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Neal, new centers could help Predators improve

by Corey Masisak / Nashville Predators

After back-to-back seasons without a playoff berth, the Nashville Predators changed coaches for the first time in franchise history.

Peter Laviolette replaces Barry Trotz, and he will have a natural goal scorer at his disposal that this roster has been missing for a few years. General manager David Poile's other big move of the offseason was trading for James Neal, who should have a chance to break the franchise record for goals in a season (it is 33, by Jason Arnott, in 2008-09).

There is also a cadre of new centers, in part because Mike Fisher will miss the start of the season with an Achilles injury. Poile went on a bargain-bin shopping spree, scooping up Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy for a combined total of $500,000 more than Vinny Lecavalier, who was speculated as an option for the Predators.

A healthy Pekka Rinne is also a huge addition for Nashville. The Central Division looks brutally tough, but Rinne could be the best goaltender in the group. He might need to be to help the Predators back into the postseason.

Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Predators:


Colin Wilson - Mike Ribeiro - James Neal

Matt Cullen - Olli Jokinen - Filip Forsberg

Gabriel Bourque - Calle Jarnkrok - Craig Smith

Viktor Stalberg - Paul Gaustad - Eric Nystrom

Derek Roy - Richard Clune

Colin Wilson's linemates last season were Fisher and Patric Hornqvist, so one of the new centers and Neal seem like a natural fit (Ribeiro and Neal were with the Dallas Stars together). The two keys to the Nashville forward corps puzzle is how do the centers line up and do Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok fit somewhere?

The Predators would like to give Forsberg a chance to prove he's ready for important NHL minutes. Jarnkrok could be the odd man out, but he had some success between Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith after arriving from Detroit just before the NHL Trade Deadline.

If Jarnkrok solidifies a spot, that probably means one of the three veteran additions sits, and Roy seems like a good bet to do so at the start of the season. Having legitimate NHL players in the press box is not a bad thing.

It will be interesting to see how Laviolette deploys his centers after he establishes a depth chart. Trotz relied quite heavily on Gaustad for defensive-zone faceoffs.


Roman Josi - Shea Weber

Mattias Ekholm - Seth Jones

Anton Volchenkov - Ryan Ellis*

Victor Bartley

Seth Jones played about an equal amount of time with Shea Weber and Matthias Ekholm at even strength, but the Predators could try to see if he's ready to anchor a pairing full-time in his second NHL season. Weber was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2013-14.

Each of the team's top four defensemen were at 50 percent or better in Fenwick for percentage, with Josi leading the way at 51.1 percent. Ryan Ellis' NHL career remains more about potential than production, though a fresh start with Laviolette might help.

Anton Volchenkov was, like the centers, a low-cost, low-risk addition. He's not going to help improve Nashville's puck possession numbers, but he might still be able to offer steady play in a limited role.

A potential pitfall for the Predators is depth on defense. If there is more than one injury, the next man up is going to be someone with very little NHL experience unless there is a late addition before the season starts.


Pekka Rinne

Carter Hutton

The Predators were, by several ways of measure, a perfectly decent team in 2013-14, one capable of reaching the postseason with the right breaks. Then Rinne needed hip surgery, and the rest of the campaign was a struggle in search of competent goaltending.

Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec were OK at times, but by the time Rinne returned Nashville's playoff chances were pretty dim. Those two, plus maybe Magnus Hellberg, could vie for the backup role behind Rinne during training camp.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Taylor Beck*, F Austin Watson, D Anthony Bitetto, D Garrett Noonan, G Marek Mazanec

*Restricted free agent

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22


Undervalued: Roman Josi -- The Swiss defenseman's offensive game developed immensely last season, increasing his points-per-game from 0.38 two seasons ago to 0.56. His 40 points were tied for 23rd among NHL defensemen and his 13 goals were tied for ninth. With Shea Weber as his defense partner and the Predators adding some offensive firepower, you can expect Josi to continue to improve as a fantasy weapon on the blue line.

Overvalued: James Neal -- In 214 games with the Dallas Stars, Neal had 72 goals and 131 points. In 199 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he had 89 goals and 184 points. Now a member of the Predators, Neal's offensive output will likely look something closer to the numbers he posted in Dallas. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just not what you're used to since he spent three-plus seasons playing wing on a line with Evgeni Malkin. Neal is a top-50 overall player thanks to his value across all categories, but he's no longer a top-20 guy.

Sleeper: Mike Ribeiro -- There's definitely some risk in drafting Ribeiro (off-ice issues and the fact he had 47 points in 80 games last season with the Phoenix Coyotes), but the center has the kind of upside that makes him worth taking in the later rounds. Ribeiro had 49 points (27 on the power play) in 48 games for the Washington Capitals in 2012-13. Things didn't work out with Phoenix last season, but expect to see Ribeiro center Nashville's top line with Neal on his wing. A season of 15 goals and 55 points could be in reach for the 34-year-old playmaker.

Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes

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Author: Corey Masisak | Staff Writer

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