Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE
We're sure to be in for a wild ride as the NHL plays a shortened regular season, and for the Nashville Predators, that means the margin for error is narrower than ever. How the following questions are answered will play a major role in determining their fate...
How Badly Will Ryan Suter Be Missed?
Besides the obvious point about Suter being a top-level defenseman who could play major minutes in all situations, the advanced stats illustrate just how essential Suter was to the team. Roman Josi & Ryan Ellis may step in on the power play, and Scott Hannan could fit in well on the penalty kill, but the bulk of a defenseman's work is done at even-strength, and that's where the greatest challenge lies.
The Preds were 29th in the league last season in the Shots For & Against battle during close-game situations, a weakness that was covered up in large part by Pekka Rinne's goaltending (we make the "close game" distinction because when a team is leading, they tend to take fewer shots than the team trying to catch up, blurring the picture if you just look at simple Shots For & Against). Suter was one of the Preds' best in that regard, so losing him places an even greater burden on Rinne to hold down the fort.
Can Craig Smith Deliver on His Potential?
For the first two months of the 2011-2012 season, the Honey Badger was all the rage among Preds fans, as he led the team in scoring and brought fresh energy to the forward lines. From there on, however, the rookie's production dried up. Will the combination of a shortened schedule and another year of maturation bring us a contender to lead the Preds in scoring?
Is Pekka Rinne Ready to Dominate?
While there was concern that Peks had injured his groin playing in the KHL, indications yesterday were that physically he should be OK. The question is, however, is whether there's any rust to work off, considering the fact that his last game for Dinamo Minsk came on December 9th.
Is This the Year the Wheels Come Off in Detroit?
The Red Wings have long served as the benchmark for Nashville to measure itself against, which makes last season's accomplishment (finishing ahead of Detroit in the standings, then beating them in the playoffs) all the more meaningful. This season, the Predators have the potential to put the Wings in their rear-view mirror, as Detroit moves on without surefire Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Add in the departure of Brad Stuart via free agency, and the retirement of Brian Rafalski the year before, and that Detroit blueline doesn't look nearly as impressive as it once did.
Is St. Louis For Real?
The Blues jumped from 4th to 1st in the Central Division last season thanks to a coaching change (bringing in Ken Hitchcock), outstanding possession numbers, and some insane goaltending. Can they live up to the lofty standard they set in 2011-2012, or are they due to fall back to Earth? I'll give you a word of warning with this one - I'd feel more comfortable about a team being able to repeat in those two areas than one which rode hot shooting percentages on their way to success, as the Preds did in both 5-on-5 and on the power play (with those two links, the lower a team is on the list, the hotter their shooting was).
A Season of Opportunity
In light of these issues facing the Preds and their key Central Division rivals, the potential is out there for Nashville to push further into uncharted territory. While this team has been competitive for years, and has enjoyed some playoff success the last two seasons, there haven't been any "wins" yet that warrant raising a banner to the rafters at Bridgestone Arena (a division regular season title, a Presidents Trophy, a conference playoff championship or Stanley Cup).
Is this the year to change all that?