NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
For the first time since the franchise's inception in 1998, the Nashville Predators will have a different look behind the bench.
After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons, Predators general manager David Poile, who has also been with the organization since the beginning, opted to fire coach Barry Trotz last April. Three weeks later, the Predators hired Peter Laviolette, who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Laviolette won't be the only fresh face. Seeking more offense, Poile acquired forward James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in June in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal, 27, scored 88 goals over the past three seasons with the Penguins. Veteran centers Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro were signed as free agents and are expected to play prominent roles.
"This is a season of change and we have that forward focus," Poile told the Predators website. "All [of our players] get a new, fresh start with [Laviolette]. Nobody's guaranteed their ice time, who they played with last year. … You've got to earn your stripes every day.
|Extras: V. Bartley
"For a manager that's been here all these years and to make this many changes both on and off the ice, I think it's going to be really exciting."
The challenge for Laviolette will be to make the Predators a more up-tempo team. Under Trotz, they consistently played a solid defensive game but at times experienced difficulty scoring enough goals. With a healthy Pekka Rinne back in goal, Nashville may not require more than three goals a night to consistently win games.
"Right away in camp, we've got to get our identity squared away and the foundation of our system and put that in place," Laviolette told the Predators website. "On the first couple days, we're going to work on implementing that and I think as [preseason] games start to unfold, we can go back and video and continue to teach. One of the biggest things that I want to do is put it through repetition, just go over and over and make sure we have a good understanding of the style that we want to play and we'll use most of training camp to establish that.
"Training camp is a time to look at your players and look at [line] combinations. I have things on my board right now. I know that some of them may hit and some of them may not, but for me, if we can come out of camp with a real good understanding of how we want to play, that's exciting for me. I haven't been to a training camp with a new team since 2001. My last two jobs I got hired in December and [we] either played that night or the next night. In training camp for a new team [it] can be very important to put in a system, start to build those relationships and really work on your game."
PREDATORS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.
Below are Nashville Predators players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.
30. Shea Weber
, D (Top 50 breakdown
61. Pekka Rinne
, G (Injury bounce-back
77. James Neal
, LW/RW (Overvalued
166. Roman Josi
, D (Undervalued
170. Craig Smith
, C/RW (Sitkoff's sleeper
187. Mike Ribeiro
, C (Cubeta's sleeper
214. Seth Jones
268. Colin Wilson
274. Derek Roy
It hasn't been the strongest area of the team in recent years, but the additions of Neal and Ribeiro should lead to more goals this season.
The hope is the two can quickly find chemistry. It helps that they played together for the Dallas Stars from 2008 until Neal was traded to Pittsburgh in 2011. They will likely skate together on Nashville's top line alongside Colin Wilson, who turns 25 on Oct. 20. Entering his fifth full NHL season, Wilson has yet to score 40 points.
"We've played [together] before and we're friends since then," Ribeiro said of Neal. "It will just be a matter of to practice together again and then talk. I'm sure he learned some stuff since his first year in the League and [hopefully] we can get back some chemistry, and you do that by practicing together and trying to find what he likes again and what I like to do."
Jokinen's arrival provides the Predators another center that can score. The durable 35-year-old played all 82 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season and had 18 goals, 25 assists and 62 penalty minutes. He could find himself centering a line with Matt Cullen and Filip Forsberg, who had 34 points in 47 games as a 19-year-old playing for the Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League last season.
Nashville will play roughly the first two months of the season without center Mike Fisher because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. It's a big blow to the Predators, who count on Fisher for offense (he has 133 points in 212 games with Nashville) and leadership. In the meantime, they'll rely on veteran Derek Roy, who signed as a free agent. Roy had 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) in 75 games for the St. Louis Blues last season.
Gabriel Bourque, Craig Smith, Viktor Stalberg, Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom are likely to fill out the remainder of Nashville's bottom-six forwards, with Calle Jarnkrok and Austin Watson also vying for spots.
The Predators blue line is led by one of the best defensemen in the sport. Shea Weber, their captain, averaged nearly 27 minutes of ice time per game and led Nashville with 56 points (23 goals, 33 assists) in 79 games last season. He'll likely be paired with Roman Josi, who set new career highs in goals (13), assists (27) and points (40).
ADDITIONS: LW James Neal (trade, Penguins); C Olli Jokinen (free agent, Jets); C Mike Ribeiro (free agent, Coyotes); C Derek Roy (free agent, Blues); D Anton Volchenkov (free agent, Devils)
SUBTRACTIONS: RW Patric Hornqvist (trade, Penguins); C Nick Spaling (trade, Penguins); RW Patrick Eaves (free agent, Stars); C Simon Moser (free agent); D Michael Del Zotto (free agent, Flyers)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: C Calle Jarnkrok; LW Austin Watson; D Garrett Noonan
Nashville's defensive depth chart has grown in recent years. Seth Jones, the fourth player chosen at the 2013 NHL Draft, had six goals and 19 assists in 77 games last season as an 18-year-old. Mattias Ekholm, 24, had one goal and eight assists in 62 games, but feels he might be able to contribute more offensively under Laviolette. Ekholm scored twice in 10 games following the season at the 2014 IIHF World Championship and is eager to show he can contribute at either end of the ice.
"It'll be pretty different with a new coach; it'll be a new challenge," Ekholm said. "We're excited about having Peter here, and I think we're going to have a good year. Personally, I see myself as more of an offensive defenseman, so I think his system will fit me well. The rest of our D corps also has offensive ability, so I'm excited and hopefully we'll get a good year going."
Anton Volchenkov, who signed a one-year, $1 million contract on July 7, gives Nashville an experienced shot blocker and physical presence. He's expected to skate with Ryan Ellis, who had 27 points (six goals, 21 assists) in 80 games last season.
It's somewhat impressive the Predators only missed the playoffs by three points considering Rinne missed the majority of last season because of an infected hip. A two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, the Predators will need Rinne healthy and contributing in order to find their way back into the playoffs. There's nothing to suggest that won't be the case; he had a .928 save percentage and three shutouts at the World Championship.
"The hip feels great. I had a good summer. I worked hard and stayed healthy. I'm just really excited for this upcoming season. I feel like I'm ready to go," Rinne told USA Today. "I still have to pay attention to it, but I don't have to change anything, I don't have to skip any training because of that. It feels normal, I feel like I have the strength back in my legs this summer. It feels great and it's nice not to think about it all the time."
Rinne will likely be backed up by Carter Hutton. The 28-year-old was impressive in Rinne's absence last season, going 20-11-4 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. Marek Mazanec will also compete for the backup role; Nashville's sixth-round pick in 2012 (No. 179) had a 2.80 GAA and .902 save percentage in 25 games for the Predators.