The Nashville Predators put the wraps on 2015-2016 with a 41-27-14 record, good for fourth in the Central Division. They took to the post-season with aplomb and made it within one game of advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. In order to take the next step, the Predators will have to make a bigger dent in their tough division.
Without question, Nashville is making a run at it. They picked up defenceman P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Shea Weber and instantly found themselves more aligned with their goals. The addition of Subban helps the Predators become a faster team, plus it will help them continue their scintillating ways on the man-advantage.
The Predators finished 10th overall on the power play last season, with a 19.7 percent conversion rate. With Subban and defenceman Roman Josi on the first power play unit and the likes of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and James Neal up front, Nashville is not the sort of team you want to get in penalty trouble with.
The 22-year-old Forsberg had 64 points in 81 games last season. Eight of his 33 goals came on the power play. He had 247 shots on goal, averaged 19:03 of ice time a game and continued to evolve his defensive game. Forsberg has a quick release and can play either wing, which gives the Predators options when it comes to setting up the aforementioned power play.
Johansen seems set to anchor the top unit and for good reason. The 24-year-old is an impact player at 6’3, 223 pounds. He had 60 points last season and averaged 17:33 of ice time a game. In the post-season, the Vancouver native had eight points in 14 games and reached nearly 19 minutes of ice time a game. He’s a top-tier playmaker and should be responsible for more points in 2016-2017.
Neal kicked the tires and found 58 points in 82 games, including 31 goals. He averaged 19:04 of ice time a game and knows how to get into position to find the net. He’s good in the corners and loves to the shoot the puck, as evidenced by his 268 shots on target last season. Some say Neal could use a little work on his skating, but he’s such a sound player in terms of finding space that it hardly seems to matter.
New team captain Mike Fisher is also a factor, at least in terms of playing a shutdown role up front. He had 23 points last season, including 13 goals, and he does have an underrated shot that he doesn’t use nearly often enough. But he’s reliable, which is more than can be said for Mike Ribeiro. The 36-year-old did have 50 points last season, but he’s not a top-six lock on this team and could be prone to some difficulties in terms of consistency.
Subban had 51 points in 68 games last season and brings astonishing quickness to the Predators. The 27-year-old averaged 26:21 of ice time a game and had two power play goals, which seems on the lean side. He’s capable of putting up better numbers and will be well-served by Nashville’s power play preparedness, so his skating and rushing ability could yield even greater rewards in Music City.
Josi makes a theoretical partner for Subban on the blueline, but there’s word that Nashville may look to separate the two. They are comparable players, at least in terms of rushing and moving the puck. Josi had 61 points in 81 games last season, including six goals on the power play. He logged an average of 25:29 a game and cracked off 198 shots on goal.
Ryan Ellis could be Josi’s partner on the blueline and that would be a good thing. The Hamilton native is a mobile skater and he put up 32 points last season, with three of his 10 goals coming on the power play. He averaged 20:53 a game and could see a dip in top-flight minutes thanks to Subban’s arrival. That could help him become a more balanced player, as consistency is an issue.
Speaking of consistency, Pekka Rinne had an off-year in 2015-2016. He saw a dip in wins, goals against average and save percentage last season, but the Predators are hoping for a return to form in 2016-2017. The Finnish goalie has the starting job on lockdown and could push for 40 wins if he can keep healthy. Nashville would like him to take about 80 percent of the starts.
Marek Mazanec will among those challenging for the other 20 percent. The 25-year-old has a big frame for the position and is projected to become a starting netminder at some stage of his career, but the Predators will look to get the Czech into position this season. It’ll be trial by fire if something happens to Rinne.
The Predators’ push to draft a pile of forwards in 2014 and 2015 should start paying dividends soon, but the roster is so deep up front that there may not be any rush to move players to the big league. That means wingers like Kevin Fiala may find themselves on the bubble. The Swiss forward saw five games last season and recorded a goal. He’s a slick skater and has a high compete level.
Finnish goalie Juuse Saros could be among the players given a better look. He’ll challenge Mazanec for the backup gig and boasts a knack for reading shooters. He’s also blessed with swift reflexes and seldom finds himself out of position. The 21-year-old is also a patient netminder and moves quickly in the butterfly.
The Path Ahead
The Predators want to make a bigger push in the post-season and they have the roster to do so. The addition of Subban is a huge deal and will give them even more mobility out of their own end. Goaltending issues could be a problem if Rinne can’t bounce back, but Nashville should be primed to challenge in the Central Division.