Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today is the 2014-15 Nashville Predators.
It was a tough season for the Nashville Predators. The team suffered through eight losing streaks consisting of three games or more and finished with a record of 38-32-12, good for 88 points and 6th in the Central division.
Just ten games into the 2013-14 season, starting goaltender Pekka Rinne suffered a bizarre hip infection that sidelined him until his return in March. During that time, Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec attempted to hold the fort but their efforts were average at best and the netminding situation was left stunned. By the time Rinne had made his way back to the team, the damage had been done and the chances of making the playoffs at that point were slim to none.
With Shea Weber shouldering the load on defense and Roman Josi quickly becoming one of the most underrated blueliners league-wide, the Predators defense still wasn’t deep enough to back the goaltending woes. Seth Jones saw his first glimpse into the NHL and through 77 games in his first season, the 19-year old played time with both Weber and Matthias Ekholm at even strength and notched 25 points in the process. The outcome wasn’t all negative, as Jones earned some valuable experience in the NHL at a young age while Weber deservedly earned a spot as one of the finalists for the Norris Trophy.
The Predators acquired Calle Jarnkrok in a trade that saw long-time Pred David Legwand sent packing to the Detroit Red Wings in a deal made at the deadline. The Gavle-native played just 12 games with the Predators but showcased his talents immediately by putting up 9 points (2 goals, 7 assists). During his time in Milwaukee, Jarnkrok also saw some chemistry with Filip Forsberg, a player who also came to Nashville via trade. The two Swedes showed a glimpse into the possible near-future. Craig Smith also became a household name as he led the team in goals (24) and finished third in points (52), one behind departing Patric Hornqvist and four behind Weber.
However, with no Rinne in back and no forward on the team hitting 60 points during the season, the Predators missed the playoffs for a second straight year. Having traded Martin Erat for Forsberg two years ago in one of the most lopsided trades in recent history and with the addition of Jarnkrok, the Predators rejuvenation on offense was just a small dose of changes to come.
Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Nashville Predators
Having missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by just three points despite Rinne being out for a total of 53 games, it’s only normal to think the Predators management would deal with the pains of a disappointing year and look forward to next season with heightened expectations. In Nashville, this was not the case.
The team made headlines when they released Barry Trotz from the organization, opening the door to a new coach for the first time in their 16-year history. With his departure came the hiring of Peter Laviolette, who is best known for his work with the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. The move was a peculiar one, as the change wasn’t just who would stand behind the bench but a philosophical one as well. Long gone are the days of suffocating defense preached by Trotz, now the team is refreshed with a high-caliber offense style.
With an offensive-minded coach leading the team, the Predators would have to make some changes up front to comply with that mindset. Acquiring James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins was a nice way to start, even if it costed them some talent up front in Patric Hornqvist. With the low-risk, high-reward (or is it medium-reward?) signings of centermen Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen, it seems like the breath of fresh air had finally hit Nashville.
However, not all changes are necessarily good. Mike Fisher, who was one of the higher scoring forwards last season, suffered an achilles tendon tear during his off-season work out. Fisher is not expected to start the season, which opens the door for Jarnkrok and the surplus of centers that the Predators signed.
Deciding not to tender a qualifying offer to recent acquisition Michael Del Zotto, the team released the defenseman to free agency and instead signed Anton Volchenkov to a one-year deal following his buy-out from the New Jersey Devils. With the Predators top-4 virtually set and ready to go, Volchenkov’s role on the bottom pairing will be less of a burden on the team and more about logging minimal minutes and crashing into opposing players whenever he is on the ice. Again, a low-risk signing that could either work out nicely or fizzle out and end once the contract is completed at the conclusion of the season.
The biggest change may come organically, with the two Swedish kids, Jarkrok and Forsberg, possibly getting a look at the big picture. Paired together in Milwaukee, the two saw some success while showing undeniable chemistry. Whether or not that translates at the NHL level remains to be seen but if Laviolette is bringing his high-energy offense to the Predators, some youth in the top-9 is just what the doctor ordered for an offense that looked stifled last season. It’ll be interesting to see what Forsberg can bring to the table and why Washington was so willing to send the young Swede packing for Martin Erat.
Ribeiro may be entering a new locker room for the fourth time in four years but this time around he is seeing at least one familiar face in Neal. The two played for the Dallas Stars for three seasons and are now re-united, with the hope that they can click as linemates with the Predators and unleash some of their offensive upside to give the team their scoring fangs.
