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30 in 30: Young defense among Predators' questions

by Mike G. Morreale

The Nashville Predators finished with the fourth-worst record in the NHL in 2012-13, but general manager David Poile is confident there are better times ahead.

That is if coach Barry Trotz can find a way to motivate his team to put the puck in the net. The Predators have long been a group that has thrived on scoring by committee, but they failed miserably last season when they connected for two or fewer goals in 27 of 48 games and had a 3-17-7 mark in those contests en route to finishing 14th in the Western Conference.

Naturally, one of several big questions surrounding the team entering 2013-14 is the state of the offense; no player had more than 12 goals and three finished in double digits.

"We have world-class players here like [captain] Shea Weber and [goalie] Pekka Rinne, who are both in the prime of their careers, and the goal is to capitalize and build around them in order to win with them," Poile said. "It's my job to identify the right pieces to complement them and give us the best chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. That remains our goal, and returning to the playoffs is step one."

Here are six questions the Predators face heading into the 2013-14 season:

1. Can the Nashville offense turn it around? -- An upgrade was the offseason priority for Poile after his team scored 2.27 goals per game to match the Florida Panthers for the lowest average in the League last season. The veteran GM did just that on the opening day of free agency when he signed four forwards. Additionally, the Predators scouting department believes Swedish prospect Filip Forsberg could provide some needed production in his first full season in North America, and prospect Austin Watson might be promoted at some point, providing an added boost.

The Predators were 13-6-2 when scoring more than two goals last season. One area the offense likely will improve is shots per game; Nashville averaged a League-low 25.9 last season.

"The 3-2 game is a winning formula for the Nashville Predators," Poile said.

2. Will the free agent signings make a difference? -- Poile is hopeful his hard work to upgrade the offense pays off with the acquisitions of center Matt Cullen and wings Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks on the opening day of NHL free agency.

But not one of the additions has scored more than 49 points in a full season, which means the Predators may be forced to continue to grind out victories behind tough defensive play and stout goaltending. Cullen, whose 0.64 points per game average last season was his best since 0.83 in 2007-08, provides depth down the middle, but it remains to be seen if a 36-year-old can maintain that consistency required as a top pivot.

Stalberg offers speed and size, Nystrom possesses a relentless motor and ability to forecheck effectively, and Hendricks is a versatile player with a strong work ethic.

3. Will prospects Seth Jones and Filip Forsberg become impact players? -- Trotz was very impressed with each player during the team's development camp in July.

"You've seen a lot of players that you know have gone on to have careers and all that, and they carry themselves a certain way," Trotz said. "I can't explain it, you just see it, and I think both of them have that little bit of that 'it factor,' whatever 'it' is. I really can't explain it, but they seem to have that."

The idea is for each player to earn a roster spot out of training camp and continue to mature and develop while making contributions with the Predators in 2013-14. Jones dropped to Nashville at the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft on June 30. Forsberg was acquired from the Washington Capitals on April 3, 2013; he was the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft.

"Filip had the skill, size and humbleness … and a quiet confidence in him (during his brief stint with Nashville in 2012-13)," Trotz said. "Sometimes other players don't cheer for the young guy because he may be full of himself, but our players cheered for Fillip Forsberg. They know he will be a contributing factor for a number of years."

Whether or not one or both players become impact performers remains to be seen, but there's little doubt each is ready to make the jump. And Jones might have some extra motivation after falling a few spots in the draft.

4. Will goalie Pekka Rinne rebound? -- The bottom line is no matter how much better the Nashville offense might be, the team is reliant on the play of its exceptionally talented goaltender.

The Predators are hopeful the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist will be ready for training camp after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left hip in May. The surgery, which required approximately four months of recovery, was necessary to correct a situation team officials were aware of last season. That might explain why Rinne is coming off his lowest save percentage (.910) in five full seasons. Rinne, who ranks sixth in the NHL with 152 wins since 2008-09, has remained in Nashville during his recovery.

"The decision to go ahead and do the surgery was a tough one," Rinne told The Tennessean on July 13. "I knew that it was going to be a long road to recovery. I'm confident that I'll be ready for the season no problem."

Poile put a positive spin on the situation.

"If there is good news in this situation, the year that Tim Thomas had the [hip] operation, the following season, he won the Vezina Trophy and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup," he said.

Ryan Ellis
Ryan Ellis
Defense - NSH
G: 5 | A: 12 | P: 17
SHOTS: 82 | +/-: 3
5. Can defenseman Ryan Ellis become a transitional force? -- Despite a pair of assignments to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee last season, there's reason to believe Ellis will be able to turn things around this season. He'll reap the benefits of working closely with one of the finest and similarly sized defensemen to ever play in the NHL: assistant coach Phil Housley.

Let's face it, Ellis wasn't selected in the first round (No. 11) of the 2009 NHL Draft for his stoic defensive play, rather his ability to transition quickly from defense to offense. But that's something that hasn't happened in 64 NHL games spanning two seasons; Ellis has five goals and 17 points.

Enter Housley, the second-leading American-born scorer with 1,232 points, a seven-time NHL All-Star and finalist for the 1992 Norris Trophy as the League's best defenseman. Ellis, who is in the final year of his entry-level deal before becoming a restricted free agent, can create chances for himself and draw penalties. The prevailing thought is that he finally puts a solid season together and becomes a key in 5-on-5 situations in a third-pair defense role.

6. Can the Predators reach 100 points? -- The Predators found playing at a 100-point pace without defenseman Ryan Suter a lot more difficult than expected, but they still found ways to remain competitive in 2012-13, losing seven games in regulation by one goal and nine in overtime.

Though the Predators might not eclipse the century mark this season, it's not too far-fetched to believe the team will top 90 points. In order to make that happen, Trotz said it must get back to basics and its culture as an organization.

"[In 2011-12] we finished in the top 10 in four categories -- goals for, goals against, power play and penalty kill -- and we didn't finish in the top 10 in any of those last season," Trotz said. "We need to be relentless and hard to play against … that's a cultural thing. We want to turn home ice into the Roman Coliseum."

The Predators finished two games above .500 on home ice and were 5-14-5 on the road in 2012-13.


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