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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Predators

P.K. Subban could make defense special; Pekka Rinne must return to form

by Robby Stanley / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Nashville Predators.

The Nashville Predators were one game from advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time and are hoping they have the team to take that next step this season.

With the addition of P.K. Subban, the Predators should have one of the most effective and mobile defenses in the NHL. The young core of forwards has scoring talent and should be faster with younger players filling roles in the bottom six.

The Predators have plenty of talent and are a team on the rise, but will they be able to break through in a competitive Central Division?

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Top four defensemen could be special

Subban adds to a top four that is arguably one of the best in the NHL. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis excel in moving the puck quickly and are sound defensively. 

"I think the game is definitely trending in that direction where mobile, puck-moving defensemen are, first of all they're hard to find," Subban said. "To have four of them on your [defense] corps, I mean it's tough. You don't see that in very many teams in the National Hockey League. It always seems that Nashville has been able to produce and have great defensemen, and I'm just happy to be a part of that [defense] corps."

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Video: Nashville's defense gets deeper

2. Filip Forsberg continues to grow

Forsberg has superstar potential, which the forward put on display when he tied the Predators record with 33 goals, set by Jason Arnott in 2008-09. Forsberg, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract this offseason, has led the Predators in scoring the past two seasons and his trajectory should continue to rise.

Forsberg, 22, didn't spend a lot of time on the first line last season, which gave the Predators a balanced attack. He will continue to play a major role offensively, but he's emerging as one of the better defensive forwards in the League. 

3. Full season with Ryan Johansen

For the first time in Predators history, they will enter a season with a true No. 1 center. That's been a hole they've had annually had in their lineup, but Johansen has the talent to be a difference-maker.

Johansen had 34 points in 42 games with the Predators last season after being traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Seth Jones on Jan. 6. Johansen, 24, had instant chemistry with forward James Neal, and that could be a potent combination for Nashville this season.

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4. Young core learning what it takes to win

Nashville appears to be ready to advance further in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Health will be a big factor, but the young core has gained valuable experience in the past two years that should prove to be beneficial.

The Predators have learned what it takes to be successful in the postseason. They were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the 2015 Western Conference First Round, and eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in seven games in the second round last season.

"In the playoffs, every game is hard," Josi said. "It's details that decide games most of the time. We saw it against the Sharks. I think just learning from the playoffs, whether you win a game or lose a game, it doesn't matter. The next game starts fresh."

Here are three key questions facing the Predators:

1. Will P.K. Subban and Roman Josi play together?

Subban and Josi are two of the most talented defensemen in the League individually and would theoretically make a great pairing. But they play a similar style, especially when it comes to joining the rush.

The Predators could choose to separate Subban and Josi and let them play to their strengths on different pairs, which would place Subban with Ekholm and Josi with Ellis.

"The thing about our defense, and especially the top three, not including [Subban], is that I think they're moveable parts," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "They all can skate, all can move the puck. I think [Subban] will fit right in with that, and we'll have a very mobile top four defense. I think from there, we'll figure it out as we go."

Video: P.K. Subban addresses the Nashville media

2. What will the Predators get from Mike Ribeiro?

Ribeiro was productive once again for the Predators in the regular season with 50 points in 81 games. The playoffs, however, were a different story for the center.

Ribeiro had two assists in 12 games and twice was a healthy scratch. The Predators said at the end of the season that Ribeiro will have to prove himself worthy of his top-six role when training camp opens in September.

"Mike Ribeiro is a big reason why we've made the playoffs the last two years, but he did struggle down the stretch, and in the playoffs he was a healthy scratch a couple games," Predators general manager David Poile said. "[Ribeiro] really needs to have the summer of his life to regain his position back on the top two lines."

Ribeiro has been important to the Predators' success. If he can't be productive on the second line, their depth at center becomes a question mark.

3. Can Pekka Rinne be more consistent?

By Rinne's own admission, he did not have the consistency he wanted last season. Nashville's No. 1 goalie struggled to put together long stretches of the elite play he has displayed for a large portion of his career.

Rinne's save percentage last season was .908 and his goals-against average was 2.48, a dramatic decline from his .923 save percentage and 2.18 GAA in 2014-15. He had months last season when his save percentage was higher than .920, and other months below .900. 

Rinne is key to any success the Predators may have. He was able to get through last season fully healthy but has sustained serious injuries in the past. Rinne will be 34 in November, so his prime years may be behind him.

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