Preds preview: Team fighting for playoff spot in new division

With
a revamped roster buoying renewed hopes, the Nashville Predators will
officially turn the page on their forgettable 2012-13 campaign
when they open their season at Central Division rival St. Louis on
Thursday.
 

After
earning a playoff berth for seven of the previous eight seasons, the
Predators hit a wall during their injury-plagued ’12-’13
lockout-shortened
season, finishing fourth from the bottom in the NHL’s overall standings.
For an organization that had reached the second round of the Stanley
Cup Playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, the failures proved a
wake-up call.
 

With
the signings of rugged, two-way forwards Eric Nystrom and Matt
Hendricks, the Predators signaled a return to the gritty, hard-working
style that had helped to elevate them into the league’s upper echelon.
The Predators also added some skill in veteran center Matt Cullen and
left wing Viktor Stalberg, a member of the ’12-’13 Cup champion Chicago
Blackhawks, along with a pair of talented rookies,
center Filip Forsberg and defenseman Seth Jones, the highly-touted
prospect whom the Predators selected fourth overall at the 2013 NHL
Draft.
  

With so many changes and players recovering from injury, general manager David Poile said the Predators are “still a team getting to know each other and a team in transition.”
“We really haven’t seen our lineup together and that’s obviously something that will be very important to see before we make any what I would call firm statements on how everyone fits in,” Poile said.
“… I’m not exactly sure what we have other than I know we have great energy, great enthusiasm, lots of spirited of play. I think physicality is an area we wanted to make sure we have covered and I think we have that.”

As
the Predators attempt to land themselves once again in the postseason,
they will do so in a reshuffled landscape and playoff system.
Gone is old six-division format in favor of a four-division one.
Nashville’s new Central Division brings with it perhaps a new arch-rival
in Minnesota, the home of former Predators defenseman Ryan Suter as
well as Nashville’s original owner Craig Leipold. Other
newcomers to the division include Dallas, Colorado and Winnipeg while
Columbus and Detroit, the team that Predators’ fans once loved to hate,
have migrated to the Eastern Conference.
 

Under
the old playoff format, each division winner was guaranteed a top-three
seed in the 15-team conferences with the final five berths
going to those with the best overall records. In the new format, teams
will have to qualify as one of the top four in their division – with one
exception: if the fifth-place team in one of a conference’s divisions
earns more points than the fourth-place team
in the other, then it wins the final postseason spot. Another key note:
the Western Conference has 14 teams to the Eastern’s 16.
  

Poile said the organization “absolutely” was excited to put last season behind it and start the new one.
“It was such a downer at the end of the season when we kind of free fell to the fourth-worst record in the league with seven injuries to our forwards,” he said. “It was very disappointing, a very unhappy position to be in. This training camp has been all about bringing in six or seven new players and trying to mold them into the lineup and get chemistry going. It’s a work in progress.”

With that in mind, here is a closer look at the transformation in the Predators’ roster from last season to this one:
 

Returning
players

Players: D Shea Weber, D Kevin Klein, D Roman Josi, D Victor Bartley, D
Ryan Ellis, D Mattias Ekholm, C Mike Fisher, C David
Legwand, C/LW Colin Wilson, LW Gabriel Bourque, RW Patric Hornqvist, C
Nick Spaling, LW Rich Clune, C Paul Gaustad, G Pekka Rinne.
 

Comment:
The Preds’ formula for winning will remain unchanged from past seasons:
Weber, the captain, remains one of the game’s elite defensemen
and Rinne, coming off hip surgery which could improve his play, one of
its top goalies. Poile said Rinne did not play as much as he would have in a normal training camp situation and that the plan is not to use him as frequently as in the past, resting him, in particular, in back-to-back situations. Rinne led the NHL in games played in 2011-12.

“We weren’t sure with the operation that he would be ready for camp,” Poile said. “It’s all worked out really well to this point. It’s going to be a long year, 82 games. The Olympic break. He’s hoping to be part of that. Hopefully, the playoffs. We brought him a long slowly to this point. He’s ready to go in the goal.”

The promising Josi and Bartley along with the steady
Klein should continue to make defense a strength. Injuries mainly
devastated the forward corps last season in the form
of Bourque, Hornqvist, Wilson, Fisher and Gaustad. If that many of those
forwards can avoid catastrophic injuries, the Predators’ offense
instantly should improve over last season’s, which tied for the worst in
the NHL at 2.27 goals per game.

Ellis, banished
to the minors last season, will have to get back on track and show the
form that made him a first-round pick and junior hockey star. To that
end, new assistant coach Phil Housley, one of the league’s all-time
great offensive defensemen, will lend Ellis and
the other young defensemen his expertise.

On Wednesday, the Predators
announced that Hornqvist, who leads a burgeoning Swedish contingent of
four, will join Fisher as an alternate captain. If Hornqvist, who
averaged 0.33 goals per game over the previous three
seasons (27 per 82 games), can stay healthy after missing half of last
season, the Preds should benefit greatly. Finally, a shoulder injury in
March cut short what looked like a break-out season for Wilson. If he
can continue on an upwards arc, the Predators’
goal-scoring woes could melt away.
 

New
faces

Players: C Matt Cullen, C Filip Forsberg, C Matt Hendricks, G Carter
Hutton, D Seth Jones, LW Eric Nystrom, LW Viktor Stalberg (injured
reserve).
 

Comment:
The wildcards are Forsberg and Jones, high first-round picks in each of
the last two seasons’ drafts. If they can produce at
a competent NHL level, Nashville will be in the playoff mix. If they
exceed that, the sky is the limit.

Forsberg will miss the first two games of the season with an injury while Jones appears ready to start on the third defensive pair with Ekholm, a pairing that is likely to change throughout the season.
“Arguably, they’re as good as anyone at their positions in training camp,” Poile said of Forsberg and Jones, both 19-year-olds. “By doing that, they proved to us they can play at the National Hockey League level and they did it.”
It is a must that Stalberg, who will
miss the first few weeks of the season with a shoulder injury, score 20
goals, preferably 25. Cullen needs to fill the
void formerly held by Martin Erat: a minimum of 15 goals and 35 assists.
“The question mark is do we have our chemistry on all our lines?” Poile said the morning of the season opener. “We’re going to have to find out find out to tonight.”


 

Out
the door

Players: G Chris Mason, D Hal Gill, LW Sergei Kostitsyn, RW Matt
Halischuk, RW Bobby Butler, D Jonathon Blum, RW Brandon Yip.
 

Comment:
One can only regard the above names with nothing but disappointment.
Gill was mostly hurt or ineffective during his brief tenure
with the organization, which bought out his contract, and he is now the
seventh defenseman on a Philadelphia team that is woefully short on
defensemen.

Once the team’s leader in goals and points, Kostitsyn and
the team parted ways somewhat acrimoniously as
a result of his three goals in 46 games last season. Blum is a former
first-round pick whom the team elected not to retain and Halischuk, once
a 15-goal scorer and clutch playoff performer, was let go after only
five goals in 36 games.
 

Prediction: Fourth in the Central

Perspective:
The Predators are going to have duel with Minnesota, Dallas and
Winnipeg for the third and fourth spots behind the Blackhawks
and Blues (not to mention potential fifth-place teams in a strong
Pacific Division).

It says here the Predators have a more recent history
of advancing past the first round than any of the three other Central
brethren (’08 for the Stars, ’03 for the Wild and
never for the Thrashers/Jets) and that that experience will make the
difference for the always-underestimated Preds.