Despite posting his lowest point total in a decade, some personal issues (that he’s since overcome), and having been bought out by the Arizona Coyotes this summer, Ribeiro hopes to re-discover his scoring potential after posting 96 points in 128 games in the last two seasons with the Coyotes and the Washington Capitals.
“We played before, we’re friends since then. It will just be a matter of practicing together and talking,” Ribeiro said, per NHL.com. “I’m sure he’s learned some stuff since his first year in the league. It’s just getting back that chemistry. You do that by practicing together and trying to find what he likes and what I like to do.”
On his wing, Neal will be the compliment to Ribeiro’s vision and slick passing ability. Neal is the top-wing sniper the Predators so desperately needed in their organization and playing alongside Ribeiro will make the absence of Fisher on the top line not be such a bitter pill to swallow, especially if both Ribeiro and Neal can get themselves going early on into the season. It’s what coach Laviolette will be banking on heading into training camp and beyond:
“They had some chemistry,” he said. “We’ll at least look at that in training camp and see if that’s a duo that can get paired together. Then we’ll try to find somebody to slide in with them on the left side.”
The goal at this point is to get Ribeiro back on track. Neal provides the ability you’d expect a sniper to bring to the table and he’ll more than likely do that. The wild card right now is the guy playing center and if Ribeiro is that guy, Laviolette will be banking on him being the 70-80 point player he was just a few seasons ago. Ribeiro himself admitted to his off-ice problems and those have since been resolved, with his head now clear and his family with him, taking away the distraction of not seeing his kids during the 82-game season.
LAVIOLETTE, THE RIGHT CHOICE
When Trotz was fired, the move was one that nobody wanted to happen but knew it was what was needed at the time. After two years of no playoff action, the Predators management traded in their defense-first mentality for Laviolette and his goal-scoring craze. On the front, it seems like the right move given all the additions to the forward group that could provide a revitalizing punch. Not only did the coach behind the bench change, but the mentality and the cast up front has drastically changed in the off-season, enough so to make the Predators a dangerous team going forward.
It’s a contrast to the last few years. For instance, if you want some perspective on the goals per game aspect from the Nashville camp, here’s a look at those last five seasons. Keep in mind, two of them saw the Predators making the playoffs:
It’s safe to say that with the changes made and the breath of fresh air Laviolette brings to the team, the Predators will be better than 23rd in the league for goals per game. While the likes of Roy, Ribeiro and Jokinen are on the wrong side of their 30s at this stage of their respective careers, they can still provide some offense to give Laviolette the luxury of playing three lines of scoring threats. Even without Fisher in the line-up to start the season, the Predators have a surplus of forwards that can contribute to the team’s success.
Laviolette himself has some feats he’s achieved during his coaching career. He brought the Carolina Hurricanes to the promised land in the 2005-06 season. Despite his firing three years later, Laviolette found himself another job the following season with the Philadelphia Flyers. Perhaps this is where things become skewed a tad, due to the amount of talent the Flyers were icing — and to this day, still are. In the final four seasons with the Flyers, Laviolette coached the team to top-10 finishes in goals per game each season, two of which the team finished top-3.
Of course, with any situation there are always detractors. While The Hurricanes did win a Stanley Cup under the guidance of Laviolette, the team failed to reach the playoffs in each season following, leading up to his firing. In Philadelphia, he coached the team to the Stanley Cup finals and while the team made the playoffs after that magical run, the final season of his tenure ended in disaster before Laviolette was again fired. By the time he got canned, the Flyers were a laughing stock and it took a coach with absolutely no NHL experience to bring the team back from the point of (almost) no return. As good as his track record may be, the one detail it seems to hide is his car crash endings with each team Laviolette has coached.
Some even believe that his coaching style could scare players away and his offense-first is a defenseman killer — see; Philadelphia Flyers. Yet, the Predators find themselves in a different situation. Weber puts pucks through boards during practice, for fun. Jones is a defenseman who will be only 20 when the season begins and has enough offensive awareness to anchor the second wave on the powerplay, if not now then in the very near future. Josi and Ekholm can benefit from powerplay time with Weber and Jones as well. Laviolette also likes his tough-style defenseman and Anton Volchenkov can lay the body when needed.
The defense of the Predators is more suited for Laviolette’s coaching. The offense has enough depth to put pucks into the net and if all else fails, a healthy Rinne is there to save the day.
