There are two very significant obstacles which jump to mind when appraising this 2013 edition of the Nashville Predators, and their chances of making the playoffs yet again.
Losing Ryan Suter Hurts
This sounds obvious, but some observers simply assume that Roman Josi will step into the gap left by Ryan Suter for the most part, with Scott Hannan manning the penalty kill, and the Preds will get by.
That mindset is encouraged by comments such as "Trotz even contends Josi is better than Suter was at that age", as shared by USA Today's Kevin Allen. Very high praise indeed, and it's easy to agree with when you see Josi handle the puck. However, when we compare last year's Preds team to the season ahead, what would you say if Ryan Suter returned, but started playing like he had gone 5 years backwards in his development?
That would be a problem, and how the Josi/Weber pairing performs will be the single most important story to follow in the early going this season. The Preds already had difficulty in the Shots For/Against battle with Ryan Suter in the lineup, and now they're taking a (hopefully temporary) step back.
What The Hockey Gods Giveth, The Hockey Gods Taketh Away
After we've cracked jokes about the ineffectiveness of the Preds' power play for years, convention got turned on its head last season, as Nashville climbed to the top of the NHL's basic measure of power play effectiveness. The problem is, goal scoring consists of two elements: how often a team creates shots, and how often those shots go in (shooting percentage). The first is a repeatable aspect of team play, the second is subject to the whims of the hockey gods (or random variance, for you unbelievers).
I grabbed the last four seasons worth of 5-on-5 data from Behind the Net, to see if there was any year-to-year relationship for individual team's shooting percentage (i.e., a high number one season followed by a relatively high number the next). The correlation figure came out to -0.03, which basically means that there is no tangible relationship in team shooting percentage from one season to the next. This is a topic that's been studied on multiple occasions, I'm not breaking any new ground here.
So put away the notion that the Preds' 3rd-ranked shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play (let alone their league-leading performance on the power play) are likely to be repeated. Dropping back to league-average levels could knock 10% off the Preds' goals-per-game, all but eliminating the positive margin in Goals For & Against which lifted them above the middle of the NHL pack.
For shot frequency, however, that same correlation value was 0.47, reflecting a pretty moderate link between the quantity of shots a team puts up from one season to the next. In that regard, the Predators have had issues, and as noted above, Suter's deparature only adds to that challenge.
Putting It All Together
What this all means is that rather than battling for the Central Division title, the Preds are far more likely to find themselves in a race for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, where, as we saw last spring, even the #8 seed can make a run to the Stanley Cup. I'm pegging the Preds for 3rd or 4th in the Central (a close battle with Detroit), and since I'm a giddy optimist, I'll put them back in the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, but only just barely.
Hang to your hats, folks. It'll be a wild 48-game ride.
By the way, if you need a new Nashville Predators hat to hang onto, we've got you covered.