Risk Factors: Nashville Predators edition

2 Comments

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Nashville Predators

1. Pekka Rinne – It might come as a surprise to see Nashville’s $7 million man as a risk factor, but it’s hard to guarantee great results after two troubling seasons.

In 2013-14, Rinne’s health-related luck was horrific … he’s one of the few (only) athletes to ever be sidelined with E. Coli. Beyond the unusual nature of that ailment, it all stems from hip issues. Dealing with problems in that area isn’t exactly ideal for the goaltending position (just ask the many who reasonably wondered if Ray Emery could come back from his very serious problems). Rinne looks pretty young, yet at 31, he’s not exactly a spring chicken either.

On the bright side, Rinne told the Tennessean that his hip-related issues are behind him.

“The hip feels great. I had a good summer. I worked hard and stayed healthy. I’m just really excited for this upcoming season. I feel like I’m ready to go,” Rinne said. “I still have to pay attention to it, but I don’t have to change anything, I don’t have to skip any training because of that. It feels normal, I feel like I have the strength back in my legs this summer. It feels great and it’s nice not to think about it all the time.”

Healthy or not, the less settling notion is that Rinne hasn’t enjoyed much success since Ryan Suter defected to Minnesota.

After putting up Vezina-caliber stats in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Rinne’s been under .500 since the Predators last made the playoffs (25-26-11 combining the last two seasons) with underwhelming individual stats (.910 in 2012-13 and .902 in 2013-14). Granted, that accounts for only 67 of his 317 career regular season appearances, so it’s not exactly time to panic just yet.

Of course, there’s one other question floating around: if the Predators open things up, might that expose their towering netminder, especially if his lateral mobility is even slightly inhibited by an aching hip?

Nashville’s obviously confident in the big Finn, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should be. Carter Hutton earned some useful experience last season, but the bottom line is that Nashville will go as far as Rinne can take them.

2. Square peg, round hole? – After 15 years of bending to Barry Trotz’s preferences, the Predators did what they could to acclimate to the about-face that is hiring far more offensive-minded head coach Peter Laviolette.

Will his tactics translate well against brutal Central Division competition? Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks would probably happily go toe-to-toe with Nashville offensively while the St. Louis Blues of the world may just smother them.

Laviolette can be a pretty volatile personality at times. Will Predators execs get a little nervous if their second-ever head coach experiences some serious growing pains?

There are some interesting young players who may benefit from Laviolette’s presence, particularly Craig Smith and Seth Jones. The fiery bench boss has a nice track record of turning around moribund offenses, so it’s plausible that he could make a change of pace work for the Preds.

That said, this team has been molded in Trotz’s image for more than a decade, so the transition can be awkward … and opponents won’t show any mercy.

3. Lack of firepower – This one dovetails with the Laviolette questions: while the Predators boast a group of defensemen that could really push the pace and create chances from the blueline, Nashville’s forwards still leave a bit to be desired (at least on paper).

It’s not to say that the Predators haven’t made strides offensively. As useful as Patric Hornqvist has been for the team, James Neal seems to have a higher ceiling as one of the league’s most dangerous power forwards. Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro might not be the most exciting additions, but they’re low-risk veterans.

Still, few teams are going to be shaking in their boots when they look at Nashville’s set of forwards. When you scan Nashville’s list of forwards, Neal is still the only forward who really seems like an obvious first-line talent, and considering the fantastic centers he’s benefited from in both Dallas (Brad Richards in his prime) and Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby), even Jokinen/Ribeiro at their best will be a dramatic step down. It remains to be seen if the volatile power forward can create the same kind of chances without world-class passes reaches his stick.

Even if Neal can make a smooth move to Nashville and a few players thrive with more creative freedom – Colin Wilson, perhaps? – this offense isn’t the stuff of nightmares for opposing coaches.

It might take some time for this team to truly be molded in Laviolette’s vision … assuming that’s even the best vision for this club (as we discussed in the second risk factor).