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Rinne, Wilson among Predators' six questions

by Brian Compton

The Nashville Predators have yet to reach the Western Conference Finals since they began play in 1998, and now a key member of the organization will be elsewhere.

Ryan Suter, the club's first-round pick from the historic 2003 NHL Draft who averaged close to 30 minutes of ice time per game last season, left the Predators on July 4 to sign a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild. Two weeks later, Nashville nearly suffered another major blow when captain Shea Weber signed a 14-year offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers that the Predators ultimately matched.

Though the loss of Suter potentially could be devastating, coach Barry Trotz is confident the franchise has the depth to remain competitive.

"I'm as excited about this team as any team we've had," Trotz said. "Starting out last year, where we were at the start of last year and where we are at the start of this year, it's not even the same position. We're so much farther ahead with our young guys. We ended up with 104 points last year with a team at the start of the year that I didn't think had enough there. And as the team grew, we added guys like Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, those type of people. And the improvement of the young guys like [Craig] Smith, [Colin] Wilson, Gabriel Bourque up front, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, this team is really set up long-term and really in a good position. … We're in a go-forward mode to win a Stanley Cup."

Here are six questions the Predators face heading into the 2012-13 season:

Ryan Ellis will have to step up his game on the Predators' blue line. (Photo: Mike Stobe/NHLI)

1. Can the Predators overcome the loss of Ryan Suter?

Suter had 46 points in 79 regular-season games and spent roughly half of each contest on the ice. His plus-15 rating ranked second on the club behind his blue line partner, Shea Weber (plus-21). Finding someone to fill the void left by Suter's departure won't be easy, but the Predators are confident young defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are capable.

In 542 games (all with Nashville), Suter had 38 goals and 200 assists in seven seasons.

"Now it's time for someone on the back end, someone young -- [Roman] Josi, [Ryan] Ellis, [Kevin] Klein -- to step up and play more minutes," Weber said. "I think we've got guys capable of doing that. It's an exciting time. We're a young team, but we're very talented and we're not far away at all."

2. Can anyone on this roster score 30 goals?

The Predators were successful last season because of their ability to keep the puck out of their net -- they allowed 210 goals, ninth fewest in the League. But with Suter out of the picture, Nashville may need to provide more offense for Pekka Rinne in order to win its fair share of games. The Predators spread the offense around a season ago (they scored 237 goals, eighth most in the NHL), but not one player reached 30 goals. Patric Hornqvist led the club with 27 and was one of two players to score 20 (Mike Fisher had 24).

"I think we have enough depth in a lot of areas," general manager David Poile said. "We’re a really good team now. Can we be better? Yes. We're going to try and take advantage of some other opportunities as they come up."

3. Can Pekka Rinne duplicate his success?

The 29-year-old enjoyed a world-class campaign in 2011-12, winning 43 games and earning a trip to Las Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Now armed with a seven-year, $49 million contract, the pressure will be even heavier on Rinne in 2012-13 after the club lost Suter to free agency.

It might be both unfair and unrealistic to expect Rinne to duplicate his tremendous numbers from last season (2.39 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, five shutouts), but he'll need to be in the same area code if the Predators are going to continue to keep pace with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

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4. Is this the year Mattias Ekholm makes an impact?

He had a rough start to his NHL career and was ultimately returned to Sweden, but the Predators remain very high on this 6-foot-4 defenseman, and rightfully so. With another year of seasoning, Nashville is hopeful the 22-year-old is ready for prime time.

And why not? After all, Ekholm -- the Predators' fourth-round choice (No. 102) in 2009 -- was named the Borje Salming Award winner as the Swedish Elite League's top defenseman in 2011-12 after getting nine goals and eight assists in 41 games for Brynas. He will receive every opportunity to make the Predators this fall.

5. Is Colin Wilson ready to take the next step?

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound forward reached the 30-point plateau for the second straight season, but Wilson could be capable of more. The Predators' first-round draft pick (No. 7) in 2008 watched a large chunk of the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the press box before finding himself on the top line during Nashville's second-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.

What can sometimes get lost in the shuffle is that Wilson is 22 years old. Teams can never have enough offense, which is why the Predators likely will be counting on more production from the highly-capable forward.

"He has the potential to be a great offensive player," Fisher told during the playoffs. "He had a great start (last) year. He has a big body and is great down low. He sees the ice real well. His skill level is high. Sometimes it is hard for young guys. The grind of the schedule, it is tough mentally to figure things out. He's kind of trying to do that."

6. Can the Predators reach 100 points again?

Nashville was one of four Central Division teams to record at least 100 points in 2011-12. The challenge of reaching that mark again becomes greater without Suter, but the Predators have always found ways to remain competitive. Much of that has to do with consistency -- David Poile and Barry Trotz have been in their respective positions from the beginning of the franchise.

The Predators have prided themselves on a strong defensive game and solid goaltending, and we should expect more of the same in 2012-13 -- even without Suter. After all, Weber, the team's captain and a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season, is signed to be in Music City for another 14 years.

"Every great team that's been competitive for a lot of years or won Stanley Cups always has had a top defenseman, and Shea is here," Poile said. "You pair that with Pekka Rinne, who's one of the best goaltenders in the National Hockey League, you have a chance every night, every year, to compete."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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