If there was ever a year for the Nashville Predators to make its mark as an elite franchise in the NHL, this is it. Predators general manager David Poile put together a roster this offseason capable of winning a Stanley Cup by signing Cody Hodgson, a 20-goal scorer in 2013-14 with the Buffalo Sabres, Steve Moses, the current Kontinental Hockey League single-season goal-scoring record holder (35), and veteran defenseman Barret Jackman. Nashville also kept much of its core offensively by re-signing Gabriel Bourque, Mike Fisher, Eric Nystrom, Mike Ribeiro, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson. With the mix of returning players and newcomers, the Predators’ lineup will be deep on both sides of the puck.
The most recognizable name in Nashville’s defense corps is the team’s captain, Shea Weber. But do not sleep on Weber’s linemate Roman Josi, who has a legitimate shot at winning the Norris Trophy this season, and 20-year-old Seth Jones. Josi, 25, ranked tied-for-fifth among all defensemen in scoring with 55 points (15 goals, 40 assists) in 81 games, recorded the fourth-most time on ice per game in the league at 26:28 and amounted the second-highest blocked shots in the league at 209. Meanwhile, Jones is entering his third season in the league and is improving year after year. In comparison to the 2013-14 season with last season, Jones scored 27 points (8g, 19a) as opposed to 25 points (6g, 19a) and recorded a plus-3 rating, an improvement from a minus-23. If Jones continues to improve, being paired with Jackman will provide the Predators with two top-notch pairings.
Predators Can Score
In past years, the Predators were known around the league for being offensively challenged. After the 2013-14 season, Poile decided it was time for a culture change, so he elected to not extend Barry Trotz’s head coaching contract and brought in Peter Laviolette. In Laviolette’s first season in Nashville, with help from a plethora of scoring weapons in Mike Fisher, Filip Forsberg, Josi, Moses, James Neal, Ribeiro, Smith, Weber and Wilson, the Preds increased its goals per game from 2.61 to 2.76, which helped the team win nine more games. For that, Laviolette was one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Trophy, given to coach of the year.
The league’s 82-game season is a grueling, treacherous one. Teams have their highs and lows throughout the year. With Laviolette introducing a new system, the team was expected to start off slow while adjusting but finish the year well. Instead, the opposite happened.
Nashville started off the season surprisingly well, but ended terribly. At the All-Star Break, the Preds ranked second in the NHL and first in the Central Division with a 30-10-5 record. After the All-Star Break, however, Nashville went a mediocre 17-15-5, placing sixth in the league and second in the Central. It was a disappointing meltdown, which eventually led to losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs in six games.
With a year of experience in the Laviolette era, the Predators are poised to be a much improved squad this season.
“We had a great regular season last year and hopefully we can do the same thing this year,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “We have to get better this year and we have to take the next step. It’s such a tough division and tough conference and every year is a battle to make it in the playoffs, so we’ve got to get off to a good start.”
“Last year we made a lot of steps toward the Stanley Cup and that goal ahead, but I’m just excited about this team,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “All the younger guys are another year older and more experienced, and [we have] the same core group and a couple of veteran players added. I’m pretty happy about this team… I think it’s going to be a really good team.”
Year after year, the Central Division is considered one of, if not the toughest division in the NHL. It is set to be just that again in 2015-16. Unlike other divisions, there is not a team in the Central you can count out of playoff contention.
The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, who did not make the postseason last year, bolstered their depth and will rely on their top players to push them into the postseason. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon hit the sophomore slump last season, scoring just 14 goals instead of 24 in 2013-14. The Avalanche also added top-pairing defenseman Francois Beauchemin from the Anaheim Ducks. Look for Colorado to battle for a wild-card spot. Dallas, on the other hand, could do serious damage in the Central with Art Ross winner Jamie Benn, linemate Tyler Seguin and newcomer Patrick Sharp leading the way offensively. The Stars have a stellar offense, but the biggest concern is the inconsistency in net with Kari Lehtonen and recently added Antti Niemi.
The Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets are in a similar boat entering the year. Minnesota and Winnipeg filled the first and second wild-card spots, respectively, in the playoffs last season. Neither made much change to their rosters, so the chemistry from last season’s teams still remain. Both teams’ success will live-and-die on goaltending. For Minnesota, the team is hoping Devan Dubnyk can fulfill his six-year, $26 million contract. If not, the Wild are in deep trouble. For Winnipeg, Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec will share the work-load. If the tandem can be consistent, there is no reason the Jets do not qualify for the playoffs again.
Though the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last season, the salary cap took its toll on the roster. Chicago lost forwards Brad Richards, Brandon Saad, Sharp and Kris Versteeg and defenseman Johnny Oduya. Acquiring Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano and Trevor Daley will soften the blow, but the Blackhawks’ depth is nearly shot. The core guys of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews will make the Blackhawks a playoff team, but it will be a tough season in Chicago.
St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock is in a win-or-die situation. Blues GM Doug Armstrong has constructed a roster with the caliber of winning the Stanley Cup, and there is no excuse for not getting past the second round this season. T.J. Oshie, who made a majority of his money simply because he was good in shootouts, was traded to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer. Though the Blues lose an “American hero,” it will not affect the team too much offensively. St. Louis has it all up front with David Backes, Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Statsny, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko. Meanwhile, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk highlight a deep defense. The Blues have one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL in Jake Allen and Brian Elliot, who will battle for the starting job throughout the year.
Among a division filled with good — not great — teams, St. Louis is Nashville’s only true competition for the Central Division title. If the Predators want to make a significant impact in the league, this is the year to do it.
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.