The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 8-1
Key Additions: Dan Hamhuis, D; Zac Rinaldo, LW; Colin Blackwell, C
Key Departures: Scott Hartnell, LW; Alexei Emelin, D; Mike Fisher, C
The Predators’ 117 points last season, by far the most in franchise history, earned them their first Presidents’ Trophy. It thus bodes well that most of last year’s team remains intact. No one can touch P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm as the league’s best quartet on ‘D.’ They’re all under 30 and they combine to play about 50 minutes a night. It’s no surprise the Preds allowed the second-fewest goals last year. It’s a chore trying to penetrate their zone. Free-agent signee Dan Hamhuis is a luxurious bottom-pair option.
Nashville also boasts one of the league’s deepest forward groups. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson give the top line a pair of 30-goal threats. Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino provide reliability at center. Post-hype prospect Kevin Fiala broke out for 23 goals last season. Eeli Tolvanen brings sky-high potential as a sniper, though he’ll start the season in the minors. Even as you get deeper into the Preds’ forward corps, they come at you with Ryan Hartman and Colton Sissons – high-motor, hard-working bangers who wear down opposing defenses and can score a bit, too. There’s simply no safe shift against the Predators.
No mention yet of Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne? Despite deserving the award as the league’s top regular-season goalie, he left a sour taste in the post-season, pulled three times for Juuse Saros during Nashville’s second-round loss to Winnipeg. Rinne is 35 and enters the final year of his contract. Is Saros, freshly signed to a three-year extension, the long-term No. 1? Who will the Predators count on come playoff time? Rinne’s road struggles may have cost the team a berth in the 2016 Stanley Cup final, and goaltending was the difference against Winnipeg last year. Will it continue to hold Nashville back from greatness?
Since Peter Laviolette became coach in 2014, the Preds have ranked in the top half of the league in goals every season. Over that span, however, nobody has scored more than 33 goals or 64 points. Nashville doesn’t have a big-time star scorer and never really has in its 19-season history. There’s still hope for Forsberg to have a career year, and Tolvanen has the potential to become a deadly scorer in time. For now, though, Nashville has the least star power at forward of any true Cup contender. It’s scary to enter high-stakes games without a go-to guy.
Do the Predators have enough bottom-six scoring?
No one doubts the offensive potential of Forsberg and Arvidsson. Likewise, Fiala, Turris and Johansen can all be steady contributors for the Predators. But as you work your way down the lineup, you start to wonder where exactly Nashville is going to get the scoring punch necessary to beat teams who boast a similarly deep defense corps. Take, for instance, Western clubs such as the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets. Both teams can ice two solid pairings that can hold their own in the matchup game, with the forward depth to support it. So, who breaks through if the top two lines are nullified?
Yes, Sissons and Hartman can chip in, but they’re hardly difference makers. And Tolvanen, whose name you’ve read a few times throughout this preview, was expected to make the roster but did not. That leaves the bottom six without any true firepower. At some point, that might be something the Predators need to address, either by way of a trade or by taking the good with the bad when it comes to Tolvanen’s offensive upside.
None of this is to say Nashville is in any trouble — they decidedly are not — but the Predators might need one more piece to take the final step they’ve seemingly been so close to taking the past two seasons.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 2nd in the Central Division. Nashville could be one of the most defensively sound units the NHL has seen in the past several years, and with Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson driving the attack, the Predators are destined for another battle for top spot in the Central.
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