With a shortened hockey season to shortly be upon us, it’s time to start guessing what’s going to happen to the Nashville Predators this year. Here are the best-case and worst-case scenarios, along with what I think we’re likely to see from the 2013 Preds.
What We Know Going In
The 48-game schedule for 2013 is going to be against all Western Conference teams for the Preds, with five games against two of its Central Division rivals and four games against the other two. Last year the Preds went 16-5-3 for a .729 winning percentage against its divisional foes, including a combined 8-2-2 against Chicago and division champion St. Louis. They were 32-21-5 (.594) against the rest of the league, and 24-14-2 (.625) against the rest of the West outside their division.
The bulk of the roster that compiled those records is intact – with one particularly notable exception. With Ryan Suter gone there’s a big hole in the 5-on-5 defensive lineup, and the candidates to take on his ice time are young and largely unproven. After having his hands tied in the free agent market by having to mortgage the franchise to retain Shea Weber, GM David Poile’s hopes for replicating last year’s 9th-best offense in the league are largely pinned on veterans like Mike Fisher and David Legwand and a young, developing corps of forwards led by Colin Wilson and Craig Smith. Poile has shown in the past that he’s ready to pull the trigger on big trades before playoff campaigns, and that he’s willing to go to the waiver wire when it will address a team need.
The Nashville Predators’ Best Case Scenario (or, Weeeee! Goo-Goos For Everyone!)
In the best-case scenario, 2013 is a very good season for the Preds.
On offense, Sergei Kostitsyn fulfills the hopes of a lot of fans around Nashville (and proves me wrong) by leading the team in scoring with 42 points. Mike Fisher, benefiting from extra time to rest his body during the lockout, chips in 40 of his own. David Legwand and Martin Erat continue to be the dependable presences Nashville fans have come to expect, posting 30+ points each. Colin Wilson shows signs of maturation and ends the year playing left wing on the second line. He and Craig Smith both benefit from the short schedule and each top 25 points, while Gabriel Bourque contributes another 20. The Predators’ scoring-by-committee approach once again lands them in the league’s top 10 offenses at the end of the season.
On defense, Shea Weber logs his third straight dominating season on the blueline and wins the first major award in the history of the Nashville Predators franchise, the Norris Trophy. After feinting to the East, David Poile punches West and acquires Keith Yandle from Phoenix in an early-season trade. The 7-year veteran plays alongside Weber on a pairing for the rest of the season and Nashville Predators fans forget Ryan Suter ever touched the ice at Bridgestone Arena. For the 3,426,073rd time since the start of the lockout, fans of the Preds’ opponents join hands and curse Gary Bettman for putting hockey in the South and the desert.
That trade sees Jonathon Blum say goodbye to life with the Nashville Predators, but the good news is that Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are able to settle in on the second and third pairs. Ellis plays sheltered minutes on defense and helps to offset Suter’s departure from the power play.
In goal, Pekka Rinne is able to get some rest during the regular season thanks to the addition of veteran backup Chris Mason. Mase keeps the team competitive when their starter isn’t playing, and Pekka plays lights-out hockey in goal en route to a 2.27 GAA and .925 save percentage. He’s nominated for the Vezina for the second time but loses out to Jonathan Quick.
Detroit is weakened after the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, and Brad Stuart. The Preds enjoy similar success to that of 2011-12 against Chicago and St. Louis, and Columbus continues to seethe after each loss to its southern neighbor. Nashville finishes 29-12-7 for 66 points, wins its first Central Division title, and earns the #3 seed in the West.
The Nashville Predators’ Worst-Case Scenario (or, Shut Up Before You Jinx Us, Kirk)
If the wheels come off the 2013 season for the Nashville Predators, they could all fly off at once.
Suffering from a lack of real depth for the first time in a while, the Nashville Predators feel the sting of injuries to some of the players it expected to be key contributors. Mike Fisher and Patric Hornqvist both miss significant time. Sergei Kostitsyn decides to stay in the KHL, touching off an international hockey-lawyer war and leaving the Predators short of firepower. Their call-ups from Milwaukee aren’t quite ready to play at the NHL level yet and as a result the team drops to the bottom third of the league in offense.
