On October 7th a small, selected group of hockey players, totaling close to, but not exceeding 660 active men, get a chance to reset the clock and begin anew. That’s how we start the 2015-16 season of the National Hockey League. 30 teams, each with 23 players on their active roster, and a shot at the coveted Stanley Cup, come next June. Hope springs eternal for a number of teams that oddsmakers say have a chance for league supremacy. Only one will win the prize. The battle is fierce.
On October 8th, our Nashville Predators reset, and begin their quest at Bridgestone Arena, as they take on the visiting Carolina Hurricanes at 7 p.m.
Last season’s Nashville Predators were an exciting group that took us through a rollercoaster of emotions. An electric beginning to the season, the Preds were the talk of hockey fans and pundits throughout the league and seemed destined for great things come playoff time.
However, a couple of key injuries served to thwart plans for the parade. With All Star goaltender Pekka Rinne hitting the shelves for a few weeks late in the regular season, the team arrived at the onset of the playoffs in a slightly more vulnerable position than they had appeared to be in earlier.
Ending up drawing their chief rival Chicago Blackhawks as post-season opponents, it took a crippling knee injury to their Captain, defenseman Shea Weber to spell trouble, and despite competing admirably, Nashville bowed out of the post-season competition in the first round, leaving players, coaches and a sizeable fan base, yet again disappointed.
Now, with a healthy Weber, a return to form for Vezina trophy nominated goaltender Rinne and the return of many core players on the roster – with some new blood sprinkled in – we have reason to believe the road to Lord Stanley could well be traveling to a final Tennessee destination at the end of this season’s slate of games.
If you’ve been following the Predators for any length of time and have seen them in action at Bridgestone, then you already know the team has some superstars that lead them into battle on a nightly basis.
In goal, the team boasts Finnish netminder, Pekka Rinne. The 32-year old All-Star begins his ninth season in goal for Nashville, and his world-class efforts continually put the Preds in line for victory. Over the course of the 82 game season, when healthy, Rinne will start somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 games, and is almost assuredly going to lead the team onto the ice during the majority of games held at the team’s home arena.
Capable backup goalie Carter Hutton begins his third campaign spelling Rinne on nights when the team is playing back-to-back games, and on the road in perhaps what Coach Peter Laviolette deems less pressure-oriented contests.
Boasting what is considered by various experts to be the league’s best defensive corps, the Predators are led by Captain Shea Weber returns to health after a knee injury abruptly ended his season as the post-season series vs. Chicago was in full flight. Weber boasts a cannon of a shot, and won the league’s Hardest Shot award during last season’s All Star Weekend skills competition.
Weber’s partner on defense is Swiss-born Roman Josi. At just 25 years old, Josi has developed into an All Star caliber rearguard as well, and this dynamic pairing will often be on the ice in key situations, matching up against the opposition’s best offensive players, as well as manning, and “quarterbacking” the Preds power play.
Third year pro Seth Jones will seek an even bigger role this season, and will be paired with newly acquired Barret Jackman. The 21-year old Jones has shown why he was one of the top draft choices of 2013 (1st round, 4th overall) and his skill set will be complemented by the veteran, 34-year old Jackman, who after 13 seasons in a St. Louis Blues uniform, signs with Nashville in the off-season. The gritty defender will keep it tight around the Preds net, and allow the creatively gifted Jones to show off his offensive and skating skills.
Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis work in tandem, and round out the starting defensive corps. Both brought up in the Preds system, the pair provide solid defense and are extremely gifted with the puck, giving Nashville more options as the team heads on the attack. Last year, Ekholm posted 7 goals and added 11 assists, while Ellis, despite missing a portion of the season to injury, added 9 goals and 18 assists.
Add these to the buoyant point totals of Jones (8 G, 19 A), Weber (15 G, 30A) and Josi (15 G, 40 A) and you see why Nashville’s defense is consistently a threat to bring the offense to the forefront. Throw in a stingy Rinne, and you know that on most nights the opposing team has fits trying to get a goal in edgewise.
In case of injury, or an occasional much needed rest, capable defensemen Victor Bartley and Anthony Bitetto are carried on the roster as well. Both should see limited action but give the team NHL caliber options in case of injury.
Up front, the Predators forward corps is led by the Swedish sensation, Filip Forsberg. Beginning his second full NHL campaign, the fleet skater just turned 21 in the off-season. Appearing in the NHL All Star Game last year as a rookie, Forsberg sent notice to a myriad of opposing defensemen last season that he could not be contained. His 63 points led the team in scoring (26 goals and 37 assists) and in six post-season games he added four more goals and a pair of helpers as well. Expect to see the flashy winger on the ice with both Mike Ribeiro and James Neal.
The veteran Ribeiro begins his second year with the Preds, and serves as the team’s top center. His creative distribution of the puck means more chances for both Forsberg and Neal, who after being acquired in trade last season, brought his electrifying brand of goal scoring to the team. Battling some injuries last year, Neal missed 15 games but still netted 23 goals which tied him with Craig Smith for second on the team behind Forsberg.
Smith and teammate Colin Wilson both return with new contracts signed, keeping them in Gold for the next four seasons. Both just 24 years old, Smith and Wilson eclipsed the 20-goal plateau and are poised for breakout seasons in 2015-16. Other returning forwards include the veteran 34-year old center Mike Fisher, second year man Calle Jarnkrok, faceoff expert Paul Gaustad, and the gritty Eric Nystrom and Gabriel Bourque.
Fisher, centering the second line, often with Smith on one of his wings, missed the start of last season, but despite missing the team’s first twenty-plus games, still managed to score 19 goals, just one off the total he’d amassed over a full season the year prior. A consistent player who leaves it all out on the ice with every shift, Fisher is counted on in all situations, and when healthy is a vital cog to the Preds offense. Jarnkrok had an inconsistent rookie campaign, but returns to the team with the ability to have a breakout season in his sophomore year in the NHL.
Three new forwards on the team’s opening night roster include two that came up through the ranks of the Preds minor league system. Both Austin Watson and Viktor Arvidsson were high scoring forwards for the team’s minor league affiliate in Milwaukee last season. The 23-year old Watson saw limited action with Nashville a few seasons back, notching his first NHL goal in the process. The 22-year old Swede, Arvidsson appeared in six contests for the Preds last season and showed glimpses of why he is considered one of the more creative, offensively gifted skaters the team has in the system.
The lone new acquisition from outside the organization is Cody Hodgson, a 2008 first round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks (10th overall) who suffered through a miserable campaign last year with the Buffalo Sabres. Hodgson was signed by GM David Poile to a low risk/high reward deal that may just help rejuvenate his career in Smashville. The crafty center scored 20 goals in Buffalo the season prior to last, and a return to those numbers would give the Preds balanced scoring from its top three lines, and a new weapon in their offensive arsenal.
On the farm in Milwaukee, both 19-year old Kevin Fiala, and newly acquired Steve Moses, who led the KHL in goal scoring last season, await the call if any should falter or find themselves on the injury list.
This is an exciting Predators team. A solid team that boasts offense, defense, All Star caliber goaltending, and a raucous fan base who may just truly be the most devoted hockey fans in the United States. Please keep it here all season long, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates as hopefully all the way into June as we “Believe” the Preds will compete for the Stanley Cup.
For even more Predators updates, follow Predators correspondent Marc Nathan on Twitter.