James O'Brien

Roman Josi, Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne

Nashville Predators ’15-16 Outlook

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If you truly subscribe to the belief that defense wins championships, then you’d have to rank the Nashville Predators high on any list of Stanley Cup contenders.

As detailed in this post, they’re maybe the only team that could afford to even ponder trading a defenseman of Shea Weber’s caliber while not being in rebuild mode. Roman Josi and Seth Jones both boast futures that seem even brighter than their quite-brilliant presents.

Pekka Rinne stands as a sturdy last line of defense, too. The 32-year-old bounced back after a couple of rough seasons by winning 41 games and generating a .923 save percentage.

It’s not just about defense in Nashville any longer – Filip Forsberg and James Neal rank among the weapons Peter Laviolette can unleash – but it’s still the reason to get most excited about this team.

That brings up an intriguing question: what should we expect of Nashville? More specifically, should they be the Central Division favorites?

The Chicago Blackhawks are suffering from a rough off-season in nearly every way imaginable. The St. Louis Blues maintain an impressive core group, yet there’s a funk in the air after another postseason letdown. The Winnipeg Jets haven’t won a playoff game during their time in Winnipeg or Atlanta. The Dallas Stars loaded up this summer, although they still have questions on defense, while the Colorado Avalanche almost seem like a hockey lab experiment at the moment.

Nashville resides in what is likely still the best division in the NHL, but pondering the paragraph above, is it out of line to wonder if the Preds might jump from a second-place Central finish in 2014-15 to the division title next season?

You can’t really fault fans for clamoring to see a first division title banner up in the rafters … and maybe something even more prestigious.

Poll: Should Nashville trade Shea Weber?

Nashville Predators v Anaheim Ducks
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The Nashville Predators’ defense is scary, and not just because of Shea Weber’s howling shot.

Actually, the scary combination of talent and depth at that position makes you wonder if Weber may just be expendable.

This post features two different polls that get at the heart of that question, really. Let’s take a quick moment to ponder the strength Nashville boasts in this category.

Shea Weber: There’s been talk that he might be overrated (especially as far as own-zone coverage goes) for years now, and his possession stats are indeed a little lacking. Speculation of him being shopped cropped up during Nashville’s two-season lull.

Even naysayers would be foolish to doubt the velocity of his shot and his general ferocity, and players like Weber are tough to find.

Roman Josi: More than a few people wonder if Josi is superior to Weber.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s far cheaper, as Josi’s $4 million cap hit is almost half the cost of Weber’s $7.857 million whopper.

Beyond that, he’s five years younger and generated 55 points to Weber’s 45. Even if they’re a wash in their own end, Josi stands as the most obvious reason why Weber could conceivably be expendable.

Seth Jones: Of course, Jones may just be the biggest star of three once everything is said and done.

His offensive production is coming along incrementally, yet promising early two-way numbers bode well for a blue chip who will turn 21 in October.

Ryan Ellis: Ellis won’t make anyone forget about Weber if he departs, yet he’s the best supporting cast member on defense beyond Nashville’s other two blueline stars in Josi and Jones.

Barret Jackman, Mattias Ekholh and Victor Bartley round out the group.

OK, so let’s start with the first of two polls: where do you rank this set of defensemen with Weber in tow:

Your opinion of their group in the first poll will likely hint at where you fall on the juicier question: should the Predators trade one of their all-time biggest stars in Weber?

Preds’ biggest question: Are they strong enough at center?

Mike Ribeiro
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When you think about the key components of recent championship teams, the Nashville Predators check a lot of the boxes.

  • Whether you prefer Shea Weber or Roman Josi, they boast at least one elite defenseman, and the rest of their group is impressive (heck, Seth Jones may have the highest ceiling of them all).
  • Pekka Rinne sure looked like a $7 million goalie last season. In fact, he wasn’t far off of Carey Price’s pace before getting injured.
  • Young forwards abound, especially at the wing, as Filip Forsberg, James Neal, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith are all in the meat of their primes.

All things considered, the Predators’ mammoth jump in 2014-15 actually made a lot of sense.

That said, the West is rugged, and there’s a glaring question: are they strong enough down the middle?