On paper, in a perfect scenario, Laviolette and the Nashville Predators are a nice fit. There are his negatives, mainly his reputation of being a hot head, but for a team that had trouble scoring and suffered through some major losses, namely their star goaltender last season, the team could use a swift kick in the butt to get them going.
2014-15 Lineup Projections:
Colin Wilson – Mike Ribeiro – James Neal
Filip Forsberg – Calle Jarnkrok – Craig Smith
Gabriel Bourque – Derek Roy – Viktor Stalberg
Matt Cullen – Paul Gaustad – Eric Nystrom
For the top line, it’s quite evident what Ribeiro and Neal can offer to the team. In the case of Wilson slotted on the top line, it’s what he brings to it besides scoring goals. Wilson was progressing well before his injury in March of 2013, where he required surgery on both his shoulders. Wilson’s main struggle is consistency but on a line with Ribeiro and Neal, that small detail may be shadowed by two skilled forwards leading the way. Wilson has the size, speed, and offensive upside to keep up with his linemates and if he can pitch in on some goals, the rest is gravy.
The next two lines are quite interchangeable. Roy still has the speed and release to play a top-9 role, so whether he slots in as a second or third line center is something Laviolette has to consider during training camp. On his wings, Viktor Stalberg and Gabriel Bourque complete a very speedy line that plays a tenacious brand of hockey. While not overly productive last season, all three men working together and utilizing their footspeed could lead to better seasons for all three. In their case, they’d land a position where they could either be a second or third line altogether.
The other line competing for more responsibility and added ice time is the line of Forsberg, Jarnkrok and Smith. Last season, Smith led the team in goals. Sticking him on a line with Forsberg and Jarnkrok makes sense, as the two Swedes showed what they were made of down in Milwaukee. The three have shown signs of good two-way hockey and as a unit, can provide some heavy artillery in the offensive zone, while back-checking and keeping the puck away from their own blue line. Of course, experience could be key in this line’s success or demise but the small sample we have seen from both Jarnkrok and Forsberg has been promising. Add in Smith scoring 20-25 goals and you have a solid line.
On the bottom line, you have a pair of centermen that can win face-offs and contributed to the Predators leading the league last year in face-off winning percentage. Paul Gaustad is your de facto center on this line, with Matt Cullen as a replacement should Gaustad ever be ejected. The two can provide good defensive play on a fourth line, which helps Nystrom who is particularly weak in that role, yet he can contribute by scoring every now and then (15 goals in 79 games last season). With excellent face-off wins, Gaustad’s line could find themselves taking important defensive zone battles, while also setting up Weber on the point during 5-on-5 play.
The wildcard in this projection is Jokinen, a centerman brought into a roster already full of centers and who doesn’t have a clearly defined role at this point. He could just as easily replace Roy in the top six as he could be sitting in the press box. At 35 years old he’s slowed down considerably but he can still bring a good game, so how Laviolette decides to utilize him will be very interesting.
Roman Josi – Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm – Seth Jones
Anton Volchenkov – Ryan Ellis
Weber and Josi are likely to be paired once again for this upcoming season. Weber, coming off a Norris-finalist campaign, will provide what Predators fans are used to seeing. His bomb from the point and defensive zone coverage are why Weber leads all NHL defenseman in minutes played, among other things. Josi will capitalize on his break-out season last year, where he played 26 minutes a night and was one of just five Predators players to hit the 40-point mark. All this while facing the toughest competition each night in just the third year of his NHL career. Josi signed a 7-year, $28 million contract and will attempt to show the organization that he is worth every penny.
Ekholm and Jones played together last year as well and looked good. The pairing completes an impressive top 4 for the Predators while also giving a glimpse into the powerplay, as Jones will use his shot on the second wave with Ekholm feeding him, while Weber and Josi work the first unit. Although Jones is still young and has a lot to learn, he has tons of upside and showed last season that it won’t be long until he starts to reach his potential.
Ryan Ellis gets the short end of the stick in this situation, as he isn’t quite capable of cracking into the top-4. Alongside Volchenkov, Ellis will have to concentrate on his ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone and cycle it well in the neutral zone enough to eclipse Volchenkov’s weaknesses. On the other side, Volchenkov may be just a shell of his former self but he can still add some sandpaper to the Predators bottom pairing, something Laviolette will appreciate.
