NHL Pre-season Predictions: Central Division – No. 5 Nashville Predators

THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: No. 5 in Central Division

2013: 16-23-9. 14th in West.

KEY DEPARTURES: Chris Mason, Brandon Yip, Jonathon Blum, Matt Halischuk, Sergei Kostitsyn, Bobby Butler.

KEY ADDITIONS: Viktor Stalberg, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen.

THN’s TOP PROJECTED SCORERS: Patric Hornqvist (52), Shea Weber (51), David Legwand (44).

THE PROS: The Predators know who they are and their off-season reflected that. Before flopping last season, they’d made the post-season seven times in eight years on the strength of a defense-first team philosophy under coach Barry Trotz, outstanding goaltending and a shutdown defense pairing. Instead of chasing that elusive sniper in free agency – not that this year’s market had one – GM David Poile added Nashville-type forwards in Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom. All fit the mold of energy players who make up for a lack of high-end skill with two-way play. In goal, Pekka Rinne returns after an “off” year that still yielded a 2.43 goals-against average and five shutouts in 43 games. The Preds’ blueline wasn’t the same after superstar Shea Weber lost stable mate Ryan Suter a year ago, but Roman Josi is developing nicely as Weber’s new partner and Seth Jones, who slid shockingly to the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, gives Nashville another big, talented rearguard to build around.

THE CONS: Throughout the franchise’s existence, the knock has always been a dearth of offense. Nashville simply lacks first-line scoring talent. Patric Hornqvist is the lone Pred with a 30-goal season to his name. Former first-rounder Colin Wilson finally elevated his game last season, notching 19 points in 25 games, but had surgery on both shoulders over the summer. And for all the pats on the back the Preds receive for their defense, their 2.77 GAA was 20th in the NHL last season. As promising as Josi looks, the Preds simply aren’t the same team minus Ryan Suter, who became a Norris Trophy finalist in Minnesota. Jones gives them something to get extremely excited about, but there’s a reason he slid in the draft: big defensemen take a long time to develop. It’s far-fetched to assume he’ll play well enough to transform the Preds blueline. It’s also unrealistic to expect a dramatic improvement from a team that missed the playoffs and added more of what it already had.

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X-FACTOR: With no great difference-maker on offense, the focus will again be on the defense to lift Nashville above the mediocrity it looks destined for on paper. No. 4 overall pick Seth Jones will be given every opportunity to make the team and brings a size and elite two-way game that is rare at the top level. He won’t reach his full potential this season, of course, but how quickly he can catch on and start contributing meaningful minutes will play a big role in the Preds’ fortunes. The more immediate impact should come from third-year blueliner Roman Josi, who signed a seven-year extension this summer. The Switzerland native stepped in as Weber’s partner after Ryan Suter left town and pulled down an average of 23:31 of ice a night. Further growth is expected (hence the seven-year investment), and needed, from Josi for the Preds to recapture their magic.

PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: Preds miss the playoffs and coach Barry Trotz is fired after 16 years on the job. The next day, the world’s first winged pig is born. Also, in 2014-15, the team will change its name to the Nashville Perdators.