NHL 2014-15 preview: Nashville Predators

Pekka Rinne says his hip feels good. It better. He's about to see a lot of rubber. (AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Nashville is our 23rd-ranked team.

Nashville Predators

Division: Central
2013-14 finish: 38-32-12, 88 points, 19th overall; missed the playoffs
Leading scorer: Shea Weber (56 points)
General manager: David Poile
Head coach: Peter Laviolette
Captain: Shea Weber
Opening night starter: Pekke Rinne
Key acquisitions: James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Laviolette
Key departures: Patric Hornqvist, Michael Del Zotto, coach Barry Trotz

Off-season grade: C+. The trade of Hornqvist for Neal was the defining move. Neal made a First All-Star Team in his time in Pittsburgh, but with centremen a few steps up from Ribeiro, Roy and Jokinen. One of these veteran centres needs to take flight with a career reboot, but the odds are long against any of them. If Poile had been able to land Jason Spezza to play beside Neal, the Preds would've become a dynamic offensive team, a clean break from the workman-like rep of the Trotz era. Maybe Filip Forsberg breaks through and becomes an offensive catalyst—but if that’s going to happen, it’s only going to pay off a couple of seasons down the line.

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Greatest strengths: Blue line and goaltending. Shea Weber is one of the top three defencemen in the game, and Seth Jones is the shiniest talent among emerging rearguards. The team could afford to deal the reliable veteran Kevin Klein because of younger talent in the pipeline. Ryan Ellis gets bumped up the depth chart, and with increased ice time and power-play shifts, he could be looking at contributing 12 to 15 goals. Pekka Rinne was a Vezina finalist in 2011 (with a .930 save percentage) and 2012 (.923). Last season was a washout for the towering Finn—he had hip surgery in May 2013 and in five months the hip became infected, keeping him out of the lineup for half the season. A return to form at age 31 after injury might not be a sure thing, but it’s more likely than not.

Greatest weakness: Centre. Injured Mike Fisher is a nice third-line centre. You can say the same for Paul Gaustad. Unfortunately they’re asked to be something they’re not. Only two returning forwards, Craig Smith and Fisher, notched 20 goals last season. Last season it was tough to get a read on the Predators’ wingers, simply because they received so little service from their centres. What does Poile’s desperation look like? Picking up the 34-year-old Ribeiro after his short, unsatisifying stint in Phoenix ended with recriminations about “behaviour issues.” Picking up the 35-year-old Olli Jokinen, he of 1,169 career NHL games and just one six-game appearance in the playoffs five years ago. Picking up the 31-year-old Roy, who had just nine goals and 28 assists in St. Louis last season and last scored as many as 20 goals in a campaign back in 2009-10.

Biggest storyline to watch: Poile was a voice in the wilderness — a league executive who stood by his coach through thick and mostly thin. Laviolette is the face of a Nashville reboot as much as James Neal. If Laviolette enjoys early success, many will suggest Poile waited too long to change the culture in the organization. If Laviolette is only modestly successful but his teams play a more entertaining brand of hockey than most of Trotz’s teams, Nashville fans will consider themselves winners in a small way. If it’s more of the same, the franchise is at risk of losing its fragile hold of its fanbase.

2014-15 prediction: Though the Predators finished only three points behind Dallas for the No. 8 slot in the Western Conference last season, it’s hard to see how the Predators have gained any ground. Once more into the lottery.