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Forward Flexibility: Preds Top Trio Leading The Way

by Brooks Bratten / Nashville Predators

Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile had every inkling that Filip Forsberg would eventually be an elite NHL forward.

“The only question was going to be when, not if,” Poile said of Forsberg’s potential to succeed at the highest level of hockey.

Judging by the Swede’s numbers through the Preds first 16 games this season, ‘when’ may have already arrived.

Forsberg leads the Preds in points with 20 (8g-12a) to his credit, and along with center Mike Ribeiro and winger James Neal, the rookie completes one of the top lines in hockey through the early portions of the campaign.

“Every day, we just learn more about each other on the ice,” Forsberg said of his linemates. “They’re really good players so it’s pretty easy for me to play with them.”

The trio is certainly making things look easy. 

On Tuesday night against Edmonton, all three tallied points for the second-straight game and finished the evening with matching plus-2 ratings. While Forsberg leads the Preds, and all NHL rookies, in points, Ribeiro (4g-9a-13pts) and Neal (8g-5a-13pts) aren’t far behind, tying for second on the club in scoring.

Neal registered 10 shots on goal on Tuesday against Edmonton and continues to lead the Preds in that category with 58. Ribeiro sees more average ice time than any other Nashville forward, clocking in at 19:02 per game.

Perhaps most impressive of all, the line has scored 15 goals, the most of any line that has seen time together this season in the NHL.

“[The Forsberg, Ribeiro, Neal line] is playing really well,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’re hanging onto the puck when they’re in the offensive zone, and pucks that are going at the net are generating, if not just a first opportunity, second opportunities or third opportunities. They’re in the offensive zone and good things are happening.”

With a veteran playmaker in Ribeiro, a proven goal-scorer in Neal and an exemplary rookie in Forsberg, the Preds top combination skates the spectrum when it comes to offensive capabilities. That mix of versatility is something that the Predators were looking to strengthen. The early success would suggest that they have.

“I think it’s a good blend between some veterans who have played in high roles with teams before and been successful, with some young kids that have some really good potential,” Poile said of his forward corps. “[We’re hoping] they’ll be good mentors to the younger guys, and together, they’ll be able to blend and find that chemistry to be successful on the ice.”

It’s not just the top line, but the remaining nine forwards on any given night that are also finding that chemistry with one another. Matt Cullen has been skating alongside Derek Roy and Craig Smith, a group that is also putting the puck in the net. While the bottom-six forwards may not end up on the score sheet every night, their pressure in the offensive zone, combined with their defensive prowess on the other side of the puck, continues to do wonders for Nashville’s record.

“I think you start to build confidence, especially as a line,” Laviolette said. “You’ve got to remember that everything’s new here. New system, new linemates, new coaches, new teammates, and I think that we’re still in the process of feeling things out. It seems like maybe different lines are getting comfortable and that’s a positive thing.”

The depth at forward has allowed the club to experiment with different combinations and switch players in and out when need be. That flexibility, the GM says, is something that the club was striving to gain. So far, it’s been working.

“It allows the coaching staff to put the pressure on the players and the challenge that they must be good game-in and game-out, or there will be changes made,” Poile said. “I think we’re still a work in progress, and nobody, in my mind, exactly has their potion for the rest of this year sewn up.”

And while the door remains open for change throughout the lineup, whether it be necessary due to injury, slumps or other variables, Poile believes that the pliability up front can only be a good thing for the Preds.

“I’m very happy with the quantity and quality we have at forward,” Poile said. “It allows us to have the depth and the necessary flexibility to have success in an 82-game regular season.”

That success has been contagious in Nashville since the puck dropped to open the current campaign. And the trio leading the charge to the crease figure to do all they can to keep the Preds in the upper echelons of the Western Conference standings.

Especially a certain 20-year-old named Filip.

“He’s just a young player,” Poile said. “But I think he’s going to get better and better.”

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