For the Nashville Predators, the 2015 season had a lot of question marks surrounding the club, like: how healthy will Pekka Rinne be or how will the new coaching staff improve this team?
Certainly, the combination of a very healthy Rinne and some new enthusiasm from a coach like Peter Laviolette, helped this team move forward and back into the playoff picture, but the introduction of rookie Filip Forsberg and the acquisition of Mike Ribeiro in the off-season was also quite helpful this year as well.
In total, the Predators jumped up to 2nd place in the ridiculously tight Central Division and they finished 6th overall in the NHL standings, which certainly raised the bar for the team's expectations in the playoffs this year.
The downside to their playoff run, was that they had to play teams within their own division, namely the the surging Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs, who were high on some big returns to their lineup and playing with some serious playoff experience under their belt. The Predators ended up being no match for the Blackhawks, who just as easily moved past the Minnesota Wild in the second round as well.
In the pool this year, the Predators were somewhat popular, as hockey pool teams are warming up to them, more so than just their blueline and their goaltending. 11 Predators were taken at the draft and by season's end, 14 Preds were touched by the pool, including two drops, which says that they had some help in the Waiver Drafts and they acquired a couple players through the season, who were active pool players as well.
The hip problems that were plaguing Pekka Rinne in 2014 did not appear to be an issue in 2015, as the huge Finnish keeper was able to appear in 64 regular season games, winning 41 of them and finishing the year with 91 points in the hockey pool, which was good enough for 4th overall in pool scoring and 4th among all goalies. Rinne put up some solid numbers all the way around and the Predators became one of the Western Conference's most dangerous team, although I think you still wouldn't assume that.
The forwards were, by no means, spectacular for the Predators, but they were led by a very impressive rookie, Filip Forsberg, who finished 36th among forwards with 26 goals and 63 points in all 82 games, even if his production did dip a little bit in the second half of the season. Off-season signing Mike Ribeiro wasn't far behind, picking up 62 points in 82 games. Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, James Neal and Mike Santorelli all rounded out the pool worthy forwards, some more effective than others and health issues were also a concern up front for Nashville. A healthy and excited group would go a long ways to improving their offense.
On the blueline, there is still reason for some excitement, with Roman Josi taking the offensive lead from the back end, 5th among defenders in scoring with 15 goals and 55 points in 81 games, well ahead of the all-around leader of the team, Shea Weber, who had 45 points in 78 games this season. The value of those two will be very high, come the draft in September/October this year. That wasn't all for Nashville either, as they re-acquired Cody Franson from Toronto, Ryan Ellis (even with health concerns) and sophomore Seth Jones were all considered to be pool-worthy as well.
With a workhorse like Rinne in net, the Nashville goaltending was not very well-utilized behind him, as Carter Hutton only appeared in 18 games this season, picking up 6 wins and 14 points. You would really only look to Nashville's back-ups, if you're betting against Rinne's health in the regular season.
2016 Pool Outlook
The Predators have a lot of work to do in the off-season to preserve what they finished the 2015 season with, but with that workload upcoming, it does allow for them to be somewhat flexible down the stretch. There is going to be some excitement going into the 2016 season, thanks to the Forsberg's and Josi's on this team, Rinne will continue to muster up an early look at the draft and I think you'll see another breakout or two from within the organization. Today, there are names missing from their list, but they'll all sign on and the pool projections page will be very solid.
The 2016 season may be another good showcase for the team's 2014 1st round draft pick, Kevin Fiala, who has seen a fair amount of games with the men, playing in Europe and in the World Championships with Switzerland. He did manage to dress in a game in the regular season and a game in the playoffs, failing to register a point, but at least, getting a taste. There will also be a lot of eyes on 25-year old American Steve Moses, who led the KHL in scoring last season, the Predators won his services as a free agent and he'll be one to watch in training camp as well.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Unrestricted free agency will prove to be very interesting for Nashville, as the have a number of their key players heading to the open market, if they are not taken care of early on in the off-season. Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson headline the pool-worthy UFA's, while there are a number of players on their roster, who provide that added depth and will also raise some eyebrows on the market.
Craig Smith and Colin Wilson are two of the key forwards heading to restricted free agency, in need of new deals, but once these two are qualified, they shouldn't pose too much of a problem, except maybe to the pocketbook.
The Predators, by my count, have 28 players signed on for the 2016 season and their overall cap hit is around $50.1 million for everyone. That is an awfully low number, but it has to be taken into consideration that many of the players, of those 28, are likely AHL-bound.
Needs at the 2015 Entry Draft
The Predators will not be using their 1st round pick this year, but they have every other pick in their basket. Nashville dealt their 1st rounder to Toronto in the deal that brought Franson and Santorelli into the fold for the playoff run, which ended much sooner than preferred. With that pick, the Leafs now have two on their side in this 1st round.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
The basis of a prediction for the Nashville Predators will depend on how much offense they are able to find with the group that they have. The Predators were 9th in the West in goal scoring and besides a kid like Jarnkrok, I'm not sure that I see enough there to help improve that number at all, at least on paper any way. Laviolette will have his hands full trying to find some more offense, but they will definitely be able to win games on their defense, not to mention finding some offense from the blueline. I am going to say that the Predators show some flashes in the 2015 season, but fall short again, as they way they are built right now, they won't show much for improvement on the 2014 season.
The Predators did find some offense in a kid, but it wasn't Calle Jarnkrok, rather it was Filip Forsberg and he sure brought a lot of it. The Preds also found some more offense in the free agent market, which came long after last year's post, so as they were built, they were not likely to find much more offense, but they did find some in their tinkering. That and a healthy Rinne, the Predators exceeded my expectations of them at this point last year and rightfully so.
2016 is a new year and I think a lot is bound to happen for the Predators again in the off-season, which will make or break their season. With all the work that they need to do, they will have to try and maintain their goal scoring levels, possibly even making up for the slump that Forsberg has a chance to go through as a sophomore. Signing a number of their UFA's will be key, but not impossible and then they will be relying heavily on their number one goalie again to fight for that Central Division title. It looks like the Central is destined to be very close again in 2016, so a finish anywhere between the title and the last wild card spot, shouldn't be considered out of the question. I like the Predators to finish in the 2-3 slot again next season.