NHL’s 30 in 30: Nashville Predators

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team: The Nashville Predators. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Nashville Predators

Finishing 6th overall, the Nashville Predators posted a record of 47-25-10 to end up with 104 points, placing them in second place in the Central Division and just two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks and five points back of the St. Louis Blues. Their home record (28-9-4) accumulated for 60 points, which was the second-best finish in that regard and also made them one of just three teams to finish the year with less than ten regulation losses on home ice. Their away record (19-16-6) was a big problem for them, accumulating just 42 points but luckily enough for Predators fans their dominance at home was more than enough to get them by.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

After several seasons of failing to make the post-season, Head Coach Barry Trotz was relieved of his duties and replaced by former Philadelphia Flyers bench boss Peter Laviolette. The team philosophy went from heavy-defensive play and clogging up the neutral zone to a high-octane, run ’em gun ’em style of offense. A few injured bodies from last season returned healthy and in full form and with the addition of some fresh faces in the line-up, the Nashville Predators made the playoffs. It would be short-lived thanks to a first-round meeting with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The biggest story for the Predators last season was the emergence of prospect Filip Forsberg, who was acquired from the Washington Capitals for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Seen then as a complete steal, nobody expected him to burst onto the scene as quickly as he did. Leading the team in scoring with 63 points, Forsberg brought an exciting brand of hockey to Nashville. James Neal wasn’t the productive player we saw him as in Pittsburgh, and with just two points in his last few dozen games (both assists), he is still offering a compete level that is hard to criticize. Beyond their top-line, Craig Smith offered the Predators some secondary scoring, which the team relied upon heavily. Generating a heap of shots, Smith put 23 goals on the board, hitting the 20-goal plateau for a second consecutive season.

Seldom do you see a player in his mid-30s who was previously on a downward spiral claw his way back, but that’s exactly what Mike Ribeiro did. Scoring 15 goals and finishing with 62 points, one behind Forsberg, Ribeiro may have revitalized his career and could look to stay in Nashville, where he seems pleased to play. Colin Wilson had a somewhat-bizarre season when you look at his point totals. His 20 goals and 42 points were career-highs for him and he got off to a nice start, but staggered off in the final half of the season. Smith managed to turn the heat back up in the playoffs, scoring six goals in five games in a losing effort. Calle Jarnkrok was another one of the younger faces in the line-up that many expected to elevate his play, but the skilled 23-year-old finished with 18 points in 74 games and struggled to keep his positioning on the depth chart.

On the blue-line, it’s just not fair what the Predators have created. Shea Weber continues to be a force offensively and on the powerplay, and while his advanced stats indicate a decline in his play, there’s still no stopping his ability to put points on the board. Perhaps one of the best coaching decisions was continuing to pair Weber with Roman Josi, who could be very well one of the most underrated players in the game. Putting up ten more points than Weber – all assists – Josi also played the tough assignments, averaged over 26 minutes per game and completely flourished in his role. It’s a wonder why he hasn’t received more Norris consideration, though that might change in the next season or two.

Ryan Ellis got off to a tremendous start to the season, playing an efficient role in the Predators top-four, but a lower-body injury took him out for a significant amount of time and that allowed Seth Jones to take the bull by the horn and run with it. When Ellis returned, he wasn’t at the level he was playing at pre-injury and lost his place on the depth chart. Jones, still only 19 years of age, is in a fantastic position as he gets to play behind a solid top-pairing with reduced pressure and a chance to blossom before he takes the reigns as a top-two defenseman on the team.  Mattias Ekholm entered his second season in the NHL and provided a role the Predators needed on their blue-line. A more defensive-minded presence, Ekholm added the element of a stay-at-home defenseman while putting up 18 points in 80 games.

When goaltender Pekka Rinne is healthy, he’s one of the best in the game. He returned to action full-time and was sensational in the first half of the season, posting a .931 save percentage, making sensational saves and back-stopping a heavy-offense team to win strings of games and remain dominant at home. He began to slip after the All-Star break and his average was brought down to a .923, but he still ended up as a Vezina finalist and finished second place in voting, inevitably behind Montreal Canadiens Carey Price. If you look at some of the best saves of the season last year, you’ll catch a few Carter Hutton stops that will wow you. Unfortunately, his season as a whole was nothing to smile about. A 6-7-4 record and finishing with just barely an above .900 save percentage, Hutton will need to step his game up, even if he’s serving as a back-up, if he wants to continue playing behind Rinne.

