by Jon Garcia and Dan Bradley
1. Defense, defense, defense.
Nashville's defense is the best in the league. Led by All-Star and human bazooka Shea Weber, their blueline is stacked with talent and skill. Roman Josi is emerging as one of the best defensemen in the game (and may soon eclipse Weber), and 21-year-old Seth Jones is poised for a breakout season. Don't sleep on Ryan Ellis or Mattias Ekholm, who have blossomed into steady and underrated defenders. The Predators' backend will generate tons of points for them this year. All six of them will make opposing shooter's lives a living nightmare, and give the guy in the crease an easier job.
2. Pekka Rinne.
When healthy, few goalies in the league are better than Rinne. Last year, he quickly silenced questions about returning from injury by being the best Predator on the ice for the first half of the season. He's an athletic giant with a black hole for a glove. No longer does he have to stress about allowing a goal or less to win the game, with the roster in front of him greatly improved. Still, the team is going to rely heavily on him if it wants to get into the playoffs and do some damage.
3. Salary cap and contracts.
Weber and Rinne are the only players with monster deals. Josi is signed long-term for pennies compared to what he'd be worth on the open market. Ditto for Ryan Ellis. James Neal is the most expensive forward at $5 million for the next three years, and Colin Wilson and Craig Smith just inked long, valuable contracts this summer. And they still have over $12 million in cap space. Not only does that mean they'll have enough room to lock up Jones and Filip Forsberg when their entry-level contracts expire this year (another solid value), they have flexibility to bring in players to help the roster as well. Plus, their worst contract is expiring at the end of this season (Paul Gaustad).
by Jon Garcia and Dan Bradley
1. Center depth.
The Predators' one-two punch down the middle comprises of 35-year-olds Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher. That won't cut it in the Western Conference against the likes of Toews, Kopitar, Getzlaf, Seguin, etc. Cody Hodgson was brought in on a cheap, one-year deal to help at the position, but he brings in more questions than answers. But finding a true No. 1 center is easier said than done. They have some possible options in the pipeline, and excel at other positions on the ice, but they are risking an awful lot with the route they've chosen to go. If you need further evidence, Nashville threw an overwhelming majority of picks at the center position in this year's draft. Aside from some B-level prospects, the center depth was shallow across the organization.
2. Special teams.
The power play and penalty kill were a disaster for Nashville last year. Their special teams index was a pedestrian 97, thanks to being ranked 18th and 25th in shorthanded and power play efficiency, respectively. The coaching staff is exactly the same, and there hasn't been much in the way of player turnover, so they will have to make a major systems adjustment in order to improve.
3. Strength of the Central Division.
One misstep could be the difference between playoffs and an early summer. On paper, the Central looks like the toughest division in the league, with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild penciled in as possible Cup contenders. Not to mention the Dallas Stars are hungry and offensively dangerous, and the Winnipeg Jets would hate to take a step back. Nashville will be competitive, but any prolonged slumps or injuries will be exploited in a division that will show no mercy.
1. Will the aging centers be able to shoulder the load throughout the season and into the playoffs?
2. Will the third line produce more offense than last year?
3. If Rinne gets hurt and is out for an extended period of time, can this team still make the postseason?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Dan Bradley
Nashville wins the division, and makes it to the conference finals. Pekka Rinne does Pekka Rinne things, and the offense is buoyed by an injection of talent and unpredictability on the third line. Also, Seth Jones flourishes beside the steady support of Jackman, and begins to ruin lives of forwards, goalies and general managers everywhere. This allows for Weber and Josi to play with the top line more, and wreak havoc across the Midwest. Bonus points will be awarded if Shea Weber turns into the Village-Burning Rage Monster from the Wilderness of British ColumbiaTM more than once this season.
To bolster their roster, Jimmy Vesey signs his ELC after the Frozen Four and immediately begins playing second-line minutes alongside Cody Hodgson. Yes, in this world Hodgson's success causes a shuffle with Mike Fisher, moving the veteran onto a line with Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok. Nashville once again "doesn't have that one superstar", but it has like five or six guys that score 20-30 goals and play defense, and Kevin Fiala.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Jon Garcia
Nashville fails to capitalize on the impressive season it put together last year. It turns out the end-of-season losing streak was more than just a passing fad, and instead an actual reflection of its product on the ice. There are so many ways this season could go wrong: Steve Moses fizzles out early in the season and can't hack it in the league. Cody Hodgson continues on the downward slope he was on in Buffalo. Filip Forsberg sufferers the dreaded sophomore slump. Age finally catches up to Mikes Fisher and Ribeiro, and they expose Nashville's already questionable center depth .
Or, even worse, Pekka Rinne loses significant time with any type of injury. Having to rely on Carter Hutton for any lengthy stretch of time is going to spell trouble for them, no matter how good their defense or forwards are.
If they fail to qualify for the postseason again this year, the season will be a failure on so many levels. But the organization is at the point now where they can't just get into the playoffs. They need to win a couple rounds or more for this season to be a true success. Welcome to the world of expectations, Smashville.