Since the middle of last season, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile has talked about wanting to create a different look among the team's forwards. That's where the bulk of the change has come, from a personnel standpoint and a philosophical one.
Consequently, most of the questions surrounding the Predators have to do with their forwards and the offense. Poile said that "on paper" he thinks Nashville has "16 NHL forwards."
"I'm hoping [scoring] comes from a lot of different sources," he said. "[James] Neal, how he's scored and how he's played in the past, that would be a huge shot in the arm and move in the right direction for our team offensively. But we've also got other players on our team that I would say didn't perform to the levels we expected and they expected last year, and we're hoping for bounce-back years from a number of players. Again, it's a whole different mix."
Here are five questions the Predators have to answer to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs:
1. How will the Predators adapt to new coach Peter Laviolette's system? -- In Barry Trotz's 15 seasons as coach, Predators forwards were asked to play a two-way, puck-possession game with an emphasis on defense first. With that mentality ingrained in a number of the team's forwards, the Predators will have to adapt to Laviolette's system in which attacking and the use of two forecheckers will become the rule.
The positive is that a number of Predators forwards will be new: Neal, Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy. Matt Cullen has played for Laviolette in the past, while Viktor Stalberg and Colin Wilson were not productive in Trotz's system and could benefit from the change.
But a system also includes defense, and the addition of Laviolette appears as if it were made in part to take advantage of a group comprised of excellent skaters. Only Anton Volchenkov seemingly lacks the requisite skills to get up the ice and play at a higher tempo.
If it works, it could make Bridgestone Arena a much more entertaining place to watch games. However, if the Predators endure prolonged growing pains, they could get left back in the divisional race.
2. What impact will Neal make? -- If Neal can surpass Jason Arnott's single-season franchise mark of 33 goals, the Predators would be ecstatic. Ribeiro has history with Neal dating to their time as teammates with the Dallas Stars. If Ribeiro can make good on his promise to steer clear of the off-ice problems that plagued him with the Phoenix Coyotes last season, he could make a reunion of their partnership a productive one.
It's also worth noting that for much of last season the Predators owned one of the top power plays in the League. With Weber, who led all NHL defensemen last season with 23 goals, Neal could be in position to pick up plenty of goals on rebounds. Neal's presence will give the Predators' power play a threat down low that it has lacked for years, making it harder for opposing teams to shade toward Weber as they have in the past.
Regardless, the Predators are counting on him to score in a big way.
3. How will the center position shake out? -- Nashville has so many centers that it's dizzying: Mike Fisher will start the season injured but Roy, Jokinen, Ribeiro, Calle Jarnkrok, Paul Gaustad, Wilson and Cullen all play the position.
Some will wind up on the wing and some might end up not on the team at all.
"We're going into camp with the idea that we have more depth, thus more competition, which hopefully will bring better results from our forwards," Poile said. "We're committed to selecting the best guys; if that happens to be a younger player, that's what we're going to choose. If it's a veteran player that doesn't play as well, he can find himself being traded or on waivers and playing in Milwaukee [American Hockey League]."
4. What will become of Fisher after he recovers? -- Fisher arguably has been Nashville's top center since he arrived in February 2011, and prior to rupturing his Achilles tendon last month had been one of the team's most durable players. But at age 34 and with at least 4-6 months of recovery ahead of him, how will he take to an up-tempo offensive attack?
5. Will Seth Jones make a big leap in his second season? -- Jones, the fourth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, had 25 points and a minus-23 rating in 77 games last season, but led all defensemen with 11 points in eight games for the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Championship, and was named the tournament's top defenseman. Laviolette coached that team and Predators assistant coach Phil Housley also was on the coaching staff.
It's possible that in his second season Jones will have less pressure on him and a greater understanding of what it takes to excel in the League, which would allow him to take a major step in his development.
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