General Manager David Poile made two deals before the trade deadline in an effort to add depth and extra power to his team. Derek Roy was sent to Edmonton in exchange for Mark Arcobello. Nashville then acquired defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli in exchange for Olli Jokinen, Brendan Leipsic and their 2015 1st-round pick. The move made an already-talented defensive core that much more impressive, while Santorelli slotted into the Predators top-nine and gave them an extra element of power.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Predators have a total of eleven free agents to decide on. Of the eleven free agents, five of them are restricted to the team, including forwards Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Gabriel Bourque, Calle Jarnkrok and Taylor Beck. Forwards Mike Fisher, Mike Santorelli, Mike Ribeiro and Matt Cullen, and defensemen Cody Franson and Anton Volchenkov are the upcoming unrestricted free agents. In terms of non-roster players, Poile will have to decide on six restricted free agents and three unrestricted free agents.

With just over $40 million committed to six forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders, Poile has his work cut out for him. Hutton as a back-up going forward sounds reasonable enough for at least one more season and is a move friendly to the cap. On defense, they have six capable defensemen if 27-year-old Victor Bartley is given a more prominent role with the team. If Poile can lure a veteran defenseman onto the team at a low-rate, someone like Francois Beauchemin, it would give the Predators perfect flexibility and depth in a full season. Recently, the Predators signed 24-year-old left-handed defenseman Kristian Näkyvä, which could be a move for their main roster for next season.

Offense is the biggest story. Nashville has around $30 million to spend and six-seven forwards to add to the team. The first order of business would be to figure out what to do with unrestricted free agents Ribeiro and Fisher. Both centermen give the Predators a load of depth down the middle and both veterans like playing in Nashville. At a fair rate over a year or two, you could expect both to be back with the organization but one has to believe that given their age, anything past the three-year mark would be considered too much term, as both are currently 35 . Bourque may have posted a half of the production he did the season before last but at an inexpensive rate, he would be good to keep around. Wilson and Smith are absolute must-signs, as is Jarnkrok. Beck can also come at a cheap rate, which would mean some cheap contracts handed out to retain the services of a solid bottom-six.

In the end, the Predators may have to fill one-two more spots if all four of their restricted free agents leave in the summer. With ample amount of cap space, perhaps Poile is tempted to sniff around some big names expected to go before free agency kicks off. Perhaps someone like Patrick Sharp or Phil Kessel, two forwards who make a pretty penny but would add even more scoring to an already offensive-powered team.

The Draft Table

Poile and his scouting staff will have seven picks to work with at this upcoming draft, but unfortunately they’ll be dealing with no first-round pick. That pick belongs to the Maple Leafs, as part of the trade that brought both Santorelli and Franson to town. Poile did manage to pick up an extra fourth-round pick from the San Jose Sharks. In all, the Predators will select 55th, 85th, 100th, 115th, 145th, 175th and 205th.

While it may seem like no fun to not be picking in the first-round, let alone the fact that their first pick comes at 55th overall, it’s important to note that in a deep draft, that pick could still have a ton of value. Thinking back to some notable players drafted in that same spot, you’ll come across the likes of T.J. Galiardi, Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella and Stanley Cup Champion Antoine Vermette. There are plenty of players that could entice the Predators at this slot. Forwards like Dennis Yan, Christian Fischer and Mitchell Stephens are all slotted to go late-second, as are defensemen  Travis Dermott and Vince Dunn.

Nashville still has a relatively young core up front with a solid foundation on the blueline and an elite goaltender guarding the pipes. Keeping a few pieces they had from last season and having the band come back together means the Predators remain a top team in the West, especially if they can stay healthy. Of course, if they manage to acquire a top-six winger via the draft, they’ll be that much more threatening for next season.

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