The Nashville Predators pushed a Western Conference Round Two series to a seventh game. Any way you look at it, that’s another step forward for the current iteration of the guys in Gold. Better still, I project this group will add to that in the coming year, due in large part to the following three players to watch in 2016-17:
The statistics support it, but it goes beyond the raw numbers… no forward is more critical to his club’s success than Filip Forsberg. It’s no accident the Predators’ fortunes turned just as sophomore winger was shaking off a mid-season funk. The sturdy Swedish forward had “just” 30 points in the 50 games leading up to All-Star Break. In the remaining 30 games, he was better than a point-per-game player (32 pts), including a feverish February where he posted 12 goals and four assists in just 13 games.
So why is the “Prince” a skater to watch for next year? Simply said, he’ll come back stronger – both mentally and physically – in 2016-17, by virtue of him grabbing his own bootstraps and turning his 2015-16 campaign around in mid-stride. Anytime a player can dig himself out of an extended stretch of games where he has been something short of his best, it often serves to galvanize that player. Which is not to say that the player becomes slump proof, but the experience can certainly reduce the length of time that same player wallows in a future valley. That’s not to mention adversity overcome is often the recipe for finding new heights in your game. Bank on it… we’ve not yet seen Forsberg’s best hockey.
For my money, Mattias Ekholm was the nicest surprise of the year. Heading into the 2015-16 season, you could make the argument Nashville had the best D-corps League wide. However, when Ekholm turned up his game early on, he very quickly stripped away any argument that Nashville even had a competitor in this area.
There’s no better measure of a skater’s worth than his time on ice (TOI). And Ekholm tacked on a full minute to his TOI (20:15) over the prior season. During the postseason, Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette relied on him an average of nearly 24 minutes per night. In fact, there were a number of games where he and partner Ryan Ellis outpaced both Roman Josi and Shea Weber in that department.
TOI aside, how about the offensive numbers? The Swede posted more points 8g-27a (35 pts) this season than the total of his first four years (27 pts). Look for another impactful year from No. 14 in 2016-17.
Craig Smith has now posted 20 goals in three-straight seasons. The difference last season, though, was that he, like Forsberg, had to fight through a less productive first half to reach 20. The reason being? If you recall, Smith had just signed a long-term deal last summer on the heels of his second, 20-goal season.
Ask any player signed to a contract of three years or more, there is a learning process to finding the motivation to elevate your game from night to night. The good news is Smith appears to have figured it out; he was 60 percent more productive (goals scored) post All-Star break during the 2015-16 season. I contend Smith is capable of 30 goals in this League; the experience he gained last season could translate into the ability to hit that mark.
High-End Skill: Ryan Johansen is equal parts goal scorer and distributor. In his last two seasons, he set a career-high 33 goals in 2013-14, and an assists/points high of 45 and 71, respectively, last season. The Preds played Columbus twice during the preseason, and I watched him center a line with Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad. They looked simply lethal together, and it all ran through Johansen down the middle. I expected that unit to do a lot of damage this year.
Big Centerman: This is a specific area of need for the Predators. A recent injury to Mike Fisher proved they were a little lean down the middle. It's not entirely clear whether Mike Ribeiro and Fisher come back once their current two-year contracts expire after next season. Johansen, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound pivot, gives you some weight at forward, and he’s in the Top 10 in face-off percentage among players taking 400 draws or more.
Power Play: While in Dallas on a recent road trip, I spoke with a member of their coaching staff about Johansen. The Stars had just played Columbus and the Preds new center had left a strong impression on Dallas Assistant Coach James Patrick. He sees him as perhaps the best half-wall guy in the game right now. He’s very skilled at making plays from the spot that rests at the heart of the man advantage. Fair to say Nashville’s power play just got more dangerous.
RFA: The Vancouver native has another year remaining on his contract. And even with that, he is a restricted free agent after the current agreement expires. You have Ryan Johansen under wraps for a few years to come. The difference between Jones (21-years-old) and Johansen (23-years-old) is hardly worth mentioning.
