If you recall this time last summer, the Nashville Predators had missed the playoffs for a second-straight season, and Nashville General Manager David Poile entered the offseason with a clear mandate to add offense in order to bolster Nashville’s prospects for busting out of the non-playoff funk. But the revamped 2014-15 offering did more than merely earn a postseason spot; it far exceeded expectations. For two thirds of the season, the Preds proved there is far more here than a team content to simply qualify for a Top Eight berth.
Below, I set out three lessons learned this past season that would indicate Nashville might be ready to compete with the best of the Western Conference.
The Defense Improved Measurably:
Heading into 2014-15, the D corps was widely regarded as one of the best and brightest in the business. With an average age in the mid-20s, the Predators put three pairings on the ice that provided a terrific mix of dynamic offense and sound defense. You won’t want to change much here.
In terms of the first pairing, Shea Weber was Shea Weber – but Roman Josi had the sort of year that really turned heads. A League leader in shot blocks, he also set new career highs in all offensive categories. He may have been the most valuable defender to the group on a season-wide basis.
Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm both took significant steps forward while making up a very solid second pairing. Ellis showed he was one of the smartest players in camp; he operates like a quarterback on the second power-play unit. Ekholm demonstrated, where he had not before, that he has a great feel for when and how to activate up into the attack from the opposition’s blue line. He made a number of game-breaking plays from the backend this year at crucial times.
A Healthy Rinne Still Ranks Among the League’s Best:
Up until the time of the injury to his knee, Pekka Rinne was enjoying the best season of his career. He also appeared to be the lead dog in the Vezina Trophy race. However, it took him (and his team) some time to get on track once Rinne was ready to take the net back following his lower-body injury. To be completely candid, after his return, Rinne’s game never saw the same consistency that he had shown through the first two thirds of the season. Having said that, this team does not want for strong goaltending if No. 35 is able to return to camp in the same shape as he was to start 2014-15.
The Forward Corps Could Still Do With an Upgrade:
One area requiring the organization’s attention this summer remains the forwards. Yes, Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and others added punch to what was a sputtering offense in years past, but that’s not to say that more isn’t needed. The Preds saw long stretches of hockey where they struggled to find the back of the net and it hurt them; especially during a late-season slump. A survey of key Western Conference competition shows it takes three or four lines that can add scoring. Another key signing or two might be just what the doctor ordered for the Predators.
Also, I’ve long believed that this group could stand to be bigger on the front line. To point out Bryan Bickell, David Backes, Ryan Reaves and Ryan Getzlaf is to name just a few of the Western Conference big bodies the Preds will need to neutralize if they hope to withstand the heavy going and put together a deep run next season. There was a lot to like in someone like Chris Stewart – acquired by the Minnesota Wild at the deadline this year; a physical force who shows up on the scoring sheet consistently.
But in summary, the Predators are in a much stronger position than they were last year at this time. A couple of key adds in the offseason, strong seasons from the majority of the group and a healthy Rinne from October to April would no doubt put the club in a great spot.