Nashville Predators: 41-29-12; lost in the Stanley Cup Final
After making best-ever run, now what? The Preds are coming off their first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup final. Actually, their run to within two wins of a Stanley Cup marked the first time the team had advanced beyond the second round, so last year stands as a seminal moment in franchise history. So, now what? Is there an inevitable hangover to start the season, as is often the case for teams who play deep into June? It's a fair question, although apart from the retirement of captain Mike Fisher and the absence or breakout star Ryan Ellis, who is missing from the team's blue line for up to six months following knee surgery, the roster remains more or less the same as last season, and the belief, internally and externally, is that this is a team that isn't just talented, but is just hitting its prime.
Carousel with a capital 'C': Speaking of Fisher, this is the second straight season the team will enter the season with a new captain following the trade of Shea Weber in June 2016 to Montreal for P.K. Subban. But while last season it took the Predators much of the first half of the season to get used to life without Weber, this year, the transition should be much easier with highly-respected defenseman Roman Josi donning the 'C'. Also, the addition of Nick Bonino, who ostensibly takes Fisher's spot down the middle, is coming off back-to-back Cup wins in Pittsburgh and adds another important voice to the room.
Can Johansen continue upward trend? Ryan Johansen missed the last part of the Western Conference final and all of the final against Pittsburgh with a knee injury. If he's in the lineup, the Predators likely win the Cup. That's how well Johansen was playing in a bust-out playoff run for the big center, who was acquired in another blockbuster two seasons ago from Columbus. Johansen signed a whopper eight-year deal worth $64 million. Does it change anything for the 25-year-old? We've seen players like Anze Kopitar and others struggle with the burden of such contracts, but our guess is Johansen continues his upward arc. It will be interesting early on to see if head coach Peter Laviolette keeps the dynamic Johansen/Filip Forsberg/Viktor Arvidsson unit together or spots in repatriated Pred Scott Hartnell or Kevin Fiala, who was also injured in the playoffs, with Johansen and Forsberg. Nice options to have.
Picking on Pekka: The single-most important question facing the Predators this season is how starting netminder Pekka Rinne rebounds from his personal descent into hell in the final against Pittsburgh. Rinne was a catalyst to the Preds' sweeping Chicago in the first round, and knocking off St. Louis in the second round, and Anaheim in the conference final -- but Rinne got shelled in three losses to Pittsburgh on the road in the final, allowing 11 goals on 45 shots in three road losses. At age 34, Rinne can just start to see the finish line on the horizon, but the challenge will be in forgetting his immediate past. Look for promising backup and fellow Finn, Juuse Saros, to get some more work as he looks right now like a solid heir to the goaltending throne in Nashville.
'Smashville' takes center stage: What does winning mean? Starting with the acquisition of Subban, the buzz surrounding the Predators continued to grow through the season with the team selling out all 41 home games for the first time in franchise history. As the playoffs rolled around, the sporting world fell in love with the city, with entertainment stars lining up to take part in anthems and pre-game ceremonies, and literally hundreds of thousands of fans descending on the city just to be near the arena during postseason games. The Predators estimate the economic impact from the playoff run at $50 million and the Predators Foundation raised $200,000 during the playoffs. No reason the Preds shouldn't continue to reap the benefits of their groundbreaking season, as they have shown themselves to be a model franchise on and off the ice.
The Predators will miss Ryan Ellis sorely but they are so deep on the blue line they might be the only team in the league that can sustain that kind of loss without missing a beat. And hangover or not this team is the real deal.
Predators finish first in the Central Division.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.