By Namish Modi
For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators appear to have a bona fide top line.
The newly constructed unit consisting of Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, and Filip Forsberg, along with new bench boss Peter Laviolette, has the Predators (12-5-2) playing a much different style of hockey than years past.
“It’s a big difference from the past couple of years from how Nashville has been playing,” Forsberg said. “It’s all good, Peter coming here with a more attacking and offensive type of game, I think we’ve been adjusting to that really good so far, and we have to keep doing that and keep working hard.”
Albeit a small sample size of 19 games, all three are on pace for 60-plus points. Nashville hasn’t had a player exceed the 60 point mark since J-P Dumont notched 65 back in the 2008-2009 season.
Forsberg, the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft, was acquired from the Washington Capitals in April 2013 for Martin Erat. He leads all rookies with nine goals and 22 points to start the season, eight ahead of second-place Johnny Gaudreau. He’s even tied for fifth in the overall scoring race with Vladimir Tarasenko, Mark Giordano, and Claude Giroux.
“Filip’s just a really good hockey player,” said Nashville GM David Poile. “He’s got his own talents, but he’s certainly benefiting from playing with arguably our two best forwards.”
What’s even more impressive for the Swede is he is only averaging 17:06 in ice time, while every player he is chasing has a minimum of 88 seconds more on average. Not to mention Forsberg leads the NHL with a cool plus-20 rating.
“I’ve got to thank [Ribeiro and Neal] for a lot of my success so far, and obviously for the team’s success,” Forsberg said. “Because Neal and ‘Ribs’ are probably the two most skilled guys on our team, and they have been in the league for a while.”
Forsberg, Neal, and Ribeiro have done the bulk of their damage at even strength, while the team as a whole only has nine power play goals.
Just to put in perspective how good they have been at even strength, the trio is second in the NHL with a combined 43 points amongst the top three 5-on-5 scorers on each team. Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have the most, a combined 47 points.
“I think both [Ribeiro and Neal] have been good,“ Laviolette said. “Mike’s excellent, he can really make that line hum, But Nealer’s a power-forward and Filip has some of those characteristics as well. He can skate, he can attack the ice and he’s got a quick release and a quick shot. There’s definitely a lot to learn from [Neal and Ribeiro].”
Forsberg sits tied for third in even-strength scoring with 16 points while Ribeiro is right behind him tied for fourth with 15. The 27-year-old Neal has 12 points, tied for seventh.
“They know what it takes to be successful, and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from them,” Forsberg said.
Neal, who was acquired from the Penguins over the summer, had many doubters coming into the season and was expected to struggle without the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on his line. However, the right winger has fit in well with nine goals, tied for seventh in the league.
“Well it’s hard to argue that playing with Crosby and Malkin is not going help you from a statistical standpoint,” Poile said. “The point I’d make is that I think James Neal is a really good hockey player, and he can fit in with a lot of different players. Getting him the puck, he’s got a great shot. And when he gets those opportunities, he’s going to score regardless of who is he playing with.”
It's not the first time Neal has played with Ribeiro, as the two were members of the Dallas Stars from 2008-2011, before Neal was dealt to Pittsburgh midway through the 2010-2011 season.
For Ribeiro, a Montreal native, Nashville is his fifth team in the last four seasons after signing a one-year contract over the summer. The 34-year old, so far, has been a remarkable fit.
“He and Neal, [during] Neal’s rookie year in Dallas, were both together and played pretty well together so it seemed like hopefully a natural fit for us to try,” Poile said. “And the coach tried that right at training camp and they’ve been together since day one, so it’s been really good”
The signings of Neal and Ribeiro along with the additions of Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen and the hiring of Laviolette signal a major change of philosophy by Poile. And it is paying early dividends. Laviolette has found some chemistry among his top lines, something that has seemed to be lacking in Nashville the past few years.
Nashville, who started 8-9-2 through its first 19 games in 2013-2014, sits at the top of the Central division now.
It’s early, but Music City could be rocking this spring.