James Neal

Nashville Predators ’15-16 Outlook

2 Comments

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.

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

10 Comments

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.

Report: Smith asking for $4.75 million ahead of arbitration date with Predators

10 Comments

According to Adam Vingan of The Tennessean, the Nashville Predators and 25-year-old center Craig Smith have an arbitration hearing scheduled for Monday.

This, according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, shows what separates the two sides heading into that hearing:

Smith, a restricted free agent, has emerged with back-to-back 20-plus goal seasons with the Predators, scoring 24 times with 52 points in 79 games in 2013-14.

His point production dipped this past season to 44 points, but he still finished tied for second on the team alongside James Neal with 23 goals, and behind only Filip Forsberg, who had 26.

“It’s just a process,” Predators GM David Poile recently told The Tennessean.

“It’s probably actually good it’s been done because we know they’re going to be signed. It’s just how much, and it gives both sides a chance to prepare as best possible for an arbitration or maybe for a settlement.”

Ribeiro re-signs with Preds — two years, $7 million

8 Comments

From TSN’s Aaron Ward:

After being bought out by Arizona, Ribeiro bounced back with a productive “last chance” season for the Preds. The 35-year-old had 15 goals and 47 assists while playing mostly on a top line with Filip Forsberg and James Neal.

The Preds wanted Ribeiro back, despite the civil lawsuit filed by his former nanny, who claims that he sexually assaulted her in 2012.

“Last year before we signed Mike, we talked to he and his family a lot about his past and I guess you could say his plan and his commitment for moving forward for both on and off the ice,” GM David Poile said. “As it turned out, I think Mike was a good teammate and he was a productive player. I don’t think anybody would argue with that. I think he was great among his teammates, and his wife and he were excellent in the community.”

Hockey wise, the Preds may be in tough to win a Stanley Cup with a pair of 35-year-olds, Ribeiro and Mike Fisher, as their top centers. But Ribeiro and Fisher are only signed through 2016-17, so there’s flexibility to improve at the position.

Keith conquers: Blackhawks come back, eliminate Predators

49 Comments

The Nashville Predators aren’t a common playoff threat for the Chicago Blackhawks, so in some ways, this blistering first-round series feels different. Even so, the usual suspects keep coming up big for the Blackhawks, so the script ended up being familiar enough.

Brent Seabrook scored the game-winner in that epic triple-OT contest in Game 4. Duncan Keith was the difference-maker not once, but twice. Patrick Kane was shockingly productive in this series even short of 100 percent; Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa were their usual dominant selves.

It almost felt inevitable when Keith scored the last game-winner, as close as this series was:

With plenty of overtime action in this series, Predators – Blackhawks felt like a seven-game classic. Chicago was able to make enough plays to end it in six, however, beating Nashville in another thriller by a score of 4-3.

Things were wild and woolly in the opening frame. James Neal scored two early goals, and after the teams traded tallies for a 3-1 Nashville lead, Joel Quenneville gave Scott Darling the hook in favor of Corey Crawford.

It wasn’t advantage: Predators for very long, however. Jonathan Toews scored on the power play and Patrick Kane fired a laser beam home late in the first to tie it up 3-3.

There was plenty of action after that, but Chicago was unable to take advantage of a significant advantage in play in the second period, including a 12-7 shot advantage. In general, it seemed like the Blackhawks were locking in to try to put away the Predators, yet both Crawford and Pekka Rinne held strong through much of the action, making for more tight proceedings.

Ultimately, Rinne was unable to turn aside an unrelenting Blackhawks attack culminating with Keith’s game-winner.

With that, the Blackhawks advance to the next round while the Predators’ surprisingly excellent season ends in heartbreak.

Time will tell if Nashville can bounce back and turn this one-off series into a budding rivalry. Whatever happens in 2015-16 and beyond, this was one of those rare gems that may very well convert new fans to the sport.

… Even if the ultimate outcome might seem predictable to some.