Look, Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro bring plenty to the table; the Predators brought both pivots back for a reason.

Do they really stack up to the best of the best, though?

Ribero exceeded most, if not all, expectations by scoring 62 points, which is very nice but not quite “elite” production. Fisher is trumpeted as a strong two-way player, yet his possession stats argue that he may be a little more limited than some think.

Many would argue that, ideally, both would either be second-line centers or perhaps one should be on the second line (Ribeiro) with the other on the third (Fisher).

Look back at this list of championship-winners from the last decade or so and ponder their situations down the middle:

2015: Chicago Blackhawks
2014: Los Angeles Kings
2013: Blackhawks
2012: Kings
2011: Boston Bruins
2010: Blackhawks
2009: Pittsburgh Penguins
2008: Detroit Red Wings
2007: Anaheim Ducks
2006: Carolina Hurricanes
2004: Tampa Bay Lightning

Most, if not all, of those teams boasted at least one serious difference-maker at center. The Ducks might be the best team for Nashville to emulate, right down to their stacked defense corps and solid group of centers (Ryan Getzlaf wasn’t yet Ryan Getzlaf in 2007).

Does this guarantee that the Predators cannot top last season’s work? Not necessarily, but the center position’s questions stick out like a sore thumb.

Looking to make the leap: Kevin Fiala

Montreal Canadiens v Nashville Predators

There are a handful of Nashville Predators prospects hoping to make the leap in 2015-16.

Kevin Fiala distinguishes himself by saying that he will pull it off, as Preds GM David Poile noted at a fan gathering back in June.

“At the end-of-the-year meetings when [Head Coach] Peter Laviolette and I are talking to players, we’re usually the ones doing 90 percent of the talking,” Poile said. “So we did the talking to Kevin and then he says, ‘What do I need to do, I’m going to be playing for the Nashville Predators next season. I’m not going to [AHL affiliate] Milwaukee, I’m going to be playing [in Nashville].’”

Those are some bold words, yet the 19-year-old may just sense a pattern forming.

As the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, Fiala experienced quite the 2014-15 season. It began in Sweden with Jonkoping, but the Predators brought Fiala over to the AHL in January. He performed nicely at both levels (including scoring 20 points in 33 games with the Milwaukee Admirals) and even saw a game of regular season and playoff action with the Predators.

Poile believed that Fiala would benefit from the jump, noting the development process for Swedish sensation Filip Forsberg.

” … By getting a head start on the acclimation process to the North American style of play and smaller rinks, we expect Kevin – like Filip Forsberg two seasons ago – will continue his growth as a dynamic offensive prospect,” Poile said in a release when Fiala came to the U.S. early in 2015.

The pedigree and swagger are there in droves, yet opportunity might not strike.

On the Forecheck spotlights the uphill battle that Fiala (not to mention other intriguing young players like Austin Watson and Colton Sissons) face cracking the Predators’ forward lineup:

Even with shipping Taylor Beck to Toronto, there are too many regular NHLers on the bottom two lines to accommodate the rookies in waiting. The bridge that separates the prospects from the NHL is about ready to collapse under all the weight of those loitering on it.

It won’t be easy, especially if Poile & Co. prefer to see Fiala get big minutes in the AHL rather than a depth role in the NHL, but at least Fiala isn’t going about his business meekly.

Red Wings sign former Isles prospect Russo

2011 NHL Entry Draft - Portraits
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The New York Islanders didn’t have room for defensive prospect Robbie Russo, but the Detroit Red Wings seem to.

Detroit signed the 22-year-old to a two-year entry-level contract on Sunday.

Russo isn’t just a blueliner, he’s a much-needed right-handed shot. The Red Wings addressed that deficit to a nice extent with Mike Green, yet one could probably argue that it was still a broader area of need.

Russo spent the last four seasons with Notre Dame, peaking in 2014-15 with 41 points in 40 games. The Islanders selected him in the fourth round (95th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft.

It’s unclear where, exactly, Russo stands in Detroit’s hierarchy off the bat. They seem pretty well settled at the highest level right now, but it never hurts to have more options. Perhaps he’ll make a nice impression if he gets a closer look during training camp?