In any other season the Nashville Predators would have looked at the previous season's standings, seen that they missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by three points despite No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne missing 53 games and made a reasonable guess on how 2014-15 could turn out.
But this is not any other season.
For the first time in the Predators' 16-year history, they have a new coach, and to an extent a new philosophy. It's not as simple as plugging in what could be six new forwards and then going about predicting how the Predators will perform.
Out as coach is Barry Trotz and in is Peter Laviolette. The only holdover on the coaching staff is assistant coach Phil Housley. The goaltending and defense, with the exception of the addition of Anton Volchenkov and subtraction of Michael Del Zotto, remain the same.
The major difference, along with the new faces up front, will be the philosophy, which will focus on generating more offense. Last season the Predators had four 20-goal scorers for only the second time since 2007-08 but finished tied for 18th in the NHL in goals per game (2.61). Nashville has had four players reach the 30-goal mark in its history and the franchise's single-season record for goals is Jason Arnott's 33 in 2008-09.
"I think it's going to be exciting, it's going to be interesting," general manager David Poile said. "What we know for sure it's not going to be the same and that's because of the number of changes, especially at forward; the coaching staff with a little bit different philosophy in how we're going to play. Pekka coming back is another situation that should be positive. I'm excited about the possibilities."
While some teams chose to go with a youth movement, the Predators have opted for the opposite, to an extent. By the time center Mike Fisher returns from a ruptured Achilles tendon (his return is projected between November and January), the Predators could have eight forwards who are at least 31 years old.
Their signings in July included Volchenkov (age 32), and centers Mike Ribeiro (34), Olli Jokinen (35), who could be shifted to the wing, and Derek Roy (31). The message is clear. The Predators might play in the toughest division in the League, but the mission is to return to the playoffs.
"That's our only goal, to make the playoffs," Poile said. "We're on the outside looking in, two years out of the playoffs. That's not where we want to be. I think competition is unbelievable in our conference. It didn't get any easier with [Paul Stastny] switching teams [from the Colorado Avalanche to the St. Louis Blues] and staying in our [division]. It's going to be tough but that's our goal and our only goal."
The other major change the Predators made was trading forwards Patric Hornqvist, a member of the team's leadership group, and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward James Neal, who has scored 88 goals in 179 games the past three seasons (0.49 per game). Poile said the expectation is that Neal will play with Ribeiro, as the two once were linemates with the Dallas Stars. Poile has discussed the likelihood that Neal, who finished as a First-Team NHL All-Star in 2011-12 as a right wing, skating at left wing. That could set up 24-year-old Craig Smith, who had a breakout season in 2013-14 with a team-leading 24 goals, to round out the top line on the right.
On defense, Roman Josi and captain Shea Weber, a three-time Norris Trophy finalist who is coming off arguably his best season (23 goals, team-highs of 33 assists and 56 points), anchor that group. They ranked fifth and fourth in the League, respectively, in time on ice per game last season. Rinne, the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, returns in goal, as does backup Carter Hutton, who won 20 games last season.
After the Predators elected not to make a qualifying offer to Del Zotto, his replacement will be a more defensive-oriented and shot-blocking type in Volchenkov. Poile he said he wants Volchenkov to take some of the "hard" defensive minutes, such as penalty killing, from Weber and Josi so they can play a more offensive role.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Volchenkov also should add some muscle to a pair with Ryan Ellis (5-10, 175). The other pair is likely to be Mattias Ekholm, 24, who was excellent in his first full NHL season, and Seth Jones, the fourth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Poile said he wants Jones to "take off where he left off" last season
"For 19 years old I'm not sure what you're supposed to expect, but he did a lot of really good things," Poile said. "I know he had some bumps in the road. I think his plus/minus (minus-23), you'd like to be better, but he went over to the [2014 IIHF] World Championship and played really well; best defenseman in the tournament. He's been working out all summer. I'm expecting real good things. Just a little bit better in every area."
If the Predators are just a little bit better in every area, it ought to get them back to the playoffs, no matter how tough the division is.
PREDATORS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 38-32-12, 88 points; 6th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Pending FAs: D Ryan Ellis (restricted)
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Author: John Manasso | NHL.com Correspondent
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