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Questions about Neal, Hodgson key for Predators

by Robby Stanley / NHL.com

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators appear to be on an upward trajectory after finishing second in the Central Division last season and with talented prospects in the pipeline.

The Predators expect to take the next step this season and become one of the top teams in the Western Conference.

Here are three questions facing the Predators this season:

Will James Neal have a bigger impact? Neal had 23 goals and 14 assists in 67 games last season. The Predators need him to contribute more offensively to become a Stanley Cup threat.

Neal, who turns 28 on Sept. 3, scored 40 goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12. He has shown throughout his career that he is an offensive threat, but he struggled with consistency and was bothered by injury during his first season in Nashville.

Neal likely will spend significant time on a line with Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro, who are gifted passers. If Neal is able to stay healthy and can reach the 30-goal mark, the Predators should have enough offense to challenge for the Central Division title.

How will Cody Hodgson fit into the lineup? General manager David Poile made a low-risk move that could potentially bring a high reward when he signed center Cody Hodgson as a free agent July 1. Hodgson was a high-end prospect with the Vancouver Canucks early in his career, but his production fell off last season with the Buffalo Sabres (six goals, seven assists in 78 games).

Coach Peter Laviolette prefers to play an attacking, up-tempo system, and that's what drew Hodgson to Nashville.

"It's a great opportunity," Hodgson said. "We have such a good team here, and I'm looking forward to stepping in and establishing [myself]. I thought with a couple bounces, they could have beat Chicago (in the Stanley Cup Playoffs). A couple goals here and there and it would have been a different series, so I'm looking forward to try and help these guys win in whatever way I can."

Hodgson is two seasons removed from scoring an NHL career-high 20 goals. Poile said he likely will center the third line to try to add more offense to the bottom six.

Can Carter Hutton provide enough relief for Pekka Rinne? Rinne is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, but the Predators want to be able to rest him more than they have in the past, especially after a hip injury limited him to 24 games in 2013-14.

Rinne's numbers fell off toward the end of last season and in the playoffs after being in the thick of the Vezina Trophy conversation for the majority of the season; he finished second in voting.

Hutton played 18 games (6-7-4, 2.61 goals-against average, .902 save percentage) for the Predators last season and often had several weeks in between starts because of scheduling. Nashville would like him to play 20-25 games this season to provide more relief for Rinne.

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