The Nashville Predators enter the 2017-2018 with a plethora of exciting options at the winger position. Led by young Swedish stars Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, the Predators boast a top line duo that could match anyone in the league. The questions arise in the middle part of the roster where Craig Smith, Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg, and Scott Hartnell hold the keys to how good this offense can truly be.
The Predators have the talent at the wing position. How coach Peter Laviolette deploys his troops along with a few of the younger forwards progression will be a big indicator as to how good this Predators team can be next season.
Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson
Expected Production: 1st Line
Lightning struck Nashville last season as Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson united with Center Ryan Johansen to form one of the top lines in the NHL (later dubbed “JOFA”). Can the unit reach another level in 2017?
Filip Forsberg has been known somewhat as a streaky scorer throughout his time in Nashville, and 2016 was no different. He started the season with only three goals through his first 30 games, which coincided with Nashville’s rough start. Then shortly after pairing with the JOFA line combination, he took off. He scored an NHL leading 21 goals over the course of the next 32 games showing just how hot he can truly get.
Forsberg is incredibly gifted when controlling the puck. He has a knack for finding goals in odd areas around the net, and his wrist shot is deadly. Simply put he is an elite scorer and only 23 years old. His best play is ahead of him. This season he has a chance to break the Predators all time scoring mark of 33, held by himself and Jason Arnott, and with it lead the Predators on another deep run.
Viktor Arvidsson’s 2016 campaign was one of the best breakout seasons in the entire NHL. Arvidsson tied with Ryan Johansen for the lead in points on the Predators with 61 and every night “Arvy Hustle” was on display with some form of highlight reel goal, forecheck, pass, or hit. He was simply the heartbeat of the team most nights, and everyone loves his aggressive energy.
Arvidsson is slowly becoming a Corsi master, and his ability to forecheck at a high level gives him even more opportunities with the puck. He is the modern NHL winger that uses his elite speed in every zone, while creating chances for his linemates by forcing the issue on the puck whether with it or chasing it. At 5’9” 180lbs, few can match his determination and his willingness to bang the body. The hope is that body can hold up over time. The Predators scored a gem in Arvidsson and I think floating around his 61 point mark in 2016 is a good barometer of his potential moving forward in 2017-2018 season.
Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith
Expected Production: 2nd Line
Presumed second line wingers, Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith bring lots of speed and skill to the offense. Whether they can score consistently this year will be important for the Predators this season.
The last image Predators fans were left with from Kevin Fiala was tragic. After a breakout series against the Blackhawks in Round 1 which saw Fiala score the game winner in game 3, Fiala suffered a gruesome broken femur in Round 2 against the Blues. The Predators deeply missed him the rest of the journey. Luckily he is back and healthy for the start of the 2017 season, and the Predators are counting on him deeply.
A first round pick in 2014, Fiala has always been blessed with amazing talent, but speed is his most desirable attribute. He uses this speed equally on the offensive and defensive ends of the ice with fantastic results. Along with Calle Jarnkrok, he led the team nearly all year in shot suppression, only giving up 51.1 shot attempts per sixty minutes. He also led the team with 3.5 takeaways per sixty minutes, an indication of how well married his defensive and offensive abilities are. Over the past couple years, Fiala found himself flying back and forth between Milwaukee and Nashville despite some flashes of brilliance in games, but this is probably more because Eric Nystrom and Colin Wilson were on the roster than because Fiala was performing poorly. With those guys gone—and James Neal in Vegas—it is likely that Fiala sees a full season of starts.
Craig Smith had a rough 2016-17 campaign. After three seasons of 20 plus goals, Smith managed only 12 last year. But it was not for a lack of effort. Smith’s advanced metrics showed strong possession numbers and shots generated, but a paltry 7.7% shooting percentage meant the goals were not falling Craig Smith’s way.
If there is any winger that needs a bounce back year, it is Smith. More so than Fiala, he has shown the ability to score at a 2nd line level, and the Predators need him to, offsetting the losses of James Neal and Mike Fisher. Smith brings great speed to the lineup, and no one will ever question his effort, marked with a relentless forechecking style of play. But the goals have to go in this season, or the Predators will be in trouble.
Scott Hartnell and Pontus Aberg
Expected Production: 3rd Line
Welcome back to Smashville, Scott Hartnell. After 10 years away from the Predators with the Flyers and Blue Jackets, Hartnell returns to where he started his career in hopes of providing some veteran leadership and depth scoring. Pontus Aberg hopes to make 2017-2018 his first full season with the team.
Scott Hartnell’s 2016-2017 campaign in Columbus saw him regress from previous seasons with Columbus. After three years of 20 plus goals, Hartnell only managed 13. His time on ice dropped, his power play goals dropped, his shot totals dropped. But all is not lost. Advanced metrics still saw him perform at a second to third line level in most categories: he was 6th on the Blue Jackets among forwards last year with 57.8 shot attempts generated per sixty minutes. The Predators hope means with more ice time, the results will be positive.
Hartnell will bring the Predators a net front presence that will be missed with Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher departing. Someone has to get into the tough areas, win battles, and put pucks in the net in crucial situations such as the power play. The hope is Hartnell can continue to excel in these areas for the Predators against the bigger bodied defenseman the Western Conference has to offer.
Pontus Aberg only saw 15 regular season games for the Predators and was not much of a factor, registering only one goal. However he produced two very memorable moments in the postseason, scoring the game winning goal in Game 5 Western Conference final versus the Ducks with a highlight reel finish and adding another beauty against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. Where Aberg shined was at the AHL level, leading the Admirals with 31 goals and 52 points.
The Predators hope that scoring prowess translates similarly to fellow Swede Viktor Arvidsson who scored at a high rate for Milwaukee before breaking out last season. Aberg will undoubtedly play a crucial role similar to Craig Smith or Kevin Fiala, but he comes with less pressure. He has shown the skill in the AHL, and in moments during the Stanley Cup Finals run. But can that translate to a full season?
Out of all positions on the Predators roster, the wingers have the most question marks. The top end players such as Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson will produce, the bottom line guys are good enough, but the biggest question is in the middle of the lineup where things are uncertain.
Can Kevin Fiala finally produce at the level he is capable of?
Was last year an aberration for Craig Smith, or is his play declining?
Will Scott Hartnell still be effective at age 35?
Can Pontus Aberg become a full time player and produce consistently?
These are some of the biggest questions facing the Nashville Predators this season, and if they want to be one of the best teams in the league like they can, these middle of the lineup wingers will need to produce.