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Growth of Forsberg, Jones has Predators optimistic

by Robby Stanley

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season after missing out the previous two, and their young talent has them optimistic about the future.

Even though the Predators play in the Central Division, arguably the toughest in the NHL, they proved last season they can compete with the League's best teams.

Here are four reasons the Predators are optimistic:

Filip Forsberg: The 21-year-old forward had an outstanding rookie season in 2014-15, leading Nashville with 26 goals and 63 points in 82 games. The Predators are hoping Forsberg can add to those numbers and become the elite forward they've been lacking.

Forsberg is already one of the most dynamic players the Predators have ever had. His vision with the puck and his ability to create a shot and finish chances fit perfectly alongside linemates Mike Ribeiro and James Neal.

"Everyone is still young, everyone is still improving," Forsberg said. "We've come a long way already, but this is just the start of hopefully a really long and successful journey for the boys here."

Seth Jones: The Predators already have two elite defensemen, Shea Weber and Roman Josi, but Jones has the potential to be another top-flight player on one of the deepest defenses in the NHL.

Jones was forced into a larger role during the playoffs last season when Weber was sidelined with a dislocated kneecap and proved he has the potential to someday be an elite defenseman. The offensive numbers haven't been there yet, but Nashville's aggressive style should provide Jones, who turns 21 on Oct. 3, with more opportunities to produce as he matures.

"It doesn't seem like he gets rattled at anything," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who signed with the Predators as a free agent after 803 games with the St. Louis Blues. "I think when [Weber] got hurt in the playoffs, he really stepped up and showed a lot of the potential that everybody saw in him. You look for him to only grow as a player, and eventually he'll be one of the top [defensemen] in the League."

Attacking defense: The addition of Jackman should allow Josi and Weber to rest more on the penalty kill and cut down on their minutes.

Nashville's defense was one of the best in the League from an offensive standpoint last season. Coach Peter Laviolette wants his defensemen to join the rush and gives them the green light to be aggressive.

Young defensemen Mattias Ekholm (25 years old; seven goals, 11 assists, plus-12 rating) and Ryan Ellis (24 years old; nine goals, 18 assists, plus-8 rating) each is coming off the best NHL season of his career. They formed Nashville's second defense pair for the majority of the season.

"I think my biggest asset is my skating, to be up joining the rush," Ekholm said. "All of us, the six, seven, eight defensemen we have here, we all want to join the rush and are great skaters. I think that suits me well."

Colin Wilson: Wilson scored an NHL career-high 20 goals last season and emerged as the top-six forward the Predators wanted him to be when they picked him with seventh pick of the 2008 NHL Draft.

Wilson took his game to another level in the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks, scoring five goals in six games. Wilson, 25, is entering the prime of his career and signed a four-year, $15.75 million contract July 27.

Wilson's production will be very important for the Predators, who rely on scoring by committee. He thrived in his first season in Laviolette's system and signs point toward him continuing that trajectory.

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