After 15 seasons, the Nashville Predators are turning the page. Out is defensive-minded coach from day one Barry Trotz, and in is offensive-minded coach Peter Laviolette. The Predators need to score more goals and generate more excitement, this team figures to do just that in 2014-2015.
Two straight years missing the playoffs, and building apathy, is what motivated David Poile to make this philosophical change in the direction of the franchise. Trotz was the perfect man to start this team, and grow the young franchise into prominence through discipline and hard work, but now is the time to evolve and general manager Poile did a masterful job in seamlessly transitioning this team but without sacrificing one of the best young defense corps in the NHL. At least that is what it looks like on paper, but if the first week is any indication, it will look like that on the ice, as well.
This Predators team figures to have the ability to score more goals, seven in the first two games and six in the third period, good signs. Key to this franchise shift is Laviolette, who won the Stanley Cup as the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Laviolette understands building hockey in a mid-sized Southern market without unlimited financial resources. He also understands how to get the most out of young players, and he coaches a free-flowing entertaining brand of offensive hockey.
But for this to work you must have some skill talent, and the Predators got that type of elite goal scorer in James Neal, acquired in a draft day trade. Neal has scored 161 goals in 415 career games, 88 in 179 games the past three seasons on the left of Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Neal fits this team with his grit and toughness, and brings the right attitude. Also new to this team are accomplished centermen Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, veteran free-agents all who add scoring touch.
The strength of this team has always been, and always will be, defense. Nashville returns one of the best, most athletic, and youngest defense groups in hockey led by Captain Shea Weber. Roman Josi figures to be paired with Weber most of the time, newly re-signed Ryan Ellis figures to pair with Seth Jones, last season’s first-round pick looking to make big strides in year two. The backstop is goaltender Pekka Rinne, in the best physical shape of his life after playing in only 27 games last season due to injury.
There is much reason to be excited about this team, but also much reason to be cautious. The Central Division is the league’s best with Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota seen as prime Cup contenders. Colorado won this division last season, Dallas made the playoffs, and Winnipeg is getting better. But a healthy Rinne, strong defense, and improved offense are a recipe that should return Nashville to the playoffs this season.