On defense, the team plays the full season without making a trade for a top-flight defenseman and Shea Weber misses his old defensive partner. Hal Gill and Kevin Klein both lose time to injury. Roman Josi is generally solid but stumbles in a few key situations as he learns the ropes on the top line, and the short schedule magnifies their importance. Neither Ryan Ellis nor Jonathon Blum matures as much as management had hoped, though Ellis still chips effectively in on the power play when he’s in the lineup.
In goal, Pekka Rinne looks excellent as usual but misses significant time due to injury in the last half of the season. Chris Mason proves to be the reliable backup the front office wanted when they signed him, but he can’t start every game. Milwaukee call-up Jeremy Smith has trouble adjusting to the NHL at first, and the shortened schedule doesn’t allow him ample time to make up for rookie mistakes.
Detroit rebounds better than expected from its significant personnel losses, and Chicago and St. Louis both rebound from their 2011-12 form against Nashville to make things a little more even. Columbus does the same, and the Central Division becomes a quagmire of parity that only sends its top two teams – Detroit and St. Louis – on to the playoffs. The Predators gets the worst of two worlds: they miss out on the playoffs, but they’re not bad enough to land a great draft pick in return. (They end up picking 13th.)
What I Think Is Likely (or, What You’ll Roast Me With At Season’s End)
Before the season is in full swing, David Poile pulls the trigger on the kind of free-agent signing he likes so much: a low-risk, high-reward player who’s flying under everyone’s radar right now. It won’t be a flashy move, but it will shore up a mid-level roster weakness and give Coach Barry Trotz more tools to work with.
The team has a pack of eight to ten players scoring between 24 and 30 points, with Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, or David Legwand at the top of the list. Sergei Kostitsyn doesn’t lead the team, but he puts in another respectable performance and bags a few crucial game-winning goals. Colin Wilson and Craig Smith both continue to develop and steadily put up points throughout the season instead of dropping off at the end.
On special teams the power play doesn’t lead the league like it did in 2011-12, but a 19 percent pace is good for 7th. The penalty killing unit improves from the year before thanks to its anchor, Paul Gaustad, who makes it close to impossible for opposing centers to win faceoffs in the Nashville zone.
Among the young Nashville Predators defenseman, Roman Josi has a few questionable moments during the season but otherwise builds upon a solid first season in 2011-12 – and begins to show his scoring touch. Ryan Ellis proves to be a valuable asset on the power play and settles into the third pair alongside Hal Gill, who is a positive influence on Ellis like he was with Josi the previous season. Jonathon Blum holds his own but doesn’t impress enough to overcome the competition, and he heads out in a trade-deadline move to bolster the team for the playoffs.
And in goal, Pekka Rinne and Chris Mason prove to be one of the stronger goaltending tandems in the league. Rinne readjusts to the NHL game quickly after playing in Minsk during the lockout and puts up the second-best season of his career, stepping up to save his inexperienced defenders with highlight-reel saves when they need them most.
The Bottom Line
Nashville’s record against its divisional opponents isn’t likely to be quite as strong this year, if only because a .729 winning percentage is tough to repeat in a competitive division. I think St. Louis in particular is likely to push back against the Preds in its first full season under coach Ken Hitchcock, and if they end up being one of the Central opponents Nashville plays 5 times the Blues could very well take the season series. Even a weakened Detroit team is dangerous with Mike Babcock as coach, and the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky in goal in Columbus also makes that team more of a wild card than they’ve been in the past. After the way Nashville played them last year, imagining the Blue Jackets stealing an important divisional game or two from the Predators isn’t as impossible as it might once have been.
In 2013, the Nashville Predators will make the playoffs for the fourth straight year. What seed they’ll earn or what happens once they get there is anybody’s guess right now, but I know for sure it will make for another fun set of scenarios to pore over.