When the Nashville Predators open their 2015-16 season on Thursday, there will be something fans in Music City aren’t necessarily used to seeing. Depth at forward.
With James Neal and Filip Forsberg flanking Mike Ribeiro, the top line is all set and ready for big things. Neal was hurt a lot last year and missed 15 games – and played through others – as a result. Still, he produced 23 goals, including a team-leading six game-winners (tied with Forsberg). If he can stay healthy all season long, think of the improvements his stat lines will see. Especially if he can benefit from skating with the team’s top weapons.
Forsberg, 21, led the Preds in scoring (63 points) as a rookie and even led them in power play scoring (19). If that’s not impressive enough, he proved he could be responsible in his own end as well, registering the second-highest plus/minus rating on the team with a plus-15. In short, there’s no reason to think Forsberg won’t improve on an already stellar season. What’s exciting for Preds fans is that “improving” on a 63-point season might mean 70 points, a plateau no Nashville player has hit since Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont both hit 72 in 2007-08.
This summer, General Manager David Poile re-signed restricted free agents Craig Smith and Colin Wilson for six and five years, respectively, as well as veteran pivot Mike Fisher. Those three probably make up the second line. The main question there, however, is can Colin Wilson be consistent? The first 15 games of 2014-15, he mustered just four points. In his next 40 games, however, Wilson was at his best, impacting the scoresheet 35 times. Between February 22 and the end of the season? Just a single goal and two more assists. He then emerged as one of Nashville’s top producers in the playoffs, potting a team-high five goals. If the Greenwich, Connecticut native can level out his production to where he’s chipping in more often, he can be an important cog in the lineup.
Nashville’s third line was a bit harder to decipher a week ago. This past April, Poile was able to ink the KHL’s leading goal scorer from last season, Steve Moses. The deal was a one-year but it was also a one-way which means he would earn his $1 million pay check regardless of whether he plays in Music City or with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. On September 30, Moses was assigned to the Admirals and will start the season there.
Adding to the confusion was 2014 draft pick Viktor Arvidsson. He played six games without a point last year for the Preds but he also made you notice him just about every time he was on the ice. Fast forward to development camp this past summer and he was the best prospect there. In training camp, he proved he belonged with the big club and, as a result, earned himself a spot on the opening night roster.
Calle Jarnkrok was another name that seemed to be penciled into the third line but seemed questionable for a full-time slot thanks to the logjam at forward a week ago. After being acquired by the Preds in the David Legwand deal with the Detroit Red Wings, Jarnkrok notched nine points in his first 12 games. He followed up that cup of coffee with a lackluster 18-point campaign in 2014-15. Despite just two assists in the playoffs last year he was one of Nashville’s best players. So where did he stand coming into this year? The third line or the perma-scratch role? It appears as if he will be on the third line Thursday.
And then there’s Cody Hodgson. Signed as a free agent on July 1, it’s Nashville’s hope that he can revitalize his career in Music City. After being selected 10th overall in a 2008 draft class that featured Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Jordan Eberle and Erik Karlsson just to name a few, Hodgson had a tough time replicating his success at the junior level. That’s not to say he didn’t have decent NHL seasons. He did. But when you score 177 points over two seasons in junior, a career-best of 44 points in 72 games (Buffalo Sabres, 2013-14) is a tad underwhelming. That said, the Preds hope, in the right situation, he can realize his potential. And, if he doesn’t, there’s minimal risk at a price tag of only $1.05 million.
As for the fourth line, it might be the best in all of hockey. Eric Nystrom is healthy again, one of the NHL’s premier faceoff men and penalty killers Paul Gaustad is back for one more year and Gabriel Bourque is a solid grinder who can score on occasion. Even 2010 first round pick Austin Watson – who made the team for the first time out of camp has three consecutive 20-goal seasons at the AHL level and loads of penalty kill experience on his resume. I’m not sure another team boasts as solid and versatile a fourth line as the Predators do.
IN SHORT: Nashville is loaded at the forward position and the depth in the organization looks good as well. The only question mark – and it’s a big one – is down the middle. As good as they are in their roles, Ribeiro and Fisher are both 35 years old. The Predators absolutely need to add a top line center if they want to be a true Stanley Cup contender. That said, they did extremely well without one last year, finishing second in the Central and third in the West. Exciting times are afoot on lower Broadway but they still need that top line pivot in order to play hockey in June.
FINAL GRADE: B+
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy K. Gover // Nashville Predators Radio Network