A late season swoon and a first-round playoff loss to the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks took some luster off what was a very promising 2014-15 season in Nashville. The Predators, expected to struggle when the season started, led the Central Division for much of the year. Rookie Filip Forsberg led the team in scoring while veteran Mike Ribeiro returned to the form he showed during his days with the Dallas Stars.
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Predators now find themselves with the challenge of taking the next step toward becoming a Stanley Cup champion. Talent-wise Nashville compares favorably with many of the upper tier teams in the NHL but, like teams such as San Jose and St. Louis, must now translate that talent into a Stanley Cup run.
The Predators have seven selections heading into the 2015 NHL Draft but no first round pick. Nashville traded its first round pick, now set at 24th overall, to Toronto as part of the trade for defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli back in February. The Predators hold San Jose’s fourth round pick (100th overall) as part of a trade with Detroit last year.
Nashville has a healthy mix of younger players and veterans but the key will be how soon those younger players can play more prominent roles as Ribeiro (35 years old), Matt Cullen (37), Mike Fisher (34) and even goalie Pekka Rinne (31) head into the latter stages of their careers.
Goaltending-wise, veteran backup Carter Hutton will be 30 in December. The Predators are hoping one of Juuse Saros, Magnus Hellberg or Marek Mazanec solidifies himself as an eventual successor to Rinne.
The strength of the organization may be its defense corps where young players like Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have emerged to complement perennial all-star Shea Weber.
After years of emphasis on a physical, defense-first philosophy the Predators have stockpiled skating forwards capable of putting pressure on opponents with speed and tempo. The Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s AHL affiliate, had one of the league’s younger rosters and several of that team’s forwards such as Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg and Viktor Arvidsson could challenge for NHL ice time as soon as this coming fall.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Kevin Fiala, LW
2. Juuse Saros, G
3. Vladislav Kamenev, LW
4. Jimmy Vesey, LW
5. Magnus Hellberg, G
6. Pontus Aberg, LW
7. Jack Dougherty, D
8. Viktor Arvidsson, LW
9. Justin Kirkland, LW
10. Colton Sissons, C
Nashville general manager David Poile has made it a priority to supply head coach Peter Laviolette with the fast and highly-skilled players needed to execute his skating style of play, recently signing former University New Hampshire forward Steve Moses, who led the KHL in goals playing for Jokerit this past season. With the exception of Russian winger Vladislav Kamenev, Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey and possibly Edmonton Oil Kings’ forward Justin Kirkland, the Predators prospect group is somewhat undersized. The Predators may need to add a larger body or two capable of playing the game in smaller spaces and providing the finishing ability to complement that speed and skill. On the defensive end of things, the future appears bright with the group currently in Nashville just beginning to scratch its potential and four of the top six defensemen 25 years of age or younger. But the depth of the prospect group is less certain. An elite blueline prospect or two would fit in well and could be an area of emphasis at this year’s draft.
With players like Forsberg, Jones and Josi the Predators have three of the top younger players in the game and a solid foundation on which to build moving forward. Both Weber and Josi logged huge amounts of ice time this past season and Rinne, when healthy, is one of the NHL’s top goalies.
The forward group in Nashville is a deep and balanced unit with seven players finishing with at least 25 points last season. The anticipated addition of Fiala and possibly Arvidsson, Austin Watson or Miikka Salomaki from Milwaukee should add to that depth.
The decision to stock the Admirals almost exclusively with younger prospects last season has given several players added experience and ice time and should provide some depth for the Predators in the coming years.
The Predators, as recently as last summer during the Jason Spezza free agency saga, have had to battle the “small-market” perception. Thanks to the turnaround under Laviolette and the infusion of young talent much of that stigma may have been dispelled. With a strong core of young players in place, it will be interesting to see which, if any, veterans are added through free agency or trades over the summer.
The early season success of Nashville took much of the league by surprise last season but the demands of the long season seemed to expose some of the physical limitations in terms of strength and stamina of some of the Predators’ younger stars. Those players will likely benefit from the experience and should be more prepared this time around. The challenge of going from a strong regular season team to a Stanley Cup contender is huge — and the Predators will need to continue to mature if they are to take that step.
The goaltending future for Nashville is still uncertain. The young prospects in the system – Hellberg, Saros and Mazanec as well as Finnish goaltender Janne Juvonen – all show promise but the jump between success at the minor level or in Europe to becoming a solid NHL starter is a huge one.
The only general manager in the Predators’ history, Poile has developed a large web of contacts while procuring talent from a variety of sources. Nashville has been among the most active NHL franchises in drafting players from Sweden and Finland and has drafted a steady stream of players from the United States college ranks (Poile played at Northeastern University).
In terms of major junior hockey the Predators organization has seemingly shifted its focus away from the Ontario Hockey League and has selected more players from the WHL or from Quebec. Since selecting three players from the OHL in 2009 and then taking Peterborough’s Watson in the first round in 2010, Nashville has selected just one player (Josh Shalla, 4th round, 2011) from the OHL.
With regard to drafting players from Russia, the Predators selected Konstantin Glazachev (2nd round, 2003) and Alexander Radulov (1st round, 2004) but after having contract issues with both Nashville had not selected another player from Russia until taking Kamenev with the first of two second round picks in last year’s draft.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12