Uncoachable? Johansen fell out of favor with the Blue Jackets organization for some reason. Perhaps this stems from a contract holdout situation in 2014 and/or a reluctance to play within new Head Coach John Tortorella’s structure. Whatever the challenge, we're talking about a young player still learning what it takes to be a pro at the NHL level. In Nashville, he’ll be surrounded by the sort of people who can help a gifted player reach his full potential.
It’s time for a few observations, because we are nearing the end of the first quarter of the season and apparently this is now unofficially a “fair sample size.”
The D Provides Even More O!
Would you believe one of the NHL’s highest-scoring defensive groups from last year would actually be more involved on the offensive side of the puck this year? True story. Seventeen games in, Nashville defenders have chipped in 17 goals. In that same span of time last season, the backend had half that amount.
Why the uptick? Shea Weber, for one, is posting numbers at a rapid clip. Last year, the Preds captain had five power-play goals on the year. He’s already matched that mark with 60-plus games left to play. Roman Josi is also producing (13 points in 17 games) in a way that (pro-rated) should have him exceed last year’s career highs.
Seth Jones Will Take a Bold Step Forward This Season:
While we’re on the topic of defenders, it appears Seth Jones is ready to take his game forward. At the ripe, old age of 21, the blueliner is growing more comfortable in that lanky, 6-foot-4 frame. Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said Jones’ foot speed has improved; he’s stronger and willing to play more physical. From that, Jones is a more confident hockey player, making better decisions and having a stronger impact on the game at both ends.
I notice it most in two key areas. Five-on-five, he’s more reliable. Pairing Jones with Barret Jackman has provided Nashville with a third pairing that can play against anyone, including top-six competition. Now that’s a nice luxury to have. Second, Jones and Ryan Ellis typically run the blue line for the second power-play unit. Again, decision-making is critical here, and he’s making the percentage play consistently. The shots get through and the passes are on the tape. He’s helped make Nashville a threat when on the man advantage.
Last but not least, far from it actually, we turn to Pekka Rinne. The Predators recent five-game home stand revealed something we already knew about the Finnish netminder. He’s very determined, he’s a great athlete and he’s awfully proud. Simply said: a true professional.
He suffered a four-goal loss versus St. Louis and allowed five in a win over Ottawa and looked very “un-Pekka like” all the while. You grow accustomed to seeing him make the unstoppable save, I suppose. By the end of the five-game stay in Nashville, however, Rinne was back in top form. See the 3-2 win over Anaheim as case in point; a game where the Predators were outshot 40 to 21 and could have come away with a far different result were it not for key stops on Carl Hagelin and Andrew Cogliano from Rinne, just to name a few.
For the most part, the 2015-16 Nashville Predators have started out looking a lot like last season’s group. However, Viktor Arvidsson, Austin Watson and Anthony Bitetto made the team out of Training Camp. Why? Glad you asked.
Young Arvidsson has a shoot-first mentality. This dovetails with Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s philosophy. The Preds coach likes loads of attempts at the net for a couple reasons. For one, any attempt could go in as you put the pressure on the defending team to keep it out of the back of the net. Two, most shots directed at the net – even if they fail to hit the cage – soften the coverage as the defending team reacts to the chance.
Arvidsson, in spite of his modest size, has proven his ability to transform puck pressure into offensive opportunity. In just his first year of professional hockey, he scored 22 goals, registered 33 assists and led the American Hockey League in shots on net. Laviolette trusts him and has him positioned alongside Cody Hodgson on the third line, a key area of emphasis. If Nashville is going to compete with the best teams in the Western Conference, they simply must get scoring from the bottom six forwards.
I like Austin Watson’s game. Your first impression is that he’s very reliable. He’s a big body, a great skater and with these things taken together, he wins more than his share of puck battles.
