in lead up to training camp just days away.
For the Nashville Predators, training camp opens on September 17, and the team will play six preseason games stretching from Sep. 20 through Oct. 3 in preparation for the regular season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 8.
After having a successful season in head coach Peter Laviolette’s first year as bench boss of the Predators, breaking the stereotype that Nashville is offensively challenged, general manager David Poile did not seek many changes to the club’s forwards. Nashville re-signed Gabriel Bourque, Mike Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok, Mike Ribeiro, Craig Smith, Austin Watson and Colin Wilson. The only notable acquisitions the Preds made up front were signing free agents Cody Hodgson and Steve Moses to one-year contracts.
A few of those re-signings were unexpected given the deep talent pool of forwards awaiting the opportunity to play in the NHL. Nevertheless, training camp is poised to be highly competitive. Currently, eleven players are essentially guaranteed a spot on the Predators’ roster this season, leaving just one spot vacant in the lineup. Six players — Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Moses, Miikka Salomaki, Colton Sissons and Watson — will be battling for that spot, and all six are worthy of it.
“I’m stronger and more mature,” Arvidsson, who appeared in six games for the Preds last season, said in July. “I played in North America for one year and got the feel of the NHL, and I feel like I am ready.”
“It’s my dream [to play in the NHL],” Fiala, who appeared in one regular season and one playoff game last year, said in July. “Every hockey player wants that since we were small. I’m really close [to achieving] it right now. I don’t want to stop. I want to make the team.”
First Line: James Neal – Mike Ribeiro – Filip Forsberg
This was the Predators’ top line for most of last year and should not change in 2015-16. Laviolette experimented in swapping Craig Smith and Neal, but it did not show positive results for Neal, who thrives when playing alongside talented play-makers like 60-point scorers Ribeiro and Forsberg. If Neal can improve from a disappointing first year in Nashville, tying a career-low of 37 points (23 goals, 14 assists) in 63 games, and if Forsberg can move past the “sophomore slump,” this line will be a dominant force in the NHL, once again.
Second Line: Colin Wilson – Mike Fisher – Craig Smith
With Fisher as a well-respected leader in the locker room, centering Smith and Wilson, who both need that additional push to hit their true potential, is a great fit. Fisher is known for playing a gritty style, which compliments Smith and Wilson’s scoring abilities. After signing five- and four-year deals, Smith and Wilson, respectively, will be expected to have big years in 2015-16. The wingers are showing signs of living up to their potential while playing in Laviolette’s fast-paced system. Wilson had a career year in 2014-15, posting 42 points (20 g, 22 a) in 77 games, in addition to scoring five goals in six playoff contests, and Smith recorded his second consecutive 20-goal season.
Third Line: Steve Moses – Cody Hodgson – Calle Jarnkrok
Depth scoring is critical to the success of any team. I believe Poile constructed one of the best third lines in the organization’s history. The trio are on one-year deals and have a lot to prove, so there is motivation to succeed this season.
Hodgson had an awful year with the Buffalo Sabres in 2014-15, scoring just 13 points (6 g, 7 a) in 78 games, making the club buy-out the remaining four years of a six-year, $25.5 million contract. In a less-prominent role as a third-line center in Nashville, Hodgson should feel more comfortable.
Before training camp begins, I would have to think Moses will be the player filling the final spot in the lineup, and Fiala and Watson will round out the roster as extras. After breaking the KHL single season goal-scoring record last season by netting 36 goals in 60 games for Jokerit Helsinki, Moses is getting his first crack at the NHL. Though scoring totals from the KHL traditionally do not translate well to the NHL, the Predators are hopeful Moses can increase the team’s third line production.
Jarnkrok’s 18 points (7 g, 11 a) in 74 games last year ranks as the top returning bottom-six scorer for Nashville. With a full NHL season under his belt, look for Jarnkrok to emerge alongside Hodgson and Moses.
Fourth Line: Eric Nystrom – Paul Gaustad – Gabriel Bourque
This was Nashville’s fourth line for much of last season. Gaustad is the Preds’ top faceoff guy, leading the team and placing in the top ten among all NHL-ers in faceoff wins (56.4-percent) last season. He can also play a physical game with his 6-foot-5, 223 lbs frame, which is ideal for any fourth-liner. Like Gaustad, Nystrom plays a rugged style and is best when keeping the game simple. The only thing Gaustad and Nystrom lack from a typical fourth-liner is speed, and that is where Bourque comes in. Bourque’s deceptive speed makes him one of the best forecheckers in the league.
Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.