As another season gets rolling for the Nashville Predators, we assess the Stanley Cup chances of the defending Presidents' Trophy winners:
Will the Predators win the West?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Can they win the West? Yes. Will they win the West? That really comes down to two external factors and one internal factor for me. The first external factor is the Winnipeg Jets, who eliminated the Predators in seven games last postseason. I still think they're another Paul Stastny-level center away from challenging for the Cup (sorry, Bryan Little fans) but they've proven to be the Predators' equals, if not better. The second external factor is the San Jose Sharks, who are every bit as good in their top six and now boast the only other blue-line corps in the NHL that can compare with Nashville's considerable depth. If they click, they could be a tough out in the West. But there's one internal factor that has me worried about the Preds, and that's the disappearance of Kyle Turris in last year's playoffs, and the inability of Pekka Rinne to win on the road. As the Washington Capitals showed last postseason, you need all your stars shining if you want to end up in the final spotlight. I'm not picking Nashville to win the West, but I would be the least surprised person in hockey if they did.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I'm still picking the Jets to win the West -- the team that, of course, knocked the Predators out of the playoffs in the second round last spring. In September, I asked Ryan Johansen if he had time to reflect on what happened in that series, and here's his take:
"You know what? We just weren't clicking as a team," Johansen said. "One game we were great, the next game we were a little off. You can point your finger at a lot of different things if you want, but throughout the whole lineup, everyone wasn't on all the time. You look at Washington for example, they were on the whole time. Even if they lost a game or two, they weren't getting blown out, they weren't losing by a few goals, it was one or two goals. They were playing a consistent game. We were the opposite."
The Predators will likely have a successful regular season, but need to prove they can sustain strong play through the playoffs -- and they wouldn't mind another crack at the Jets.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: I still think this team has the goods to win the West. Roster depth is the key. Having one of the best blue lines in the NHL is crucial, especially with the style the Preds play. They move the puck extremely well as a team, and have enough speed as a group to put other teams on their heels. While I think the Sharks can rival their blue line, I think the team that matches up best with the Preds is Winnipeg. Speed, size, physicality; I think those teams bring out the best in each other.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: Here's how they can do it. Their shining defense corps, which allowed the seventh fewest scoring chances last season, should offer insurance if Rinne regresses after his Vezina Trophy season. Despite being caught shorthanded more than any other team, they had the sixth best penalty-killing percentage. With 88 percent of the roster returning, these traits should remain steady. Offensively, the top two lines will be fine, but they'll need others to step up. Their top rivals, the Jets, possess firepower that can overwhelm the Preds, just as it did in Game 7.
Predict Pekka Rinne's future one year from now:
Wyshynski: If Juuse Saros somehow ascends to the big job this season -- perhaps due to injury, or simply taking the torch in the playoffs -- it wouldn't surprise me to see Rinne handed a rich, short-term contract from another contender desperate for a goaltender. And it wouldn't surprise me to see the Predators let him walk in favor of his understudy, as the veteran turns 37 next season. But if Pekka's still the guy for Nashville after this season, they have the cap flexibility to deliver a two-year deal, as Roman Josi's next contract, in summer 2020, is their only pending financial consideration.
Kaplan: I believe Rinne will sign a new deal in Nashville. The cap hit will be slightly below the $7 million he's making now, and the deal will be short in term (one or two years max) and without a no-movement clause -- both of which are palatable for the team. This isn't an indictment of Juuse Saros. I know the Predators are excited about the glimpses they've seen of the 23-year-old backup, and, of course, with a $1.5 million cap hit through the next three seasons, he's a far cheaper option. Rather, this is about rewarding Rinne, who, at age 35 and despite a meltdown in last year's playoffs, is still very much at the top of his game.
Peters: I can't see him going anywhere but Nashville, barring a complete meltdown this season. Predators GM David Poile is especially loyal, and as much as I like Saros as a potential starter of the future, I'd probably prefer him getting more reps in a platoon role first. I think that can happen with Rinne taking a team-friendly deal at no more than two years in length. I think the pressure is on everyone, especially Rinne, to make 2018-19 count for this franchise.
Chandan: I believe Rinne will re-sign with the Predators because they are in a good cap situation, with roughly $15 million in space next year with the core mostly locked up. Saros has proven capable with the opportunities he's had, but teams so close to the Cup rarely make big goalie changes. Rinne is the Predators' record book in goal, and deserves a proper ending to his career in Nashville.
What one non-goalie is most critical to the Predators' success this season?
Wyshynski: Ryan Johansen. Call me a Nashville Predators Stanley Cup truther, but I will forever believe that they would have beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins for the championship in 2017 if Johansen wasn't injured in the conference final. He's the glue of that dominating top line. He did some really heavy lifting in that Winnipeg series with nine points in seven games, and it was a glimpse of what he can do offensively in the postseason. It wouldn't surprise me in the least that if the Predators skate the Cup in June, it happens after the Conn Smythe is handed to Ryan Johansen.
Kaplan: Kyle Turris. Last November, GM David Poile acquired Turris via a splashy three-way trade. The Predators had so much faith Turris was the answer at second-line center, they immediately signed the 29-year-old to a six-year, $36 million extension. Turris blended well with linemates Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith -- the trio combined for 61 goals and 80 assists -- but he disappeared a bit in the playoffs, with only three points in 13 games. Turris is the type of player who can make those around him better. Turris' performance directly affects his linemates (whether it's Fiala, Smith, Calle Jarnkrok or someone else) and is key for the Predators, a team that needs secondary scoring outside their sensational top line.
Peters: Filip Forsberg. He remains the engine that drives the offense, but Forsberg has been prone to bouts of inconsistency over the last few years. Last season, however, he scored at a career-best 0.96 points per game, on pace for 79 points had he skated in all 82. That would have been the highest total for a Preds leading scorer since Paul Kariya had 85 in 2005. Unfortunately for the usually durable Forsberg, he missed 15 games due to injury. That said, Forsberg is stepping out more as a dominant forward in the West. If that progression continues, he can be the guy that can put the team on his back when they're not going as well, or not finding that ability to click. I think it's certainly within his makeup to be that kind of player.
Chandan: I'm going with Roman Josi, because he does so much for the Predators consistently. Over the past four seasons, Josi has the fourth-most points by a defenseman, trailing only Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Victor Hedman. Defensively, he has the fourth-most defensive point shares in that span. Josi may be the best defenseman who hasn't already won a Norris. Nashville's dynamic top four gives them a margin for error in net and on offense, but a loss of Josi would mean some scrambling. They will certainly make the playoffs, but another star-quality year from Josi will be necessary to drive this team to the Stanley Cup Final.