Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Nashville Predators.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Nashville Predators
Fresh off a second place finish in the Central Division and the franchise’s fifth 100-point season, the Nashville Predators went into 2015-16 with high hopes. Young forward Filip Forsberg had broken out as an offensive force for the club, while Roman Josi had emerged as a top pairing blueliner and goaltender Pekka Rinne had returned to both health and form, earning a Vezina nomination. Unfortunately a first round loss to the hated Chicago Blackhawks stalled what was otherwise a very promising year for the club.
The Predators came out flying to start 2015-16, with just one regulation loss in their first 10 games, proving the success of the year prior was no fluke. Combined with a stellar 14-game point streak (a new franchise record) which started in mid-February and ended in mid-March, the Predators served notice that they were contenders in the Western Conference. While the team would see a slight drop in the standings, mostly because of playing in the best division in hockey, they would still comfortably take the first wild card spot with 96 points.
The season was highlighted by a number of strong individual performances as well. Forsberg showed no hint of a sophomore slump, as he improved on his totals in his second full season, setting career highs in both goals (33) and points (64), to pace the team in both categories.
Winger James Neal also brought some of the offense that was expected of him but sorely lacking the season before, notching his second 30-goal season (31) and finishing third on the club in points with 58.
However the best performer last year for the Predators was Josi, who went from the team’s best kept secret to a player acknowledged by many around the league as one of the best at his position, even usurping partner and captain Shea Weber (the former finished 5th in Norris voting, while the latter finished 10th, despite yet another strong season) as the best defenseman on the club. Josi’s 116 points over the past two seasons rank fourth in the NHL behind Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Kris Letang.
Most notably, last season saw the Predators pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade (which, in retrospect, seems like relatively small beans after this off-season), trading away 2013 fourth overall pick Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Ryan Johansen on January 6th. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the club was deep on the blueline but in need of help at the center position, so the swap of 21-year-old Jones for 24-year-old Johansen was a win for both sides.
However, despite winning their first Game 7 in franchise history (against the Anaheim Ducks in the first round) and making it further in the playoffs than they ever had before, the Predators would ultimately again come up short, suffering a seven-game defeat at the hands the San Jose Sharks in the second round.
After another moderately successful year and with some intriguing young players developing to take over for an aging core, the Predators felt no need to make any move of note during the summer of 2016.
Just kidding. They of course rocked the hockey world, trading team captain, multiple Norris finalist, and multi-Olympic gold medal winner Weber, a man who had been the heart and soul of the franchise for a decade, to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for P.K. Subban.
The trade sent shock waves around the hockey world, and undoubtedly left many fans in “Smashville” conflicted. On one hand, Subban is an all-world talent (despite what some behind the scenes at Hockey Canada might say) with an Olympic gold medal of his own and a Norris Trophy to boot (something conspicuously missing from Weber’s trophy case), in addition to being one of the best offensive defensemen on the planet. He’s also four years Weber’s junior and should have plenty of prime playing years left.
But on the other hand the loss of Weber will be felt acutely. If you were to look up “Nashville Predators” in the dictionary, undoubtedly you would see Weber’s hulking visage. While Subban’s play on the ice won’t entirely replace the love Nashville fans have for Weber, it will certainly ease the pain considerably.
Making the entire situation all the more uncomfortable is that the Predators also added another blueliner named Weber during the off-season – Yannick Weber. While the lesser Weber undoubtedly won’t make as big of an impact, he could play a role on the bottom pairing for the club. He could also wear number six. Spooky.
The Predators will again rely heavily on Forsberg, Johansen and Neal as their top offensive stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the trio will skate together at even strength however, and Head Coach Peter Laviolette may look to spread the scoring around.
The 36-year-old Fisher is coming off a down year (13 goals, 23 point in 70 games), even by his own modest scoring standards, and could quickly see his role as a top six center usurped by Jarnkrok. Mike Riberio also can’t be counted out of the equation up the middle as, despite also being 36 years old, he finished fifth on the club in scoring last year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the three holding down the middle six center roles behind Johansen, while pushing them from behind will be Colton Sissons.
On the wings, Smith and Wilson will need to finally cement their roles as top six wingers. The 27-year-old Smith has proven to be an effective scorer, notching 20-plus goals for the last three years, but has also seen a disheartening drop in his point totals, from 52 in 2013-14, to just 37 last year.
Wilson is in a similar boat, as the 26-year-old is running out of chances to prove he belongs in a top six. After setting career highs with 20 goals and 42 points in 2014-15, he dropped to just six and 24, respectively, last year.
Both will need to step up to ensure the Predators don’t become a one-line team, especially as the rest of Nashville’s wingers are young and inexperienced, though showing promise. Expect both Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala to make strides this season.
Anthoney Bitetto – Yannick Weber
Matthew Carle – Petter Granberg
The Predators boast a top four which is the envy of the NHL. The value of Subban and Josi has been well covered, however Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have quietly become one of the best second pairings in the NHL.
The undersized Ellis may have taken a long time to ultimately evolve into the player many thought he would be when he was tearing up the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires, but he’s certainly arrived now, with 10 goals and 32 points last season.
Ekholm, however, was less heralded. The fourth round pick from 2009 finally made the Predators full time in 2013-14, and last year set new career highs with eight goals and 35 points.
