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2018-19 Nashville Predators Position Preview: Wingers

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These guys bring a lot of joy to Nashville fans when they put the puck in the net. What can we expect from them this season?

Today we turn our attention to the wingers. You’re already very familiar with most of these guys. A new youngster will be added to the mix in the form of Eeli Tolvanen. The other new guy, Ryan Hartman, isn’t so new after 20-ish games with the Predators last season. Let’s take a look at what we have.

Position Strengths:

Nashville had two of the most formidable forward lines last season, centered by Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris. The famous JoFA line did some serious work, and Craig Smith made a comeback after a subpar 2016-2017 season.

Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are known threats on the ice. Forsberg’s puck control and Arvidsson’s speed tend to combine for some of the prettiest goals. Additional speed from Smith and Kevin Fiala centered by a skilled passer in Turris paid tons of dividends in the regular season last year.

The Preds have never had a 40-goal scorer. Barring injuries or poorly-decided suspensions, Forsberg could be breaking some records this season.

It took a strong passing center to give Fiala the space he needs to create on ice. Turris, already an incredible puck-handler, provided some slick passes for young Fiala once he was traded to Nashville. You could say they both had a fantastic season and we certainly expect the same from them this season. I don’t think Fiala has yet reached his ceiling, and if we can expect Smith to put up another 20 or so goals, the Predators should be in a good place.

Another thing that separates Nashville wingers from the pack is their collective strength on the boards. This is something we saw Fiala improve upon last season. Arvidsson goes after each puck like a bulldog and will take a beating to get a puck to a teammate from the corner. Smith and Forsberg also are relentless on the boards.

Position Weaknesses:

The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin. The Jets have Patrik Laine. Nashville doesn’t necessarily have a pure scoring winger. Do they need one? Without James Neal, many were hoping GM David Poile would seek out that type of winger at the trade deadline. Instead, he gave up some assets and picks to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Ryan Hartman.

Ryan Hartman is a multi-use winger. He can play up and down the lineup, but spent almost all of his Nashville minutes in the bottom nine. He can adapt to whatever sort of line he skates with.

Where does he best fit? Expect Peter Laviolette to shuffle Hartman around in the lineup during training camp to test his effectiveness.

Last season, Hartman scored 11 goals with Nashville and Chicago. He was absolutely on fire in 2016-2017, scoring 19 goals and adding 12 assists. This is the production that David Poile likely expects from Hartman during this season’s “show-me” contract.

Hartman can be an annoying little bugger on the ice. One of his skills is getting under the skin of opponents and forcing penalties. While he’s not necessarily considered a skilled shooter, Hartman might be able to find an opportunity with a center like Nick Bonino on this third line. However, it’ll frustrate Nashville fans if Hartman spends more time in the penalty box than on the ice. I want to give Hartman a chance.

Catalyst of the Group:

For me, this is a no-brainer. Arvidsson embodies the team’s passion with his “Arvi Hustle.” We expect him to skate at 1000% every single game, often sacrificing his body for positioning around the goal. He is tenacious while chasing the puck, forechecks hard, and makes chances for his linemates. He earns every dollar of his contract.

Arvidsson should be back within the 30-goal range this season. He’s relentless on the ice. Keeping him healthy will remain key, but the grind, willpower, and effort that fans see from him every single game cannot be topped by any other player.

That being said, Arvidsson can expect some competition not only from his linemate Forsberg, but also from Fiala and Tolvanen. He can play up and down the lineup, but he must continue to produce to solidify his position in the top 6.

Breakout Player:

As mentioned above, Kyle Turris brought another level to Kevin Fiala’s play. Fiala broke out last season, scoring 23 goals and adding 25 points. I fully expect Fiala to eclipse 50 points this season. 25-30 goals is absolutely within reach. You might argue that last season was Fiala’s breakout season, but I’d suggest that Fiala will most certainly impress this season.

After a healthy summer, expect Fiala to have added some strength and speed to his game. I am looking forward to seeing his progress when he hits the ice in October.

We saw Fiala on a line with Ryan Johansen and Forsberg against Florida in the preseason doubleheader Monday. Could this be the line Fiala skates with this season?

Keep in mind that this is a contract year for Fiala.

While Smith-Turris-Fiala were deployed more in the offensive zone than other lines, they controlled the play with about a 56% CF. Perhaps healthy competition from Eeli Tolvanen will get Fiala’s creativity flowing. Give the kid some space to create and he will put the biscuit in the net.

Fiala heatmap
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Filip Forsberg:

Forsberg is an offensive juggernaut. This season, he could emerge as a top scoring threat for Nashville. He brings leadership, playoff experience, and some slick goals to the team. We should expect close to 40 goals for the Swedish shooter this season.

Forsberg has had a few scoring droughts. Keeping him healthy will be key. We’d certainly like to see much more of this:

Viktor Arvidsson:

Arvidsson is the energy of the team. He brings passion, speed, and an unending hustle to every single game. He’s proven his ability to play anywhere in the lineup, although we are accustomed to seeing him on the top line with Johansen and Forsberg. There’s not much to add on our beloved Arvidsson except that he must maintain his hustle and continue to use his stickhandling skills in order to remain a top-line threat.

Kevin Fiala:

As noted above, Fiala is my breakout candidate for this season. Nashville needs another 30+ goal scorer to supplement the production of Forsberg and Arvidsson. With the incredible center depth that the Preds boast, there’s no reason that high-scoring wingers can’t be dispersed throughout the top nine.

Depending on what line Fiala lands on, he likely will not take 64% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone this season. How will he perform in the defensive zone? He is reliable on the power play, but is he a liability defensively?

Fiala brings speed and shots. Just give him some open ice.

Craig Smith:

According to NHL.com, Smith scored the first goal of the game 10 times last season. That’s pretty impressive for a forward who could not hit Texas the season before. With Smith on the ice, the team’s shot percentage increased from 51.52% to 56.78%. He is not afraid to shoot from anywhere on the ice, and he brings tons of shots. Check out his unblocked shots from last season:

Each dot represents the location of a shot taken by Smith last season.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

I’d expect Smith to continue his production from last year. He’s a reliable 20-goal scorer and an even-strength machine. Will he stick with Kyle Turris this season or be moved to another line? If he does move to another line, will his production be affected?

Smith brings veteran leadership to the team. With increased confidence from a stellar campaign last season, Smith should regain his form quickly regardless of the line he plays on.

Ryan Hartman:

Ryan Hartman is versatile and can play up and down the lineup. He is also able to aggravate and annoy opponents. He’s banking on himself this season for a longer contract with Nashville. Hartman has a high energy level, but his emotions can get the better of him and negatively impact his play.

In a recent training camp interview, Hartman expressed confidence in the team and noted that he was happy to begin things from Day 1 with the Predators. Finding his place on the lineup will be key for the young winger. He does deserve a chance to find his role in Nashville. How will he respond to the line shuffling as the season continues?

For many, the price to obtain Hartman (two picks, including Nashville’s first-round pick in 2018, and prospect Victor Ejdsell) was far too high for a third- or fourth-line winger. He will have to get back to his previous production from his Chicago days to endear himself to the toughest critics in Music City.

Hartman should score 12-18 goals this season, with around the same number of assists. Otherwise, he becomes a trade asset if there is an obvious need in the lineup.