USATSI_8535403_154158418_lowresThe Nashville Predators are relatively happy with the team they have, which is why they didn’t do much of anything in the off-season. They finished 2014-2015 with a 47-25-10 record, good for second in the Central Division, and they made the playoffs after a two year lull. They scored 226 goals and allowed 202, plus they only lost nine games at home.

Goalie Pekka Rinne was probably the biggest reason for Nashville’s success last season. He played in 64 games and won 41, finishing with a 2.18 goals against average and a .923 save percentage with four shutouts. Along with a strong defensive core that includes Shea Weber and Roman Josi, the Predators have played solid hockey in their own end.

21-year-old forward Filip Forsberg enjoyed a terrific season, leading the team with 26 goals for a total of 63 points in 82 games. The Predators are betting that he’ll be an elite forward in the near future, giving their offensive group a boost. Another boost should come from Mike Ribeiro, who was re-signed to a two year contract worth $7 million.

Offence

The aforementioned Ribeiro is the top centre and the true starting point for Nashville’s attack. The Predators have rolled the dice on the 35-year-old, with general manager David Poile ensuring that he’s a “good citizen in the community.” Charges of assault from Ribeiro’s former nanny haven’t helped his case off the ice, but he should be reasonably productive on the ice. He had 15 goals last season.

The aforementioned Forsberg is Nashville’s most gifted forward, at least in terms of top-tier skill. He’ll be paired with Ribeiro, forming a robust one-two punch up front. Forsberg has a quick release and is actually rather sound defensively, making him a well-rounded player as well as an offensive threat. He had six goals on the power play last year and should build on those totals.

James Neal is another big piece of the offensive picture. He had 23 goals last season and has the positioning down, which puts him in the right place at the right time. He had five points in six playoff games and can come alive at the right moments. Colin Wilson and Craig Smith also eclipsed 20 goals, while centre Mike Fisher anchors that second line like a boss.

Defence

The Predators have a strong, deep defensive group that starts with Weber and has expanded to include the likes of Josi, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. Weber and Josi finished in the top five of Norris Trophy voting last season, with Weber scoring 15 goals – five of which were on the power play. He logs over 26 minutes a game and powers the attack.

Josi also had 15 goals and came up with a total of 55 points. He also logged over 26 minutes a game and eclipsed 31 minutes a game in the post-season. Jones is ready to emerge as an elite defenceman, too. He put up 27 points in 82 games and is a responsible player in his own end. Jones logged over 28 minutes a game in the playoffs after Weber went down with an injury.

The 25-year-old Ekholm can play some physical hockey when the run of play calls for it, plus he owns a big point shot that might rival Weber’s someday. He had seven goals last season. Ellis, too, can drive an offensive attack from the blueline. He had nine goals last season and pushed over the 26-minute mark in the playoffs. The addition of Barret Jackman in the off-season should help, too. Jackman can anchor the defensive group and play responsible shutdown hockey in his own end.

Goaltending

Having Rinne in the game for the whole season made all the difference in the world for the Predators. He missed 51 games because of a hip injury in 2013-2014, but returned to play in 64 games for 2014-2015 and finished second in Vezina Trophy voting. At 6’5, 204 pounds, Rinne covers a lot of the net and knows how to use that size. He’s also extremely flexible and is seldom out of position.

Backing him up will be Carter Hutton, the 29-year-old from Thunder Bay. He put up serious numbers at the college level and he was decent when the pressure was on due to Rinne’s 2013-2014 injury, winning 20 out of 40 games and finishing with a 2.62 goals against average. Last season, Hutton appeared in 18 games and had six wins with a .902 save percentage.

Prospects

Nashville has been stacking up prospects at the forward position, starting with 2014 NHL Entry Draft first-rounder Kevin Fiala. The 19-year-old has impressive offensive skill and many observers see him making the team after training camp. Fiala saw action in the post-season against the Chicago Blackhawks and says that it was a significant learning experience. He’s a talented playmaker and a slick skater, but there are some size issues.

Viktor Arvidsson is another exciting prospect. The 22-year-old Swedish winger has a lot in common with Fiala in that he’s not that big but can make some thrilling plays. Arvidsson may not be as NHL-ready as Fiala, but that’s not a problem. The Predators are deep enough at the forward position to let him develop for another year. He led Milwaukee with 55 points last season and registered 272 shots on target.

The Path Ahead

This is a good hockey team. The Predators have one of the most exciting defensive groups in the NHL and one of the best goalies in the NHL. If they can get some offence from the forward group, they’ll be among the league’s most balanced clubs. They’re also out to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke; they’re playoff ready and loving it.

Objectively, the centre position does look a little on the thin side. Cody Hodgson is a nice addition and he can slip in down the middle, but things really do thin out after Ribeiro and Fisher. And if Ribeiro’s off-ice troubles catch up to him, the Predators could be in a tight spot at forward. Centres like Calle Jarnkrok could do in a pinch, but there has to be more in the wings if Nashville’s going to have lasting success.

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