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NHL season preview: Three big questions facing the Nashville Predators

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The Predators are a team of question marks this year, but these three top them all.

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

1. Will Peter Laviolette change the defensive culture in Nashville?

It's going to be a shock to the system to see Predators play a more fast-paced game, with an emphasis on cycling and scoring, rather than dumping and defending. Peter Laviolette has his work cut out for him, but the Stanley Cup-winning coach has the track record to give fans the sense of security that offense will happen.

During his three full seasons as head coach of the Flyers, (okay, two-and-a-half with the lockout) Philadelphia ranked third, second, and ninth for total goals scored. Over that same three year span, the Flyers ranked third in the league in 5v5  goals for per 60 minutes. Now, the personnel Laviolette had was a little different than the aging veterans on one-year deals Nashville currently have.

However, the Predators have plenty of young talent just waiting to be able to showcase what they have. Craig Smith scored eight points (3g, 5a) under Laviolette at this year's World Championships. Colin Wilson will be motivated to play into a new contract and show it was the previous regime that held him back, instead of his skill. Same goes for Viktor Stalberg. Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok are two talented rookies that are poised to make their mark in the NHL. At the forefront will be the prized trade acquisition in James Neal, who could be the first player in franchise history to crack 35 goals.

The players may not be exactly what Laviolette needs to transform this team into a high-flying, wheelin'-dealin' offensive machine overnight, but this summer's signings put them in a better spot than they were before. Given the amount of talented forwards coming up through Nashville's prospect system, in a couple of years the Predators could very well have shed their stigma as a defense only team.

2. Is Pekka Rinne still a difference maker?

The line has been repeated countless times since the end of the season: "the Predators were only four points out of a playoff spot even with losing Pekka Rinne for most of the season. What would have happened were he healthy the entire season?"

Well, it certainly would have helped the team, but it probably wouldn't have gotten the Predators into the playoff picture. The team was just so bad last year that their problems went beyond not having a decent goaltender.

The truth is Rinne's save percentage has dropped every year since 2012. Including his uncharacteristically mundane performance last year, his save percentage is 16th out of goalies that have played at least 5,000 minutes for their team in the last three years.

Of course, that isn't really fair to the Finnish netminder, since he only played nine games before being sidelined with a hip infection, missing the next 52 games. Eliminating last year, Rinne has the 8th best save percentage in the league from 2010 to 2013, and the fourth highest save percentage since his emergence in 2008. Only 17 goaltenders have played 10,000 minutes for their team (2008-2013) and of those, only three have posted better numbers: Henrick Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo and Tomas Vokoun.

Nashville has given up the 20th most 5v5 shots in the league during that same period, so it's not like he isn't working for the good numbers he's posted.

With a full training camp under his belt, along with the mentality of knowing his team doesn't have to win every game 2-1 anymore, Pekka Rinne could return to being one of the best goaltenders in the league. This is a Veniza Trophy finalist, after all.

3. Does the bargain bin shopping pay off for David Poile?

Plain and simple, yes it will.

The only major subtraction from the roster was Patric Hornqvist, but he was replaced by James Neal who is an upgrade in more ways than one. Though they lost Mike Fisher for a 4-6 months, they essentially filled his production for the time being with Olli Jokinen. Whenever he comes back, that's another solid point producer to invigorate the lineup.

Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy aren't the players they used to be, but they still have the ability to produce. In Ribeiro's case, his ceiling is much higher than people give him credit for, as long as the situation is right. Playing alongside a sniper like Neal, and on the power play with Shea Weber, could do wonders for his point totals, even if he is in decline.

In a division where every team's strength comes from down the middle, the Predators at least improved to where they won't completely be thin. It's a duct taped version of a real roster, but can be serviceable enough to hang with the other clubs.

Perhaps most underrated is brining in Anton Volchenkov for a year. If he pairs with Seth Jones, that will allow the youngster to be free to display his offensive capabilities. If not, he'll make a solid bottom pair partner for either Ryan Ellis or Mattias Ekholm, two talented defenseman in their own right. Given Laviolette's emphasis on defensemen being involved in the play, the blue liners will be a huge part of helping this team score more goals than they are used to.

All of this will ensure the Predators will be a better team than they were last year. They have a mix of players waiting to emerge as well as show they still belong. Combined with one of the best defenses in the league and a solid tandem in Rinne and Carter Hutton, Nashville could very well be a surprise to fill in one of the last Wild Card spots in the West. Whether everything will fall into place is a different story.