With several free agents joining the roster, new coaches and a healthy No. 1 goaltender, a lot of excitement is surrounding the 2014-2015 edition of the Nashville Predators.
These changes–specifically the offensive style brought by Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette–should have a positive impact on many of the Predators players and lead to breakout campaigns for some of them this upcoming season. Who will benefit the most from the players acquired this summer and the altered style of play?
The top three breakout candidates for the Predators:
The 24-year-old center turned winger saw quite an uptick in his offensive production last season.
Smith led the Predators in goals with 24, just one season removed (albeit a lockout-shortened one) from a campaign where he lit the lamp just four times. At the end of the 2013-2014 season, Smith credited ignoring some of the pressures he felt the year prior as a reason for his dramatic improvement.
“Really it was all about loosening up and playing the way I know I can,” Smith said in April. “Play wild and having fun; just shooting the puck and relying on the abilities I have on offense.”
Last campaign, the forward showed flashes of being the first line scorer Nashville has been after for years and this next season he’ll be staring at the 30-goal plateau. Smith should see time on the Predators first line, along with winger James Neal and center Mike Ribeiro, and he’ll be surrounded by the most talent he’s ever seen at the NHL level. Highly-skilled linemates and a system allowing him to stretch the defense with his speed should both work to give Smith his best season yet.
Second-year players sometimes fall prey to the dreaded “sophomore slump,” but the young defenseman doesn’t seem slated to suffer this fate.
The No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft had a solid rookie season when considering his age and inexperience, but this coming campaign he’ll be looking to grow his role in Nashville’s defensive corps. The 19-year-old could benefit from a pairing with veteran Anton Volchenkov and should also taken on a larger role on the Predators power play.
Laviolette was highly complimentary of Jones after seeing him play in the 2014 World Championships and expecting the bench boss to promote him to the Predators second defensive pairing doesn’t seem far-fetched. Last season, Jones said that learning how to bring his best on a nightly basis was the biggest thing he needed to learn. If he does that this year, the defenseman will be a bright spot on Nashville’s stacked blue line.
Like Smith, Ellis will be looking to build off a career-year in 2013-2014.
The blueliner played in 80 games last season after appearing in 64 combined the prior two seasons (and scored six goals last campaign after having five career tallies). The Ontario native was open about the help he received from Predators assistant coach Phil Housley last season, and now the blueliner will try and continue his progression.
“Coach Housley has helped with my vision on the ice. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Roman and Weber are our one-two punch,” said Ellis. “So they’ve been able to give me some help, along with my experience.”
Ellis excelled in his increased minutes (upwards of 15 minutes on average) in 2013-2014 and appears primed to help on both sides of the puck this next campaign. The 23-year-old showed chemistry with Mattias Ekholm when they two were paired together and both blueliners have a good shot of beating their point totals from last year.