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Predators expect familiarity, defense to take them far

by Robby Stanley / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators had a breakout 2014-15 after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs the two previous seasons. They finished second in the Central Division with 104 points but were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round.

The Predators' offseason consisted of a few minor moves, mainly to add depth to their forward group.

"I'm really glad we only made a couple of potential changes to our roster because we've made so many changes in the past several years," general manager David Poile said. "I liked our team last year; I like our team this year. You talk about parity, there is no question there's a lot of parity in the National Hockey League. I think there's a lot of good teams. The good news is, I think we're one of those good teams."

The Predators' window of opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup is now. Each of their foundational players, defenseman Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, is in the prime of his career, and last season proved there is a good mix of veteran and young talent.

Forwards

The maturation of left wing Filip Forsberg will be a key factor in how Nashville's group of forwards perform. Forsberg led the Predators with 63 points in 82 games last season.

"Everyone has a year under their belt with the new system, new coaches," Forsberg said. "It was all new last year when I got here. Everything is set now and I think it's good. If we can improve that even more, I think we can be really dangerous this year."

Forsberg played the majority of last season alongside center Mike Ribeiro and is expected to do the same this season. Ribeiro and Forsberg will be joined on the right wing by James Neal or Craig Smith. Left wing Colin Wilson and center Mike Fisher are expected to round out the top six.

Center Cody Hodgson, signed after his contract was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres on June 30, could be a fit on the third line, potentially playing with left wing Calle Jarnkrok. Austin Watson and Viktor Arvidsson could earn spots there, as could Steve Moses. A natural right wing who had 36 goals in 60 games with Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, Moses was sent to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League on Sept. 30 but could return if he adjusts well to the smaller North American ice.  

Paul Gaustad will center the fourth line, likely between left wing Eric Nystrom and right wing Gabriel Bourque

"We've got guys that can play physical in all aspects, and we've got those young, skilled guys that are fun to watch," Fisher said. "Those guys are top-notch skill guys."

Defensemen

Nashville's defense looks to be its strength heading into the season, featuring a perennial Norris Trophy contender in Weber and one of the League's elite young defenders in Roman Josi.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
47-25-10, 104 points

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round

Key additions: C Cody Hodgson, D Barret Jackman

Key subtractions: D Cody Franson, C Mike Santorelli, C Matt Cullen, D Anton Volchenkov, RW Taylor Beck

Josi, 25, had a breakout season in 2014-15, with 55 points in 81 games and a fifth-place finish in Norris Trophy voting. He's played in Weber's shadow for the majority of his career, but his performance last season made him a known commodity throughout the League.

"It was a fun year," Josi said. "We obviously played really good as a team, and that definitely helps you as a player too. It's just way more fun to play like that. It's a big honor for me to get mentioned with such great defensemen. There are so many great defensemen and so many defensemen I look up to. I still watch them and am still trying to learn from them."

Seth Jones could be primed for a breakout in his third season in the NHL. He stepped into a top role during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when Weber was out because of a dislocated kneecap and showed flashes of the player the Predators expected they were getting when they selected him with the fourth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.

Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, Nashville's second pair, each had the best seasons of their NHL careers. They likely will be paired again to start the season, and each has proven to have the ability to join the rush and contribute offensively while being defensively reliable.

Mobility is perhaps the biggest strength of the Predators' defense, but the unit was missing a player who could bring a more physical presence and do some of the dirty work by blocking shots and killing penalties. They found that player in the offseason in Barret Jackman, who was signed July 1 after spending his first 13 NHL seasons with the St. Louis Blues.

"He's a veteran guy that's played in this League for a long time," Weber said. "He's a physical guy that blocks a lot of shots and plays good defensively. We had that with a lot of guys last year too, but he's a guy that's done it for a long time, and we're excited to have him."

Goalies

Rinne was healthy for the majority of last season and it paid dividends for the Predators. He finished second in Vezina Trophy voting after going 41-17-6 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, and was perhaps the biggest reason for Nashville's breakout season.

The Predators would prefer to have backup goaltender Carter Hutton play more games this season to allow Rinne extra rest, but expect Rinne to appear in 65-70 games.

Rinne believes the Predators have the ingredients necessary to compete for the Stanley Cup.

"I trust this team 100 percent," Rinne said. "Obviously last year we made a lot of steps toward the Stanley Cup and that goal ahead. I'm just excited about this team. All of the younger guys are another year older and more experienced. It's the same core group with a couple of veterans added up. I'm really happy about this team."

Special Teams

Special teams was an area of concern for the Predators last season. The power play was ranked 25th during the regular season (16.2 percent), and the penalty kill was 18th (80.8).

Nashville hopes its improved success rates in six playoff games against Chicago, (27.3 percent on the power play; 84.2 percent on the penalty kill) will carry over to this season. The results during the preseason have been promising, and the players believe more familiarity on the ice will lead to better results, especially with the man-advantage.

"More comfortable with the guys," Neal said. "I think everything was a little new to everybody last year player-wise and getting to know everyone's tendencies. I think we're going to stick with things. The main thing is you've got to get the puck to the net. You've got to get traffic there. I think we know that, so it's been good so far through the preseason games and we've got to keep that rolling."

Coaches

In hios first season with the Predators, Peter Laviolette provided a change of style and a philosophy focused on quicker pace, more offense and constantly being on the attack. Expect more of the same this season, with even more emphasis on the defense joining the rush offensively.

The Predators have more depth at forward, which will give Laviolette more options with matchups on a game-to-game basis.

"I think last year was a lot more teaching systems-wise," Neal said. "This year we're a lot more familiar with everything we're doing, whether it's drills or our system work. It's just getting used to some newer guys and plugging them in, but overall everyone looks really comfortable and really good out there."

Laviolette's assistants are Kevin McCarthy and Phil Housley, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November. The goaltending coach is Ben Vanderklok.

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