The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Nashville Predators.
Stanley Cup odds: 13-1
Key additions: Alexei Emelin, D; Nick Bonino, C; Scott Hartnell, LW
Key departures: Mike Fisher, C; Vernon Fiddler, C; Colin Wilson, LW; James Neal, RW
Does Nashville have enough depth down the middle to compete with the rest of the Central?
It was only one post-season, but Ryan Johansen silenced some of the doubters who believed he couldn’t shoulder the load as a No. 1 center by putting up three goals and 13 points in 14 games before a leg injury cost him the remainder of the Predators’ playoff run. If Johansen replicates that performance, there’s really no questioning whether Nashville has a top-line pivot. That’s not to say there isn’t any concern about the rest of the center depth, though.
Nick Bonino, acquired this summer, is slotted in as the Predators’ second-line pivot, but he spent the past two seasons excelling as the No. 3 behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Will he be ready for a jump back up the lineup? He was a No. 2 for two-straight seasons before arriving with the Penguins — first with Anaheim and then with Vancouver — and performed well, but neither team did all that much in the post-season. Beyond Bonino, center duty falls to Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons. As third- and fourth-line centers go, the Predators could be worse off than two relatively young players with some unrealized potential. However, everyone, from Johansen to Sissons, is going to need to prove Nashville is deep enough from top to bottom in the middle of the ice.
The Predators came within two wins of their first Stanley Cup last June, and they’re equipped to finish the job this time. They boast the NHL’s best top four on defense in Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, and the ages in that quartet range from 26 to 28. They combine to play two-and-a-half periods of every game, meaning Nashville’s third defense pairing gets a tiny workload while opponents spend most of their time batting the elite foursome.
The Preds’ first line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson broke out last year, and it’s just getting started, given that those three forwards are 25, 23 and 24. Between them and the ‘D,’ Nashville’s most important players are young and capable of maintaining – or increasing – their production for many seasons to come. That means the Predators’ Cup window remains wide open. In goal, Pekka Rinne played some of the best hockey of his career in the first three rounds of the playoffs. He’s great at home, where Nashville’s fans have become influencers on games with their loud-and-proud passion.
After that stellar first line, the rest of Nashville’s forward group doesn’t leap off the page, especially with James Neal lost to Vegas and Colin Wilson dealt to Colorado. Youngsters Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg have flashed potential but don’t yet look like slam-dunk top-six NHLers. Kevin Fiala possesses a nice upside but is recovering from a broken left leg sustained in the post-season. The Preds were a good-but-not-great offensive team last year, ranking 11th in league scoring. If no one steps up to replace Neal’s goal production, that’s a problem. Don’t forget, Nashville barely squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 16 overall seed. That leaves little margin for error.
Rinne’s hot-and-cold play sounds alarm bells, too. He was extremely shaky on the road in the Cup final, and his career trends tell us he’s always been a weaker goalie away from cozy Bridgestone Arena. He turns 35 in November and is more likely to decline than maintain his current level of play. Rinne’s regular season performances rate as merely average in four of the past five years. There’s a lot of pressure on the ‘D’ to keep opponents from exposing him.
THN’s PREDICTION: 2nd in the Central. The Predators were better than their record in 2016-17 and proved it in the playoffs. Nashville’s defense alone makes them an upper-echelon squad in the Western Conference, and if the youngsters step up, the Predators will have some surprising scoring to add to their defensive depth.
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