The Nashville Predators pushed a Western Conference Round Two series to a seventh game. Any way you look at it, that’s another step forward for the current iteration of the guys in Gold. Better still, I project this group will add to that in the coming year, due in large part to the following three players to watch in 2016-17:
The statistics support it, but it goes beyond the raw numbers… no forward is more critical to his club’s success than Filip Forsberg. It’s no accident the Predators’ fortunes turned just as sophomore winger was shaking off a mid-season funk. The sturdy Swedish forward had “just” 30 points in the 50 games leading up to All-Star Break. In the remaining 30 games, he was better than a point-per-game player (32 pts), including a feverish February where he posted 12 goals and four assists in just 13 games.
So why is the “Prince” a skater to watch for next year? Simply said, he’ll come back stronger – both mentally and physically – in 2016-17, by virtue of him grabbing his own bootstraps and turning his 2015-16 campaign around in mid-stride. Anytime a player can dig himself out of an extended stretch of games where he has been something short of his best, it often serves to galvanize that player. Which is not to say that the player becomes slump proof, but the experience can certainly reduce the length of time that same player wallows in a future valley. That’s not to mention adversity overcome is often the recipe for finding new heights in your game. Bank on it… we’ve not yet seen Forsberg’s best hockey.
For my money, Mattias Ekholm was the nicest surprise of the year. Heading into the 2015-16 season, you could make the argument Nashville had the best D-corps League wide. However, when Ekholm turned up his game early on, he very quickly stripped away any argument that Nashville even had a competitor in this area.
There’s no better measure of a skater’s worth than his time on ice (TOI). And Ekholm tacked on a full minute to his TOI (20:15) over the prior season. During the postseason, Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette relied on him an average of nearly 24 minutes per night. In fact, there were a number of games where he and partner Ryan Ellis outpaced both Roman Josi and Shea Weber in that department.
TOI aside, how about the offensive numbers? The Swede posted more points 8g-27a (35 pts) this season than the total of his first four years (27 pts). Look for another impactful year from No. 14 in 2016-17.
Craig Smith has now posted 20 goals in three-straight seasons. The difference last season, though, was that he, like Forsberg, had to fight through a less productive first half to reach 20. The reason being? If you recall, Smith had just signed a long-term deal last summer on the heels of his second, 20-goal season.
Ask any player signed to a contract of three years or more, there is a learning process to finding the motivation to elevate your game from night to night. The good news is Smith appears to have figured it out; he was 60 percent more productive (goals scored) post All-Star break during the 2015-16 season. I contend Smith is capable of 30 goals in this League; the experience he gained last season could translate into the ability to hit that mark.