“The next level,” that will be a phrase used often over the coming months. After a surprisingly good season in which the Nashville Predators made a huge leap (think about what your expectation was last year at this time), the quest is to move from regular season success to playoff success. It's a fine line.
While all that follow the team will look back on the first round playoff series versus Chicago with a truckload of "what if's", the truth is that in the Central Division, if you don't improve, you can find yourself in last place. Yes, that's last - seventh. Just look at the fifth, sixth and seventh placed teams in the Central last year. Winnipeg got a taste of the playoffs and will be extremely hungry to build. Dallas and Colorado regressed last season after making the playoffs the year before, but have loads of talent. No doubt both of those teams see last year as a bump in the road on the way to major success.
Who are the players who can lead the Predators to a breakthrough? Players like Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber are now franchise players in their prime. I now put Roman Josi in this category, though he is younger than some of the Predators I'm about to discuss. Let's look at 10 (actually 11) players who have room to improve on some promising results. I'll count down, in honor of David Letterman's retirement (though I wish I had 10 celebrities to come out and read these):
The forward, currently a restricted free agent (RFA), had a solid rookie season at age 23. He filled a role as a smart third line center who was extremely reliable, illustrated by a solid Corsi (SAT) rating despite not being a high-volume shooter. Jarnkrok also did an excellent job on the penalty kill. The Question: Is there another level offensively? Eighteen points per season will not be enough for him to sustain a long and prosperous career. He must find a way to get his shot off quicker and harder.
Sissons was a forgotten man this past season at the NHL level. The forward never got an opportunity after playing 17 games for the Predators in 2013-14 at age 20. However, he had another productive campaign in Milwaukee, scoring 25 goals for the second-straight year in the American Hockey League. He has a solid makeup and hockey smarts, and he won't turn 22 until November. Some project him as a Mike Fisher type: 15-20 goals with reliable, two-way play as a second or third line center. The Questions: Can he force his way into the Preds lineup? Can he challenge Jarnkrok for his spot? Can he find time on the wing until a job at center ice is available?
Call this the X-factor slot. These are two players with lots of intrigue, who both happen to be from Massachusetts. Moses is 25 and caught fire last year in the Kontinental Hockey League, scoring 36 goals in 60 games (the league’s new goal-scoring record). The Predators took a flyer on this undersized late-bloomer, signing him to a one-year deal. Vesey, 22, lit up the college ranks with 32 goals in 36 games for Harvard. Many scouts believed he could have produced right away at the NHL level by the end of the 2014-15 season, but for now, he has elected to return to school for his senior year. Both of these wingers helped Team USA to the bronze medal in the 2015 World Championship. The Question: Do their skills translate to NHL success and how soon?
At age 18, the Predators first-round pick last June has compiled a bunch of high-level experience at a young age. How many players at his age can say they've played in a World Championship (Team Switzerland), the AHL (Milwaukee), the Swedish Elite League and even an NHL playoff game? He has excellent skills that already are translating to the NHL level. The Question: When is the right time to unleash him on the NHL for good? He still has room to learn the finer points of the game and naturally mature (both physically and mentally).
The defenseman took a huge leap this past season. The offensive skills that made him a first-round pick have translated as expected, but he has also learned to become an effective defender against top forwards. Ellis particularly flourished when paired with Mattias Ekholm. His performance in the playoffs was also quite impressive - he was on ice for 10 Predators goals during the series (including special teams) and on for just two goals against. The Question: Is there yet another level to reach in his game as he gets set to turn 25 in January?
Like Ellis, it's been a slow and steady growth pattern, but he has now arrived as a solid NHL defenseman. During his rookie year (2013-14) as he was just becoming a regular player, I recall a conversation with a scout. His words stuck with me: "He's just scratching the surface.” Ekholm is now combining his improving defensive play with dynamic offensive contributions (think the overtime game winner in Minnesota or the spectacular goal in Washington). Plus, he's done this without any significant time on the power play. The Questions: Can he fine tune his game even more? Can he continue to improve decision-making coming out of his end? Can he develop his physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds? Remember, he just turned 25 on Sunday.
A restricted free agent, he will turn 26 as next season begins. Presuming he reaches an agreement to remain a Predator, he must now be counted on to consistently be a top-six forward. After back-to-back seasons of 24 and 23 goals, there looks to be a reliability in his game that was in question at one time. His production in the playoff series with Chicago was another nice step forward. The Questions: Is he a consistent 20-goal scorer and that's it? Is there another level?
There are many parallels to Craig Smith's development here. High expectations, and some bumps in the road. Plus, like Smith, he is a restricted free agent as he gets set to turn 26 as next season begins. The team must decide what to commit to him going forward. Wilson was dominant for stretches of the season last year, hitting a level he had never reached before (32 points in a 34-game stretch from Nov. 18 to Feb. 5). After a hard hit by Dan Girardi of the Rangers knocked him from a game in Nashville on Feb. 7, his production dropped off, with just three goals and three assists in his last 27 regular season games. Still, it was a career year, and even during times when he wasn't scoring, his play was solid. His five-goal outburst in the playoff series with the Blackhawks was also very encouraging. The Question: Is this a player on his way to becoming a star, or could he regress into the player who had just 33 points in 81 games the season before?
Needless to say, his rookie explosion elevated the entire team's success. He turns 21 in August. With only 100 games under his belt, you have to figure the nuances of his game will get even better. Plus, Forsberg will be more physically and mentally equipped to handle the 82-game grind, which arguably was the most logical reason his point-per-game pace tapered off as the season wore on. At the same time, he rebounded with nine goals in the final 15 games, including the playoffs. Breaking through that wall is a sign that the Predators truly have something special here. The Question: How high is the ceiling?
It's hard to measure the trajectory of Jones based on his stats. While 14 goals and 38 assists in his first 159 games may not seem overwhelming, here is something to consider:
Consider Major League Baseball’s Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals) here. Jones has played a ton of high-leverage minutes at a position that is tough to dominate at an early age. He significantly cut down his mistakes from year one to year two (he went from minus-23 to plus-3). His decision-making will only get better. His physique still looks boyish; that will naturally change, and at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, that is pretty scary. The Questions: How soon will he explode? Given the Preds depth at his position, who should his partner be and what is his best role?
For more insight on these 10 (actually 11) players and other "State of the Predators" issues, join us at the Music City Sports Festival this Saturday, May 30 at 12:30 p.m. (CT) at the downtown Music City Center, right next door to Bridgestone Arena. Preds General Manager David Poile will be addressing the crowd about the team's offseason, and at 1:15 p.m. the Predators will unveil - for the first time - the 2016 NHL All-Star Game logo! For more info go to Musiccitysportsfestival.com and follow Nashvillepredators.com for coverage from Sports Fest.