The start of the season means hope springs anew and every fan base dares to dream that they will hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. Some expectations are more realistic than others, but there’s a real sense of optimism brewing in Nashville.
That hope is being spread around by Predators’ general manager David Poile when he talked to Brooks Bratten of the Nashville team website during fan activities.
When going down the list of contenders, Poile made this statement that stood out.
"There are a lot of good teams in the League this year, the good news is we're one of those teams…this is our year." #Preds GM David Poile
— Brooks Bratten (@brooksbratten) September 26, 2015
Something like that won’t really infuriate the other teams in the conference, but it’s worth delving into. The main question for Nashville fans is “What are the realistic expectations for the Nashville Predators?”
The guys at NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk took a look at it, but I’ll try my hand at it, as well.
How the Preds Stack Up
We all know the old adage about how “defense wins championships” and the Predators have that in spades with arguably the best defense in the National Hockey League and a top-five goaltender in Pekka Rinne. Those assets are huge when a team is trying to make a run at the Cup.
The Nashville lineup has been carefully crafted through good drafting, solid trades and shrewd buys in free agency. The wings are good mix of young (Filip Forsberg, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson), and proven goal scorers (James Neal). Calle Jarnkrok is also expected to get some minutes, while players like Kevin Fiala and Steve Moses are waiting in the wings with the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.
The defense has skilled puck movers (Roman Josi, Dan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm) and big bodies (Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Barret Jackman) and we can’t forget about Rinne, who carries the load in net for the Predators.
There are some concerns about the center position as Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher are both skilled veterans, but are more like second- or third-line centers. Cody Hodgson is looking to bounce back from a disastrous season in Buffalo. Paul Gaustad has been wonderful on faceoffs, but is a fourth-line center.
Nashville is also still learning the more up-tempo style that coach Peter Laviolette preaches. The Predators used to play a more defensive-minded game under former coach Barry Trotz, so there was some concern about adjusting to the new system. However, Nashville adapted quickly and won nine more games in 2014-15 than in 2013-14. The second year of the Laviolette era could yield even bigger returns.
The Predators do have a great base, and can also rent a player at the trade deadline because they have some wiggle room on their salary cap of about $12.4 million according to CapFriendly.com. They have assets in the minors they could trade that might entice a team looking to unload some talent.
Weighing the Contenders
The Western Conference, especially the Central Division, is very loaded with contenders. The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks may have taken a hit due to their salary cap woes, but are still the champs until someone knocks them out. St. Louis, Minnesota and Winnipeg also made it to the postseason out of the division. Dallas has done a lot to improve its scoring in the offseason and Colorado surprisingly won the division title in 2013-14.
The Pacific boasts the Anaheim Ducks, who made the Western Conference Final last season. The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks returned to the playoffs and the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks are looking to make a return to the second season after disappointing campaigns. Even Edmonton and Arizona are on the right path with their respective youth movements.
The division and the conference offer some interesting challenges to Nashville, but it will also prepare them for the wars of the playoffs. Some think the Predators will thrive and rise to the challenge.
The Predators have never won the division title, but if they can win the tough Central, the Cup may not be out of the realm of possibility.
It’s great that Nashville is showing hope that they can make a deep playoff run. I don’t think Poile said anything that would be considered bulletin board material. It’s going to be tough to make it out of the division and the conference, but the Predators have just a good a shot as any of the other top contenders.
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