Even before Training Camp opened, the expectation was that Watson would play a fairly specific role. The former first-round pick had a really strong camp playing on a checking line. He has great defensive instincts, and he’s very hard to play against. Throughout the preseason, you saw Laviolette push him all kinds of penalty killing responsibility. This looks to be an area where he will make a key contribution. Watson has refined his ability to play shorthanded over his three seasons in the AHL.
Anthony Bitetto is a unique situation. It’s quite possible he is ready for prime time. He showed well in a handful of games with the Predators last season and he had a really solid Training Camp. This is not to say Bitetto would not benefit from additional time in the AHL, however, Nashville runs the risk of losing him to a waiver claim should the club attempt to assign him to Milwaukee.
So, Bitetto is a good problem to have. He’s a very capable defender who can jump into the lineup at any moment and play strong minutes as a sixth defender. However, Laviolette’s challenge will be keeping Bitetto and Victor Bartley – the other extra defender – engaged and game ready.
Sept. 17, 2015, marks the opening day of the Nashville Predators Training Camp. Scant roster moves have been made over the summer, but that’s not to say that this year’s iteration of the Preds won’t look somewhat different. There appears to be little change at goaltending or at defense. However, there are three forwards who may change the dynamic up front. Below I highlight these three:
Nashville’s first pick from the 2014 Entry Draft, young Kevin Fiala is the one player who could make the biggest impact. He is a talented and confident playmaker who comes with above-average determination baked right into the recipe. He wasn’t required to, but Fiala spent the entire summer in Nashville so that he could train under the supervision of Predators Strength and Conditioning Coach David Good. In doing so, the young Swiss-born forward added 18 pounds of muscle mass, which at the end of the day, makes him quicker and sturdier, in spite of the fact he’s just 5-foot-10.
Watch out for Fiala; remember his first NHL game during a late-season call up last year? Things happen when the kid’s on the ice; the puck finds him.
Former Buffalo Sabres forward Cody Hodgson was one of the Predators’ few summer transactions. Presented with a challenging list of available free agents, General Manager David Poile took a modest risk on a player who is just two seasons removed from a year where he registered 44 points, including 20 goals. Hodgson knows he holds a golden opportunity to parlay this year into another strong, multi-year contract if he clicks in Nashville. Keep your eye on the athlete with the greatest motivation to perform! (See Mike Ribeiro, 2014-15).
Assuming Hodgson gets off on the right foot, this former first-round pick should slot in at third-line center. You can appreciate the impact a player like Hodgson could have to the club’s fortunes if he can contribute at or around 30 points. That’s nearly twice the output Nashville got from the “three hole” last year. Conservatively, that translates into another three to five wins for the Predators.
Jarnkrok may be under the most pressure to retain his spot for none other than the two reasons mentioned above. Should either Fiala or Hodgson – or both – have strong camps, Jarnkrok may get frozen out. Do the math. Hodgson is most likely earmarked for the third line center spot, meaning Jarnkrok could move to the wing to assist. However, if Fiala has his way and he makes the club, Jarnkrok is in a tough position. The one saving grace for the young Swede is coach Laviolette’s preference to carry five centers. Injuries dictate roster moves and you like to have the luxury as a team of being able to carry an extra forward who can play the middle.
To Jarnkrok’s further credit, he made the most of his offseason. He too appears to have returned to camp a bigger, stronger athlete, a trait that may allow him to better compete with opposing defenders and generate more in the offensive end. There’s everything to like about his game in the defensive end. It’s at the other end the Predators need him to step up and provide more offensive depth.
In any event, lots to watch for as these and other hopefuls battle over openings in this year’s lineup. See you at the rink.
For the most part, the Nashville Predators can look back at a summer’s worth of player transactions and ask the following question: Are the 2015-16 Predators better than last year’s edition? In this analyst’s opinion…yes.
Here’s a position-by-position look at why.
In all likelihood, the Predators start the coming season with the exact same personnel that carried the goaltending load last year: Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton. Assuming Rinne is healthy the entire season, next year’s team is already a near certainty to finish higher in the Western Conference standings and to play deeper into the postseason.