In goal, Rinne will be healthy and ready to go. For a team that missed the playoffs last year by just a hair, an improved offense and the return of their star goaltender could be exactly the shake-up this team needed to reach the Playoffs once again. For his part, Hutton had a decent rookie season last year under the circumstances covering for Rinne and should be more than capable in the back-up role once again.
Players to Watch:
For Josi, fans will hope he continues to rise to the occasion and that his break-out season wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Playing top opposition alongside Weber, his work is cut out for him. Last season, he showed some great strides at improving his offensive game, jumping up into rushes and cycling the puck in all three zones. With Weber, it’s a luxury for Josi and one he won’t soon want to give up, so look for him to keep progressing and surprising the NHL world.
With Jarnkrok’s 9 points in 12 games and the role he played in Milwaukee, helping Forsberg to hit 34 points in 47 games, it’s only a matter of time before these two gifted forwards break out into the NHL and showcase their talents. Jarnkrok’s two-way play will be appreciated by the Predators fans, while Forsberg could show glimpses of the elite sniper tag he’s received since the year he was drafted. Both these two young men have something to prove, coming in through trades. In Forsberg’s case, the Washington Capitals were willing to part ways with him for Erat, so could they have known something that Nashville didn’t? Only Forsberg himself can answer that question. Their inexperience will show at times over a full season but the promise is definitely there.
On the Rise:
After savoring some success last year, Jones will be back in action on the Predators blue-line and look to anchor a second pairing with Ekholm. In 77 games last season, Jones posted 25 points, including 6 goals. That performance paled in comparison to his draft year rival Nathan MacKinnon but on his own accord, it was a positive start to his career. As the season drew on, his responsibilities were increased and playing with Weber and Ekholm certainly helped in his development. Heading into a sophomore season, all eyes will be on Jones and whether he avoids the sophomore slump or falls into that hole.
Smith’s 2013-14 campaign was one he’ll remember, scoring 24 goals and leading the team in that category. The season has earned him a chance to fight for a top-6 role and continue to prove the hockey world that Craig Smith can be a household name. It’s uncertain where he finds himself in the top-6, whether it’s playing with Jarnkrok and Forsberg or possibly seeing some time with Ribeiro and Neal on the top line, putting all the scoring eggs into one basket.
Bourque is a dark horse pick. At times, he can be quiet offensively but his work ethic is there. Bourque provides the type of play where he does all the little things right and makes the small plays that lead to big things. If he can add some secondary scoring, around 10 goals or so, he’ll have established himself as a complimentary player that fans can get behind.
On the Decline:
It’s no secret that Volchenkov is no longer the player he once was and as he continues his NHL career, it’s becoming more and more evident that he is a liability in his own zone when he’s on the ice. He can still contribute a physical element to a team that needs it in Nashville but the pairing of he and Ellis will rely heavily on Ellis’ ability to move the puck up the ice quickly before the opposition can establish a presence in their zone.
Jokinen played all 82 games last season with the Winnipeg Jets and contributed 43 points. While he still has his size, his footspeed has dropped and his age is starting to show. Jokinen can provide some leadership to the Predators and his style of play could fit the coaching of Laviolette but given the decline in his overall game, largely due to age, it’ll be a surprise if he meets the same offensive rate that he did with the Jets. On a one year contract, he could alternate in and out of the lineup.
2014-15 Season Expectations:
The Nashville Predators are a much better team than the one that finished 6th in their division last season. Their offense has upgraded significantly with talent in the top-6 and a pinch of youth to create a deep top-9 while their first two defensive pairings can compete with any team in their division. The main problem last year was the absence of Rinne but now that he’s back and ready to go, the goaltending situation is stable and so are the Nashville Predators.
It all relies on certain pieces of the puzzle falling into place. On paper, they are a playoff team. In reality, so many things need to happen in order for them to achieve the post-season. Roy needs to be the player they expect him to be and step into a top-6 role. The balance of the pressure falls on Ribeiro and Neal, whom both need to come firing out of the gates if the Predators want to stand a chance against some of the powerhouses in their division. The kids also need to get their fair share of opportunity, but that stands a great chance of happening under Laviolette’s rule.
Best case scenario; the Predators grab a wild card spot and make the playoffs, where their offensive depth and goaltending will be tested.
Worst case scenario; the team finishes exactly where they found themselves last season — 6th place.
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