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Predators face challenges in bid for return to Cup Final

Depth on defense will be tested with Ellis sidelined to start season

by Robby Stanley / NHL.com Correspondent

The Nashville Predators want to build on the momentum from last season and put themselves in position to return to the Stanley Cup Final. 

One major area of emphasis during the regular season will be consistency after they had to scramble to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the second wild card from the Western Conference in 2016-17.

This season, they believe they have enough experience to make a run at their first Central Division title.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Predators, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Handling Ellis' absence

Defenseman Ryan Ellis could miss the first three months of the season recovering from offseason knee surgery, so the Predators will be forced to change the look of their top four defensemen while he recovers. New captain Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm return and will be joined by Alexei Emelin, acquired on July 1 in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights for a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. "Obviously, it's a big loss for us," Josi said. "[Ellis] is such a huge part of our team, of our [defense] corps. We saw that last year. He's a leader in the locker room too, so it's definitely a big loss, but we've got a lot of depth on our defense. I think we showed that last year with a couple of guys out. Guys jumped in and did a great job. I'm sure it's going to be the same this year."

Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Ellis cleans up rebound for PPG

 

2. Who replaces Neal?

The Predators lost forward James Neal, who scored 77 goals in three seasons in Nashville, to the Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. They must find a way to replace his offense and plan to do it by committee. Forward Kevin Fiala could get extended time in the top-six forward group, and the Predators are expecting a bounce-back season from Craig Smith, who scored 12 goals last season after scoring more than 20 each of the previous three.

Video: NSH@CHI, Gm2: Fiala dangles, wrists home late PPG

 

3. More dynamic Subban

Subban had a challenging start to his time with the Predators, missing 16 games because of an upper-body injury. As the season progressed, Subban started to find more comfort and chemistry, and finished with 40 points (10 goals, 30 assists) in 66 games, his lowest total in a full NHL season since 2011-12. If healthy, Subban could be more productive offensively.

Video: P.K. Subban is named No. 25 on the list

 

4. Bonino must contribute offensively

Center Nick Bonino signed a four-year, $16.4 million contract July 1 and figures to be the second-line center behind Ryan Johansen. Bonino should get more ice time in Nashville than he did with the Pittsburgh Penguins behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Predators need that to result in an increase in Bonino's production. He has not had more than 39 points in a season since 2013-14, with the Anaheim Ducks (49).

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm1: Bonino pots go-ahead goal off rush

 

5. Drive for home ice

The Predators were 9-2 at Bridgestone Arena during the playoffs and haven't been shy about home-ice advantage being one of their goals this season. They had to begin every series on the road last season, and that ultimately caught up to them in the Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins. "It's definitely something that we want," forward Filip Forsberg said. "Obviously we [had the fewest points of any playoff team], so there was no way we were going to get home ice last year. If we can put ourselves in a better spot and get home ice, in a perfect world for every round, that would be huge."

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Forsberg is the first player in Predators history to score 30 goals in consecutive seasons. He scored an NHL career-high 33 in 2015-16 and 31 last season. At 23, Forsberg hasn't reached his prime yet, but he is the most consistent goal-scoring threat Nashville has and should have another productive season.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm1: Forsberg redirects Irwin's shot home

 

Biggest battle

With Ellis out of the lineup, the Predators have more competition on defense. Josi, Subban, Ekholm and Emelin appear to be locks to make the opening night lineup. Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber were the third pair during the playoffs, and Anthony Bitetto, Samuel Girard and Alex Carrier will push for a roster spot.

Video: NSH@STL: Weber threads wrister through traffic in 2nd

 

Most intriguing addition

Forward Scott Hartnell signed a one-year, $1 million contract July 1, and Nashville is hoping he can again thrive under coach Peter Laviolette's system. Hartnell was selected by the Predators with the No. 6 pick in the 2000 NHL Draft and had his most productive seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers while coached by Laviolette. "I'm very excited to put a little bit more pressure on myself, to be used a little bit more," Hartnell said. "I need to obviously take advantage of that opportunity as well. It's one thing getting the chances, but you've got to put the puck in the net. You've got to play hard every practice and every game."

Video: CAR@CBJ: Hartnell extends Jackets' lead with slapper

 

Biggest potential surprise

Forward Pontus Aberg played 15 regular-season games in 2016-17 and had two points (one goal, one assist). He became a more regular contributor in the playoffs and had five points (two goals, three assists) in 16 games. Aberg had 52 points (31 goals, 21 assists) in 56 games for Milwaukee of the American Hockey League last season. He should factor into the top-nine forward mix this season and has the skills to break out offensively.

Video: NSH@PIT, Gm2: Aberg shows patience, goes top shelf

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Filip Forsberg -- Ryan Johansen -- Viktor Arvidsson

Kevin Fiala -- Nick Bonino -- Craig Smith

Scott Hartnell -- Calle Jarnkrok -- Pontus Aberg

Cody McLeod -- Colton Sissons -- Austin Watson

Roman Josi -- Mattias Ekholm

Alexei Emelin -- P.K. Subban

Matt Irwin -- Yannick Weber

Pekka Rinne

Juuse Saros

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