Predators target Cup with Matt Duchene, improved power play

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              Nashville Predators center Matt Duchene plays against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Duchene was signed as a free agent during the offseason. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have had plenty of time to look in the mirror. They still like what they see, but they did tweak the roster that had been good enough to win back-to-back Central Division titles.

Now they want more. Much more after Nashville’s earliest playoff exit since 2015.

Center Ryan Johansen believes the Predators need to realize they have something special. He sees a group very capable of playing for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

“Our expectations as a group are extremely high,” Johansen said. “We all know that and we all believe we are a team that can compete for a Stanley Cup.”

In case anyone thought a first-round loss to Dallas in six games was OK, general manager David Poile made clear it wasn’t in June when he traded away defenseman P.K. Subban. That move cleared up enough salary cap space for Nashville to finally sign center Matt Duchene.

Captain Roman Josi says Nashville has so much talent on its top lines that nobody will be happy with another first-round exit.

“The expectations are high in the whole organization, and I think rightfully so,” Josi said.

WHO’S HERE

Duchene finally is in Nashville and not just checking on the property he owns in Music City. He signed a seven-year, $56 million deal with the Predators in free agency. “He’s such a great player, and especially for me as a defenseman playing against him, he’s really hard to play against,” Josi said of Duchene. “He scores goals. It’s going to be fun. He’s really skilled.”

New assistant coach Dan Lambert (lam-BAIR) was hired to help fix the NHL’s worst power-play unit of last season. Forward Mikael Granlund now has had a whole offseason and training camp to settle in with a team that traded for him last February.

WHO’S GONE

Subban was traded to New Jersey, shedding a salary of $9 million a season. Forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle, pickups before the trade deadline, also are gone. Simmonds joined Subban, signing with the Devils. Boyle remains unsigned.

KEY PLAYERS

Goalie Pekka Rinne, who turns 37 in November, has to hold off Juuse Saros in net and keep the Predators in the mix in the Central Division. Coach Peter Laviolette has enough talent for two top lines, which will allow him to mix and match around Duchene and Johansen. Nashville has experimented with center Kyle Turris at wing, and both need Turris to bounce back after scoring only 23 points last season.

Dante Fabbro, 21, played all of 10 games last season including all six in the playoffs. Now he must help fill the hole left when Poile traded away a former Norris Trophy winner in Subban to keep Nashville’s top four defensemen among the NHL’s best.

OUTLOOK

How the Predators fare with the man advantage will be watched closely from the first power play, and they must avoid a sluggish start on the power play to fend off a sense of deja vu. They piled up 100 points last season despite a power play that had fans begging Nashville to decline penalties. The plan to park Duchene in front of the net and use four forwards could provide the lacking scoring punch. Josi’s contract status will be monitored closely with both sides insisting they want a new deal. Rinne has been the backbone of this franchise for so long, but he knows his play and not his past will earn him the net.

PREDICTION

The Predators didn’t have enough scoring power past their top line last season to do more than win a second straight Central Division title. They finished 47-29-6 to hold off Winnipeg and St. Louis in the division, then went 0-for-16 on the power play in that playoff loss. Poile traded away a top defenseman for the second time in three years trying to push the franchise further. This time, he signed Duchene looking for more goals, and that could put the Predators back in the Western finals for the first time since 2017.