Given the lack of offensive assurances from the bottom nine up front, the Predators are likely to again rely on getting points from their blueliners (last season four of the club’s top nine scorers were defensemen), and a top four featuring Subban, Josi, Ellis, and Ekholm, all players capable of scoring 35+ points (or far, far more than that), will get the job done.
Unfortunately, below the top four there are fewer assurances. Weber, if his stint with the Vancouver Canucks is any indication, will likely play on offensive role, however in very limited minutes. 26-year-old Anthony Bitetto acquitted himself well last year in his second cup of coffee with the Predators, however he isn’t expected to bring much in terms of offense and he too frequently found himself on the wrong end of possession numbers last season.
Rounding out the depth are Matthew Carle, the veteran defender cut loose by the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, and 24-year-old Swede Petter Granberg, who plays a big game in the defensive zone. Likely Bitetto, Weber, Carle and Granberg will rotate in and out of the bottom pairing over the course of the season, with the former two having the edge. The Predators would be wise to bolster their defensive depth, so a move may be possible here too.
If there were one player who could replace Shea Weber as face of the franchise, it would be Rinne, who is entering his ninth season as the main man in the crease. Long considered one of the top 10 netminders in the game (when healthy), Rinne will be relied upon heavily by the Predators this season.
He took a slight step backwards last season (2.48 goals against average, .908 save percentage) and with the loss of dependable backup Carter Hutton, the team will need to see some vintage Rinne between the pipes.
At the moment Mazanec has the inside track, having been called upon by the Predators in the past and performing well under the circumstances (most memorably in 2013-14, where he got in to 25 games). Saros however is the more lauded of the two, having helped Finland to gold in the 2014 IIHF World Juniors, while also picking up a shutout and winning silver with the Finns at the World Championships that same year. The presumed heir to Rinne will get some looks this season, after one game with the Predators last season.
Players to Watch
The jury is still out on whether the native of Port Moody, B.C. is an elite number one center or just a very good one. Last season was a difficult one for the now 24-year-old, as a rough start for both himself and his Blue Jackets followed by his first trade and the transition to a new team (which, admittedly, went pretty smoothly) saw his offensive numbers take a dip (71 points in 2014-15 to 60 total last year).
It’s going to be very interesting to watch how Johansen does in his first full year in Nashville, especially if one or both of Forsberg and Neal are running beside him. A return to 70+ points isn’t out of the question.
Subban, a player who loves the spotlight and thrived in the fishbowl of Montreal, now has the added pressure of replacing a franchise icon. Nashville fans however shouldn’t worry too much. While he plays a bit of a different game than the man he’s replacing, the sublimely skilled Subban should make a huge impact and explode offensively under Laviolette.
Still just 27, the sky’s the limit for Subban in Nashville, where he could very well become the first player since Paul Coffey in 1995 to win the Norris for two different teams.
For a team as top heavy as the Predators are, a heavy burden will be placed on 24-year-old Jarnkrok, who made his mark last season with a breakout 16-goal, 30-point campaign. The skilled pivot may find himself thrust into a larger role very quickly, depending on how Fisher and Ribiero come out of the gate, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him nail down the second line center role by season’s end.
On the Rise
For all the great names who have come out of the Nashville defenseman factory, Ekholm’s has often been lost in the shuffle. No longer, however, as he made a case for himself as a legitimate top four defenseman last year and will play a key role again this year.
One of the smoothest skaters on the team, Ekholm will look this year to improve his consistency moving forward and should cement his place as one of the better two-way defensemen in the game.
Arvidsson might easily be overlooked by much of the hockey world, but fans in Nashville know the potential of this small, shifty winger. At just 20 years old, Arvidsson scored 40 points in 50 games with Skelleftea AIK in the SHL before moving over to North America for the 2014-15 season. That year he scored 22 goals and 55 points with the Milwaukee Admirals and even earned a cup of coffee with the Predators.
Last season Arvisson spent the majority of his time in Nashville, potting eight goals and 16 points in 56 games. While he still has to work on his strength to counter his relatively small stature (he’s listed at just 5’9″), Arvidsson has the offensive skill to be a top six winger, and could supplant either Smith or Wilson as early as this season.
On the Decline
Fisher and Ribeiro have combined for more than 2000 regular season NHL games, and while both have been quality offensive contributors for a very long time (the latter more so than the former), they can’t be expected to keep it up forever. Fisher has been fading for a few years now, while Ribeiro’s seven goals last season represented a career low for a full season.
The youth movement is on in full force in Nashville, and the only thing keeping one or both of Fisher and Ribeiro in the lineup is the fact that another NHL-ready center has yet to take their place. Expect both to fade as the season goes along.
2016-17 Season Prediction
The Predators are in a highly precarious situation. On the one hand they have stars at all positions, particularly on the blueline, while on the other the team is just a few injuries away from being in big trouble.
Much of the Predators success this season will depend on their stars playing like stars (particularly Rinne) and their younger players taking the next step in their progression.
On paper, this roster is surely a playoff team, one that could even have the ability to win a round or two. However, the NHL’s revamped playoff system is also on paper, and that might be the Predators biggest foe. With the offensive juggernaut that is the Dallas Stars, the always dangerous Blackhawks, a St. Louis Blues team that looks as strong as ever and the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche pushing them from behind, Nashville is going to be in a dogfight all season long to survive the tough Central Division and snag a wildcard berth again.
This club should be able to do it, but likely can’t expect much more than what they were able to accomplish last year, a second round exit.