The Nashville Predators ended last year's shortened hockey season with a depleted roster and a number of questions. During the off season, the team made personnel moves to address some of those questions and to provide much needed depth and talent to the roster.
Yet questions remain about the team, its roster, and its ability to compete.
With the season about to open, those questions hang over a Predators team that has been consistently in the playoff picture and is looking to return to the post season. Every facet of this team has some serious questions, and how they are answered will determine if the post season once again awaits.
Just as the Predators have built the team from the net out, let's start by looking at who is manning the pipes:
The Predators have relied on the strong play of Pekka Rinne to carry them since he has taken over the starter's role. And Rinne has done just that. In the four full seasons that he has been a starter, beginning in 2008, Rinne has averaged playing 62 games per season. He played in 43 of the 48 games last year, and relishes the workload. That is a good thing because he faces a lot of pucks coming at him. His worst save percentage since 2008 was in the shortened season last year, at .910. Having Rinne in net is a confidence booster for the team in front of him, and he gives the Predators an opportunity to win games even without prolific scoring.
Shortly after the season was over, it was revealed that Rinne had played with an injured hip for most of the campaign. Off season surgery to correct the injury was successful, but rehab limited his work on the ice. At the start of training camp, Rinne said he was 100% and felt fine, but the team has limited his work in the preseason.
Back up Chris Mason is gone, and for now, the Predators are using off season acquisition Carter Hutton from the AHL Rockford Ice Hogs as the tentative back up. Hutton has shown some athleticism and potential to be a solid back up in the preseason.
The first, most important, and obvious question is Rinne's health and durability. In limited preseason action, he has looked very good. His quickness, explosiveness moving side to side, and agility look like the healthy Rinne Predator fans are used to seeing in net. Should Rinne be unable to carry his usual workload, this team will be in the market for a proven netminder. Rinne's ability to play at his usual high level and number of games will go a long way toward getting the Predators back into a playoff position.
Can Carter Hutton serve as an effective back up? Realistically, I believe that Hutton (or any back up goalie) is going to have to play 15-20 games because of the compression in the schedule caused by the Olympics. If the Predators have confidence in Hutton to give him that workload, it allows Rinne to get needed rest and the Predators do not have to give up assets to acquire a seasoned back up. I expect the Predators to start the season with Hutton as the back up and give him an opportunity to secure that spot on the roster for the season.
While Shea Weber garners most of the attention when talking about the Predators blue liners, there are other talented players on the back end. Kevin Klein has quietly developed into a solid and steady defender. Roman Josi has emerged as a very complimentary player paired with Weber, showing good hockey sense and the ability to move the puck.
The Predators 4th round pick, Seth Jones has tremendous upside and will be on the opening roster. Jones has good hockey sense and plays a mature game. There will be a learning curve, but his raw talent and skill should help to offset his inexperience.
Victor Bartley showed well in his time with the Predators last season, and that experience will help him. He has good size and uses it well. He needs to develop an edge and some snarl, but that will come.
Ryan Ellis is undersized but a good puck mover and can help the team on the power play. Mattias Ekholm has the tools to be a good defenseman but he has to translate those skills to the NHL after playing in Sweden and the AHL.
Jones has the talent, but can he play second pairing minutes against quality forwards? If he can, this will help solidify the Predators blue line.
Can Ryan Ellis handle the rigors of a full NHL season? His physical stature works against him and bigger forwards can take advantage of him. His skating and puck moving ability are distinct plusses, but he has to show that he can compete against physical opponents.
The Predators have to find a third D pairing. Can Bartley, Ellis, and Ekholm fill that role, and more importantly, play solid defense? If they can, the blue line could be a strong component of this team.
Talk about the Predators and the conversation quickly turns to the lack of consistent scoring. There is a lot of potential among this group, but it is just that- potential. For the Predators to be successful, that potential among this group must be realized.
The Predators will blend experience with youthful talent. Veterans Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson, David Legwand, and new addition Matt Cullen will pair with Gabriel Bourque, Craig Smith (both third year players), and newcomer Filip Forsberg (who played 5 games with the Predators last season) on the top lines. This group has the talent and potential- there is that word again- to be good. For the Predators to be successful, they have to produce.
Rich Clune, Paul Gaustad, and new acquisitions Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks provide grit to the forwards. The Predators have to have offensive contributions from the third and fourth lines as they have in seasons past, and these players have to provide timely scoring as well as a physical presence.
The reality is that the Predators have been successful scoring by committee. In the 2011-12 season, the Predators finished 8th in the NHL in regular season scoring. The Predators lack an elite scorer, but the balanced scoring from all lines has been consistent and productive in past seasons. The Predators have to have that balance in the upcoming season.
The Predators hope that Viktor Stalberg, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent, can provide the consistent top flight scorer that they have lacked. Stalberg has the size and speed that the Predators need and the hope is that his production will increase with top line minutes. Unfortunately, Stalberg sprained his shoulder in a preseason game and is expected to miss 4 weeks.
There are a bunch with this group.
Can Colin Wilson return to form after having surgery on both shoulders in the off season? Wilson was having a career year before injuries cut short his season. It bodes well for the Predators if he can produce like he did before his injury.
Gabriel Bourque is a powerful, physical forward, and like Wilson, his season was shortened by an injury. He has fully recovered from knee surgery and the Predators need his physical presence and scoring. Can Bourque play a full season and be productive? If so, this gives the Predators much needed scoring and flexibility with the forward lines.
Craig Smith arguably has some of the best offensive skills of any forward on the team. Smith had a miserable sophomore season and struggled to find consistency in his game. If Smith can find his scoring touch and confidence, the Predators will have a dynamic offensive forward that can create match up problems for the defense.
How will the newcomers mesh with the team? In particular, can Stalberg produce to his potential and physical skills? If the new acquisitions mesh early and are productive, the Predators will challenge for a playoff position. The Predators need Stalberg to quickly establish himself as an elite scorer. If he can, the offense will be a more productive unit.
Barry Trotz is the only Head Coach the Predators have had, and he has the knack of getting the most out of his squad. This season, he has more depth at forward and had some components that should be able to provide some offensive pop.
Lane Lambert returns behind the bench and will coach the forwards. Peter Horachek is gone, and Phil Housley has replaced him behind the bench and will coach the defense. I expect the defense corps, and especially some of the young players on the blue line will benefit from his coaching.
Can Trotz and his staff quickly blend the veterans, new additions to the roster, and the young players into a cohesive and effective unit? Can Trotz get the Predators back to playing "Predator hockey"- gritty, tough defensively, and offensively opportunistic? If so, the Predators will be a force in the Central Division.
Trotz has been known for emphasizing defensive responsibility first and foremost. Can he get the forwards in particular to elevate their offensive game without sacrificing defensive responsibility? This group of forwards possesses offensive talent, but can they consistently score and take some pressure off Rinne and the defense?
The addition of Housley will benefit the defense and the power play. He has a lot of young players with which to work, and his challenge will be to get them ready quickly.
This is a team looking to rebound from a miserable season and get back to the playoffs. The Predators are a team looking to regain their identity, what Trotz calls their "bite".
Entering this season, numerous questions surround this team. They are tough questions that will be answered on the ice.
How they answer these questions will determine if they can find their bite and a spot in the playoffs.