“Hello… hurray, let the show begin, I’ve been ready!”
In quoting a lyric from a 1973 Alice Cooper single, I think I speak for virtually every Nashville Predators fan when I say we are all ready for the puck to drop, and the Preds to once again begin the quest for the Stanley Cup. A quest that took them to within two victories of achieving hockey’s ultimate goal, yielding to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Bridgestone Arena in Game 6 of the Finals.
The 2017-18 edition of the team is not too far removed from the team that left us just a little disappointed in June, although whoever thought the team would be in that position based on their regular season play should have been buying lottery tickets on a nightly basis.
Changes include the retirement of Captain (center) Mike Fisher, the loss of winger James Neal, to Las Vegas in the expansion draft, the dealing of Preds veteran forward Colin Wilson to Colorado, and the arrival of Penguins forward Nick Bonino, signing a four year deal as a free agent during this past summer. The real changes, however, lie in the depth of experience some of the team’s younger players got during the long run through the post season. Pontus Aberg and Freddie Gaudreau arrived from the Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League, and young Preds Colton Sissons, Austin Watson, and Kevin Fiala all saw their stock rise with increased ice time and responsibility over the final months of the season. Big injuries during the playoffs to Fiala, and Ryan Johansen proved to be only small speed bumps in the Preds path through the playoffs. Now, both players appear to be healthy and ready to make even greater contributions in the new campaign.
Returning talent, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and Calle Jarnkrok give the team a smart, speedy core, complimented by Fiala, Johansen, and Aberg. Additionally, the team re-signed veteran forward Scott Hartnell to provide some veteran leadership, and sand paper in front of the opposition’s net.
Defensively, the Preds boast an arguably best top 4 backliners in the NHL. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are all considered elite defensemen, and despite an injury that will keep Ellis on the shelf until Christmas time, newly acquired veteran Alexei Emelin joins from the Montreal Canadiens, and returnees Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber should eat up the remainder of the minutes until Ellis’ return. Additionally, a young stud defenseman, Alex Carrier may be given a look past training camp, as he excelled in Milwaukee in his first pro season, and could be ready to slot in a more offensive role at the start of the campaign. If Carrier fits nicely in Ellis’ spot, there will certainly be speculation that once Ellis returns, the team could then dangle a defenseman in an effort to acquire a veteran forward, such as Matt Duchene on Colorado. An embarrassment of riches, and a great problem for David Poile to have heading into the new season.
There are no questions as to who will be the team’s number one netminder, as Pekka Rinne returns for another season in Nashville. Rinne, who was NHL Goaltender of the month last November, was spectacular through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and at times seemed to singlehandedly carry the team on his back for long stretches of time. Young netminder, Juuse Saros returns as the backup goaltender, but free agent veteran Anders Lindback has returned to Nashville, and with Saros waiver-exempt, the team can always give Saros some games in Milwaukee and let Lindback caddy for Rinne for short periods of time throughout the season.
While some feel goals will be hard to come by, given the loss of Neal, and to a lesser extent, Fisher, others believe it is the maturity and growth of players like Fiala, Aberg and Sissons that will pick up the slack and give the team plenty of offense, to match the stingy defense, and solid goaltending during the early going.
What can we expect out of Craig Smith? – Smith was wildly inconsistent last season and saw his goal production dip to just 12 after three consecutive 20+ seasons. No one denies Smith’s talent, but his stock fell mightily last year, and he needs to get off to a good start to make Preds fans believe he can sustain as a top 9 forward for much of the season.
Who’s #2 down the middle? – Conventional wisdom says that GM David Poile acquired Bonino with an eye towards that second spot at the center position, but don’t count out Swedish center Calle Jarnkrok just yet. Although Jarnkrok has posted modest numbers in his three full seasons with Nashville, there are many who believe he will take his game to the next level given regular linemates, and a designated role as the team’s #2 center. Too often over the last two seasons Jarnkrok has moved up and down the lineup at both center and wing, playing with a myriad of players in an equal number of roles. Stability could be a defining moment for Jarnkrok, and chemistry with a speedster like Fiala could be a determining factor in his job description in 2017-18.
Which rookies make the leap? – Notching his first three NHL goals in the Stanley Cup Finals was a calling card for Gaudreau, who seems to be an adept faceoff man, and solid penalty killer. His goal numbers in Milwaukee jumped from 15 in 2015-16 to 25 in 2016-17, and that at least gives an indication that given an offensive role, Gaudreau can find the back of the net when given the chance. Another Milwaukee player, Vladislav Kamenev will also bid for ice time in Nashville. The 21 year old Russian forward notched 21 goals for the Admirals in his second season of North American hockey, and the highly skilled forward is hoping to prove to Coach Laviolette and staff that he would benefit from NHL action this season.
Finally, after scoring the big contract, which Ryan Johansen shows up for the Preds this season? – Nashville’s new almost 70 million dollar man will be in Preds gold for eight more seasons (barring the unforeseen,) and prior to his injury in the post season, he was playing some damn fine hockey with his linemates, Arvidsson and Forsberg. Johansen is loved in the team’s locker room, and the fit seems to suit all parties, but will he come back from his injury and his bank vault with the same intensity he showed this past post-season? Major question given the fact that on most nights the team was on the ice, we saw a player, who despite leading the team in points, took too many shifts off, barely seeming to break a sweat and showing less than a full effort despite obvious talents, and leading the team in scoring for the regular season. We know Forsberg will have more than a single goal leading into December, and we know that it will take a Mack Truck to stop Viktor Arvidsson as he bulldogs his way around the neutral zone, heading in 9 different directions and seemingly always ending up with a shot on goal.
There’s plenty more to touch on, and I hope you’ll consider reading regularly throughout the 17-18 season. I’ll do my best to provide you with unique content over the course of the year.