Recall that when Rinne went down midway through the second half, the Predators were one of two or three teams that were competing for the best record in the NHL. But, once the Finnish netminder returned, he was unable to regain the form that had him on track to finish with career-best numbers. A healthy Rinne translates into at least an additional 10 points, even on a very conservative estimate.
It’s also worth noting that Hutton turned in a solid three weeks of work in Rinne’s absence. He was instrumental in the club maintaining a very respectable record despite missing their No. 1. My point? If you agree that Hutton improved as a NHL goaltender last season – and I for one believe he did – then the Predators are considerably stronger at this position if Rinne’s healthy and Hutton’s is the No. 2.
This is an interesting and exciting part of the roster. The Predators blue line is regarded as one of the best and brightest in the business. And the good news? The D corps got an upgrade this summer. Subtract Anton Volchenkov and add Barret Jackman and Nashville improves its roster; Jackman is every bit as physical as his departed Russian counterpart. In addition, the former St. Louis Blues D-man is more mobile and is the sort of veteran who will impact this young defensive unit by way of his leadership.
There was far more offseason activity at the forward position than any other area of the roster, although, oddly enough, this position is nearly a dead ringer for last year’s crew. Preds General Manager David Poile was able to lock up both “Mikes,” Ribeiro and Fisher, to contracts before they became unrestricted free agents, while Craig Smith and Colin Wilson agreed to long-term contracts before reaching settlements via salary arbitration.
Having said all that, are the Predators stronger at forward this year? The answer is yes…but how much better? Two things to keep in mind in my estimation. First, Nashville has young players at key positions in their core (think Filip Forsberg, Smith, Wilson, Seth Jones). Specifically, a younger group of forwards who have yet to hit their prime are likely to improve organically in the coming season.
Second, the Preds signed Cody Hodgson following his buyout from the Buffalo Sabres. Hodgson inking a one-year $1.05 million contract draws comparisons to the Ribeiro signing prior to last season, with one important distinction. Hodgson is significantly younger than Ribeiro and might be more motivated to perform well in the coming season in hopes of landing another contract. And it goes without saying, if Hodgson works out, the Predators are that much more dynamic in the offensive end.
It’s interesting; as you reflect on June and July, there seemed to be a lot to come in terms of the volume of transactions the organization made. However, at the end of the day, the roster is largely unchanged, save for the Jackman and Hodgson signings. The point is, the Predators should be more competitive if Rinne is healthy, if a group of mostly younger players can add anywhere from 10-20 percent to their game and if they hit a flyer on Hodgson.
Looks good on paper, though one can never know until sometime after this team takes to the ice in October. Sixty-three days until puck drop!
The NHL powers that be, in their never-ending quest to improve the product, have added a wrinkle or two to the game for the coming season. In this blog, I’ll focus on one in particular.
In the coming, 2015-16 season, hockey fans can look forward to a tweak to the overtime format. Rather than (a maximum of) five minutes of 4-on-4 action, deadlocked teams will now play in a 3-on-3 format over that same span of time.
Why the change? The NHL consistently polls fans and hockey people alike on the state and appeal of the game, and the consensus is the shootout runs against the grain of this great team sport. Two teams go at it tooth and nail for 65 minutes and then, when a decision cannot be reached, the match is decided by a series of individual breakaways. You can appreciate the contradiction, no?
Is the new 3-on-3 format guaranteed to reduce the number of shootouts? Well…yes. This experiment was put to the test at the minor-league level during the 2014-15 season. By roughly the halfway mark of the American Hockey League (AHL) season, the frequency of shootouts dropped from 64.7 percent down to 25.7 percent. The expectation that fewer players on the ice would allow more room to create offense, effectively proved true. Plus, more opportunities naturally translates into more goals.
At the end of the day, I like the change. There should be more games decided by way of team play. And I promise you…the pace of play will be quick. Teams are apt to play more aggressive when presented with all that newfound open ice.
