NHL Season Preview 2015-2016: Three Big Questions Facing the Nashville Predators
As seen on the SB Nation preview.
1. Will the aging centers be able to shoulder the load throughout the season and into the playoffs?
This is a tough one. One helpful scenario is contingent on Cody Hodgson's performance. If Hodgson and his merry men on the third line can produce some added offense, the load on Mike Fisher could be lessened. I'm not as worried about Ribeiro's health, mostly because his style of play is slow and methodical. Which is excellent, since that line will be playing some very important minutes. The good news is that Ribeiro's role as distributor should be even easier than last year, provided that James Neal spends more time on the top line and Filip Forsberg keeps doing magical things. And that should be enough to counter the forces of age and aggression.
Fisher is the one I'm worried about, but he's the more replaceable one in even strength play. During the height of the Trotz era, Nashville was drafting those gritty, two-way centers will modest ceilings in early rounds. Say hello to Austin Watson and Colton Sissons, who both seem to be perfectly acceptable young players that coaches love. Also, Calle Jarnkrok played center for the entire year last year, and the coaches just gush about how he plays. The production from Jarnkrok wasn't great when he was taken away from Smith and Wilson, but that might have to do with playing next to a plethora of "meh" for the bulk of the season.
Where Fisher would really be missed is on special teams, and there just isn't a good proven answer at this time.
2. Will the third line produce more offense than last year?
Absolutely. The third line started the year with Olli Jokinen, who shot at 3% last year. It's hard to imagine any of the options being that bad at putting a puck past a goalie in this system. Assuming the lines hold from preseason, it will likely be Calle Jarnkrok, Cody Hodgson and some combination of Austin Watson, Steve Moses, Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, and maybe Jimmy Vesey at some point beside them. Plus, the team has a bit more flexibility than last year (provided the centers stay healthy) to modify some line combinations. Colin Wilson is becoming a good possession player and his offense picked up last year. Given how Laviolette liked to play Wilson next to Mike Fisher, that line could see a player like Jarnkrok or Austin Watson being flexed in to become more of a shutdown line.
Moses was thought to get the first crack at the third line. Steve Moses is a bit of an enigma. His skill set is going to require space on the ice, which will also fall under the burden of Cody Hodgson. Instead, Arvidsson could land that role, and he happens to be a grittier, Swedish version of Moses that shoots like an anime character. He also will be relying on Hodgson to get the most out of his chance. Should Hodgson get hurt, Jarnkrok would likely move over to center, which would change the role of the third line.
3. If Rinne gets hurt and is out for an extended period of time, can this team still make the postseason?
I would say so. Mostly because I'm buying into the scoring taking a step forward and the defense maturing. Another year in Laviolette's system will do everyone some good, especially with the conditioning. This team broke down under the duress of February's schedule, and perhaps due to the intensity of the system. But that's a welcome trade from seeing key forwards break down from taking abuse along the boards in the previous system.
And after last year, betting on Carter Hutton doesn't seem to be a wise play for long stretches (or long layoffs, either). The team knows this, the coach knows this, and the fanbase knows this. Marek Mazanec may not have the highest ceiling of goaltenders in the Preds' system, but he's looked fair in his previous trips to Nashville.
As mentioned, Hutton isn't great after sitting on the bench for many games in a row. So expect to see more games for Hutton in order to prevent Rinne from wearing down before April.