James O'Brien

Mike Ribeiro

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

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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?

Looking to make the leap: Slater Koekkoek

Slater Koekkoek; Dion Phaneuf
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Depending upon how you define “making the leap,” plenty of Tampa Bay Lightning youngsters could qualify for this post.

That’s part of what makes the group GM Steve Yzerman assembled so scary: there are a ton of quality prime-age players who broke through recently or may break through soon.

Even beyond the very-young Triplets, you have Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Vasilevskiy expecting bigger things, possibly as soon as 2015-16.

There are plenty of almost-there guys who can make the jump, too, from Adam Erne to Anthony DeAngelo.

Here’s a vote for Slater Koekkoek.

As the 10th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old seems like he’s primed for an arrival sooner rather than later.

He got his feet wet at the NHL level, playing in three games with the Bolts in 2014-15. While his AHL numbers won’t blow you away, the Lightning have every reason to give Koekkoek a chance to prove himself, as the likes of Nesterov, Andrej Sustr and even Matt Carle seemed to move in and out of Jon Cooper’s doghouse during the playoffs.

Speaking of Carle, he seemed impressed with the young blueliner’s skill when he debuted in April, as the Tampa Tribune reports.

“He skates really well, skated with the puck a lot and created a couple of chances on his own,” Carle said. “He was jumping up in plays. But I don’t think I played well enough to help him out. I kind of hung him out to dry on a couple of odd-man rushes. But he’s a talented kid who can skate well.”

Adding more mobility to a defense corps that includes Victor Hedman? That could leave Lightning fans leaping for joy.

It’s Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT

Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos
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The Tampa Bay Lightning fell two wins short of the summit. At least they boast the sort of young legs that can hoist them back to similar heights, though, right?

Jonathan Toews was impressed with the push-back from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, even if he delivered that message in the form of a backhanded compliment. Negative types would say 2014-15 was a year of almost – nearly winning the division, coming that close to a Cup win – but most would agree that last year a big success.

The question is: will the Lightning look back at that run as the time they learned how to win the big game?

Time hasn’t always been kind to teams who fall in Stanley Cup Final rounds, although the Lightning have the makings of a team that could be here to say, perhaps running parallel to the Penguins (who lost in 2008 before winning it all in 2009).

Most obviously, the Lightning have the same coach and the same core players.

Off-season recap

Of course, one can look at that bounty of prime-age assets and think that the Lightning can make this last for ages.

Unless you’re a huge Brenden Morrow fan, the main cast members from the 2014-15 Bolts are returning for the sequel. The biggest changes are expected to be from internal growth: Jonathan Drouin may take a bigger role, Andrei Vasilevskiy could push Ben Bishop for starts and others hope to become full-time NHL players.

The biggest consideration comes when you ponder contracts that end after 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Most obviously, Steven Stamkos is in the last year of his contract, a fact that will likely make for distracting headlines.

One piece of “The Triplets” – Nikita Kucherov – will be an RFA after 2015-16. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will carry that same RFA status after 2017-18, and one would expect big upgrades from their matching $3.33 million cap hits. Even the goalie duo of Bishop and Vasilevskiy only hold two-year deals.

A quiet summer makes sense for the Lightning, yet it’s a bit foreboding, as many would prefer to see “Stamkos signs seven-year mega-deal” in this slot. Yzerman still has time to swing deals like those both before, during and after 2015-16, but looming cap challenges are the elephant in the room.

That’s a bummer for the future, yet the Lightning seem well-stocked for the shorter term.