I’d go so far as to say this change benefits your Nashville Predators, also. In one season’s worth of play, this group has changed its identity in a marked way; they’re no longer just a stingy, hard-working team. Last year, the Preds gained a reputation for being one of the NHL’s “fast” teams. More dynamic offensively, this group transitions from defense to offense in a hurry - a recipe for success in this new format.
Should be interesting to watch…
The NHL Draft has changed a lot since 1983, my first year of eligibility. Back then, the Draft consisted of 12 rounds and only the players that were ranked in the world’s top half would typically attend in person. Are you shocked that I didn’t get an invite to the event?
There’s nothing noteworthy about the fact that the Detroit Red Wings took me in the 10th round that year, other than to put a little historical context on the importance of that particular draft year for Detroit. The Wings take away that year consisted of Steve Yzerman, Petr Klima, Bob Probert, Lane Lambert (yes, former Nashville Predators Assistant Coach Lane Lambert) and Joey Kocur, in addition to myself and others. These (named) players were key in turning the "Dead Wings” of the 70s and 80s into, again, one of the most respected franchises in the game. The 1983 Draft was a key block in the rebuild; Yzerman was the sort of player and person upon whom you could pin your hopes.
Later in the summer of 1983, Red Wings Owner Mike Ilitch flew each and every draft choice to Detroit to welcome us to the organization and show us around the city. As we assembled in the lobby of the Pontchartrain Hotel on our first day in town, it became fairly clear that the Wings had a specific theme in mind as they approached the Draft of 1983. They were done getting a lot of sand kicked in their face. In fact, the cast of characters filling the hotel lobby on this day looked more like the post-draft take-home for the NFL's Detroit Lions than it did the Detroit Red Wings. Probert went 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, while Joey Kocur was just 6-foot-0, but weighed 220 pounds and had a right hand that hit like a mule kicks. I was the biggest skater taken that year at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, but 1983 Wings Draft picks Craig Butz and Jeff Frank, both 6-foot-2, 225 lbs, were plus-sized guys also. It’s worth making the point that these guys weren't known for their deceptive toe drags or their wicked saucer passes. These guys had other “skills.”
Detroit did not get immediately better, but they did quickly command more respect than they had enjoyed prior to the 1983 Draft. That new regard from the rest of the pack, a host of other successful Drafts and additional key transactions would ultimately allow the franchise to revisit the form of its Original Six roots.
So, I’m not trying to imply that the Predators will select a half dozen “enforcers” at the 2015 NHL Draft in roughly a week. But perhaps my story does go to show that a team can promptly and dramatically change their makeup based on the prospects they pick, and who knows, maybe the next Steve Yzerman will be sitting in the stands at BB&T Center during that final weekend in June.
If you recall this time last summer, the Nashville Predators had missed the playoffs for a second-straight season, and Nashville General Manager David Poile entered the offseason with a clear mandate to add offense in order to bolster Nashville’s prospects for busting out of the non-playoff funk. But the revamped 2014-15 offering did more than merely earn a postseason spot; it far exceeded expectations. For two thirds of the season, the Preds proved there is far more here than a team content to simply qualify for a Top Eight berth.
Below, I set out three lessons learned this past season that would indicate Nashville might be ready to compete with the best of the Western Conference.
The Defense Improved Measurably:
Heading into 2014-15, the D corps was widely regarded as one of the best and brightest in the business. With an average age in the mid-20s, the Predators put three pairings on the ice that provided a terrific mix of dynamic offense and sound defense. You won’t want to change much here.
In terms of the first pairing, Shea Weber was Shea Weber – but Roman Josi had the sort of year that really turned heads. A League leader in shot blocks, he also set new career highs in all offensive categories. He may have been the most valuable defender to the group on a season-wide basis.
Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm both took significant steps forward while making up a very solid second pairing. Ellis showed he was one of the smartest players in camp; he operates like a quarterback on the second power-play unit. Ekholm demonstrated, where he had not before, that he has a great feel for when and how to activate up into the attack from the opposition’s blue line. He made a number of game-breaking plays from the backend this year at crucial times.
A Healthy Rinne Still Ranks Among the League’s Best:
Up until the time of the injury to his knee, Pekka Rinne was enjoying the best season of his career. He also appeared to be the lead dog in the Vezina Trophy race. However, it took him (and his team) some time to get on track once Rinne was ready to take the net back following his lower-body injury. To be completely candid, after his return, Rinne’s game never saw the same consistency that he had shown through the first two thirds of the season. Having said that, this team does not want for strong goaltending if No. 35 is able to return to camp in the same shape as he was to start 2014-15.
The Forward Corps Could Still Do With an Upgrade:
One area requiring the organization’s attention this summer remains the forwards. Yes, Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and others added punch to what was a sputtering offense in years past, but that’s not to say that more isn’t needed. The Preds saw long stretches of hockey where they struggled to find the back of the net and it hurt them; especially during a late-season slump. A survey of key Western Conference competition shows it takes three or four lines that can add scoring. Another key signing or two might be just what the doctor ordered for the Predators.
Also, I’ve long believed that this group could stand to be bigger on the front line. To point out Bryan Bickell, David Backes, Ryan Reaves and Ryan Getzlaf is to name just a few of the Western Conference big bodies the Preds will need to neutralize if they hope to withstand the heavy going and put together a deep run next season. There was a lot to like in someone like Chris Stewart – acquired by the Minnesota Wild at the deadline this year; a physical force who shows up on the scoring sheet consistently.
But in summary, the Predators are in a much stronger position than they were last year at this time. A couple of key adds in the offseason, strong seasons from the majority of the group and a healthy Rinne from October to April would no doubt put the club in a great spot.
The return of the young defenseman has been noticeable, not just offensively (the goal was also Ellis’ seventh of the season, a career high), but in his own end as well. Now with six points in his nine games back in the lineup, just how important has it been having the 24-year-old a part of the defensive corps again? I’d venture to say a lot.
Let’s review, Ellis misses 24 games due to a lower-body injury. Sure the team holds its own in his absence; the Predators go 14-7-3 during that span. However, wouldn’t you much rather have Ellis in the mix? Rhetoric, folks. Of course you would. He’s been one of the bright surprises to contribute – meaningfully – to Nashville’s terrific success this season.
The power play is perhaps the aspect of the game where Ellis’ absence was felt most. He acts as a quarterback on the point when the Predators occupy the opposition zone. First, he has terrific vision; he sees the ice exceptionally well. Second, the blueliner possesses great anticipation. He knows his teammates and has a great sense of their tendencies - as smart players do.
Third, the above-mentioned attributes and his physical tools allow him to make some awfully dynamic plays. For instance, consider the fake shot that ends up being a hard, diagonal pass to Craig Smith, James Neal or Colin Wilson when they pop out at the far side of the net. Hard to defend against that when it’s executed properly.
In 5-on-5 play, Ellis is every bit as effective as he is with the man advantage. For the most part, he keeps it simple. He holds the middle of the ice, keeps the attack to the outside and uses the confines of the rink to shut his opponent down.
And this isn’t said often enough. It’s not that common for a smaller athlete to play defense in the NHL. Your “ideal defender” should look more like Shea Weber than Ellis, but Ellis compensates for his lack of size very well. It’s all about body position and striking at the right time in the right way. It takes a smart player to be a good defender.
Lastly, Ellis and his defensive partner Mattias Ekholm are a great fit for one another; their games seem to complement each other very well. Ekholm is more apt to jump into the attack through neutral ice while Ellis will get involved in the offense mostly by pushing down the walls in the offensive zone. For this reason, they end up being in a sound defensive posture while giving the other side a lot to deal with in their own end.
The boy’s back, thankfully, and the club is better for it.