After the best season in their history, the Nashville Predators are still looking to improve and bring home the trophy that has eluded them for more than 20 years.
General Manager David Poile looks like he’s going back to what worked best. The lineup that skates out on Thursday night for the first regular season game will be very, very similar to the one that ended their season in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs just a few months ago.
Notable additions include defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who is starting his second stint in Nashville, and “role player” Zac Rinaldo. Both were signed during the free agency period this summer.
Hamhuis will undoubtedly spend most of his time in the bottom pair defense. Figuring our who his skating partner will be is another story. Last season, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber played as the fifth and sixth defenseman when everyone was healthy. Personally, I’d prefer Weber over Irwin in most situations, but the coaching staff could switch it up from night to night depending on certain matchups.
For Rinaldo, the puzzle is a little harder to figure out. Heck, even figuring out why Nashville signed him is hard to figure out.
Rinaldo comes to Nashville after playing just over a half season in Arizona. His biggest impact was when he was suspended for punching an Avalanche player. That was the fifth time Rinaldo had been suspended because of illegal or unsportsmanlike hits.
While he packs a punch in fights (he’s been in 16 fights in the last three seasons), Rinaldo is certainly no all-star when it comes to generating scoring chances. In 163 games over the last three seasons, he has the same number of points as he has fights.
On a team where playoff hero Freddy Gaudreau is also not dressing every night, I for one hope Zac Rinaldo never sees the ice in Nashville. The 2018 version of the NHL does not necessarily need an enforcer running around causing trouble.
In positive news, the Predators start the season with their top four defensemen healthy. That was not the case in 2017 when Ryan Ellis missed everything before Christmas break.
When Ellis was back in the lineup, the Predators looked like a more complete team. One reason is that…well, they were. The other reason is that Predators coach Peter Laviolette was able to work his defensive pairings in a more strategic way. It also made the penalty kill and the power play more effective.
Last year, the Preds were hoping Kevin Fiala would make the jump to a bonafide scoring threat. He did that, finishing just shy of 30 goals. His linemates, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith, had pretty good seasons, too. Their playoff performances were a little suspect, though.
This year, the team is eager to see what Ryan Hartman can do. He came to the Preds at the trade deadline and impressed in his first few games, but then was nearly invisible as the season winded down.
He was due a contract, and he got one, but it was a one-year deal basically telling Hartman to “prove it.”
He’ll likely be trying to “prove it” on the third line with Nick Bonino and Calle Jarnkrok. Typically, for a team to be successful, you want your third line guys to be capable of scoring 15-20 goals a season. While that’s asking a lot from Bonino, Jarnkrok is definitely capable. He’s scored 16, 15, and 16 goals his last three seasons. Last year, he scored those 16 goals in just 68 games.
The Predators have remained mostly silent about Austin Watson, who is suspended for the first third of the season after pleading no contest to domestic abuse allegations over the summer. The team said they were sticking with the NHL’s ruling on the matter, and Watson, despite outcry from some fans, is still on the team. Watson himself has not addressed the situation other than a statement from his lawyer.
Finally, it will be very interesting how the goalie situation pans out. It feels very weird saying that since Pekka Rinne was literally named the best goalie in the NHL just a few months ago, but Juuse Saros is a phenomenal player that has shown he belongs in the league.
Last season, 35-year-old Rinne played in 59 games. One would wager that number will likely be lower this year. Rinne has played in more than 550 games, and it can show at times. The Preds are lucky, too, that Rinne realizes this and knows Saros can handle the load if necessary.
How Rinne, and Saros by proxy, does this season will determine how much the Preds are willing to re-sign Rinne for, if he chooses to do so. He’s on the last year of a $7 million per year contract and has said in interviews he wants to finish his career in Nashville.
The Predators are once again favorites to come out of the Western Conference and favorites to win the President’s Trophy. I’d say they have a good chance at both, but there’s a reason they play the games.
It’ll probably be fun. We’re here for it.
Hunter Patterson is a Social Media Marketer at WKRN and an avid Preds fan. His favorite Predator ever is Jerred Smithson and he realizes that’s a little weird. You can read Hunter’s Tweets at @hpatt15 and listen to his Preds-centric podcast, The GMDP, here.