The 2014-15 season began with many questions; saw great optimism with a good start; great excitement as the team surged to first overall; great concern with a late-season swoon; and great disappointment over a heartbreaking six-game defeat to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. Now the page is turned to a new season. Could it be a golden one?
Salary cap problems for Chicago and St. Louis combined with salary cap room for Nashville (and the lessons learned from that harsh finish and experience gained from it) sees the Predators at the top of the list of Stanley Cup contenders for 2015-16. Given all of those factors, and intangibles that have become tangible, and this is a club that can be carrying the Cup down Broadway come June.
Of course, the #one key is that this team must stay healthy, especially in goal. Pekka Rinne is coming off his best season, though an injury at an inopportune time stopped his momentum. Once he returned, all rhythm was lost as the Predators tumbled. The defense corps is the best in the NHL (as a whole) led by Captain Shea Weber, newly appointed alternate Captain Roman Josi, the ever-improving force Seth Jones, the speed and skill of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, and now the gritty veteran presence of former St. Louis Blue Barret Jackman. It is a group that has everything you want for supporting one of the three best goaltenders in the league as well as jumpstarting offense from the back line.
Goal scoring was among the lowest in the league early last season, then surged near the top after the All-Star Break. But like everything else, slumped toward the end. Overall, it should not be a concern keeping in mind that with that defense, they will not necessarily need to be at the top of the league scoring goals for this team to succeed. Mike Fisher, the heart and soul of this team; and Mike Ribeiro, a gamble that ended up sevens for GM David Poile, both return. Any question as to Fisher’s importance to this team was erased after seeing them try to function without him against the Blackhawks. Ribeiro provides structure for the younger players and is an elite facilitator.
Filip Forsberg took the league by storm last season, but hit the famed rookie wall late before becoming invigorated tallying a hat trick in the playoffs. Forsberg only figures to improve, with better understanding conditioning necessary at this level. James Neal, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson all scored over 20 goals last season, exactly the kind of production expected. More would be even better this season. There is not much concern over what they will give you. The variables come from younger more inconsistent talents. Can Gabriel Bourque and Calle Jarnkrok take that next step? Then there are Viktor Arvidsson and Austin Watson who did make the club out of camp, and Steve Moses who did not. What might they add to the mix?
Nashville plays in the best division in hockey bar none, and they are at the top of it. Minnesota also figures to improve and challenge the Predators at the top. Then come Chicago and St. Louis, still strong but just a step back. Hard charging are Winnipeg and Dallas, with each making significant strides in the offseason. Only Colorado appears to be a non-contender this season. Outside the Central, Anaheim is the team to watch, but this could be a golden year for the Nashville Predators.