The Predators finished last season with a very respectable 44-27-11 record, good for 99 points and fifth place in the Western conference standings. In addition, the team qualified for the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons since the lockout, and even managed its first-ever opening round series win (4-2 over Anaheim). In the second round, the Preds bowed out to Vancouver in six games, but not before earning a great deal of respect from fans and media alike.
The Preds have built a solid team on the foundation of strong goaltending and defense, and that trend certainly continued last season. Netminder Pekka Rinne enjoyed a stellar season as the Preds' undisputed No. 1 starter, posting 33 wins, six shutouts, and a sparkling 2.12 GAA and .930 SV%. As a team, the Preds also averaged just 2.32 goals per game last season, third-lowest in the league. This helped make up for their somewhat anaemic offense, which managed to score just 2.60 goals per game, ranking them 21st overall in that category.
This season, the Preds will likely continue to be challenged in the goal-scoring department, as the team did little in the offseason to bulk up their forward lines. Down the middle, the Preds will continue to rely on Mike Fisher (added late last season in a trade with Ottawa) and David Legwand. On the wings, Sergei Kostitsyn (who enjoyed a career season after being dealt by Montreal) and Martin Erat remain the team's most dangerous scorers, followed by Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson. Meanwhile, the team has parted ways with the likes of J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, Matthew Lombardi and Marcel Goc, leaving room for young up-and-comers like Blake Geoffrion, Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk to prove they belong.
On defense, the team will continue to feature one of the league's best tandems in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. And here's where it gets interesting – with Francis Bouillon (concussion) expected to miss the start of the season, and the departures of Cody Franson and Shane O'Brien, you could see a number of rookie freshmen on the Preds' blue line this season, including Ryan Ellis, Jonathon Blum and Roman Josi. In goal, Rinne will still be the main man between the pipes, backed up by the very effective Anders Lindback. Overall, the Preds will continue to rely on goaltending and defense to win games, hoping that a handful of players can step up offensively and come through with breakout seasons.
THE BIG GUNS
Shea Weber (D): Weber certainly showed his worth to the Preds last season, racking up 52 points in 80 games and leading the team into the second round of the playoffs. To top it off, Weber was voted to the NHL's First All-Star Team for the first time in his career, and was named one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy. This season, look for Weber to continue his ascent to elite status in terms of fantasy value. He still possesses one of the most fearsome slapshots in the league, and plays with a bit of a nasty streak to boot. Don't be surprised if Weber hits the 60-70 point range this season, even without a top-tier offense to help him out.
Pekka Rinne (G): In 2011-12, Rinne will enter the second and final season of a two-year, $6.8 million contract. Last season, he was second among NHL goalies in SV% (.930) and third in SV% (2.12). However, there were 14 other goalies who had at least as many wins (33) as Rinne, the result of playing for the offensively-challenged Predators. From a fantasy perspective, expect Rinne to remain solid in the aforementioned peripheral stat categories this upcoming season, but he will likely still be challenged as far as wins are concerned, unless the Preds can somehow squeeze more offense out of their forward lines.
Patric Hornqvist (RW): Hornqvist took a minor step backwards, falling short of his previous year's totals with 21 goals and 48 points. The good news is, after saying goodbye to guys like Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont, Marcel Goc and Joel Ward this summer, the Preds have few other offensive weapons who can supplant Hornqvist as one of the team's top-six forwards this season. In 2011-12, he should be given plenty of opportunities to take a shot at building on his career totals. Expect somewhere in the vicinity of 50-55 points for Hornqvist as he continues his development as one of the NHL's second-tier forwards.
Sergei Kostitstyn (LW): Kostitsyn revived his sputtering career last season following a trade from Montreal to Nashville in June 2010. Having never scored more than 27 points in a season with the Habs, Kostitsyn led the Preds in both goals (23) and total points (50), and was instrumental in leading Nashville into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in team history. This season, look for Kostitsyn to resume his role as one of the Preds' top-six forwards along with Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher and David Legwand. Motivation will be the key challenge for Kostitsyn this season. As long as he can avoid the same loss of focus that ultimately caused the Habs to give up on him two years ago, a return to the 50-point level this season should be well within his reach.
ON THE RISE
Colin Wilson (C): Wilson played in all 82 games last season, his second with the Predators, and registered a respectable 16 goals and 34 total points - not bad for a second-year player. With the departure of guys like Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, J-P Dumont and Marcel Goc this offseason, Wilson will be counted on even more next year to provide offense. Don't expect a huge step forward, but a 35-40 point season should be well within reach.
Niclas Bergfors (RW): Bergfors split last season between Atlanta and Florida, recording 36 points in 72 games, which was a step down from the 44 points he recorded in his rookie year. That said, Bergfors did finish fourth among NHL rookies two seasons ago, and turned some heads by scoring six goals in his first eight games with Atlanta after arriving in the Ilya Kovalchuk deal. With the Preds desperate for any additional scoring punch they can find, don't be surprised if coach Barry Trotz finds a way to work him into more of a top-six role as the season progresses.
Jonathon Blum (D): In February, the Preds were so convinced that Blum was ready to be an everyday NHL player that they traded Alexander Sulzer to Florida and recalled Blum on a full-time basis. Blum then went on to play the the final 23 games of the regular season, as well as 12 of the team's 14 playoff games, averaging almost 18 minutes of ice time per night including 2:19 on the power play. Blum finished the regular season with just eight points, but this does not reflect his value to the team, and he continues to improve in all facets of the game. He could see time as a top-four defenseman this season if he gets off to a good start.
TWO TO AVOID
Mike Fisher (C): Fisher scored just 14 goals and 10 assists in 55 games after arriving in Nashville last season, well below his usual level of productivity. Not to mention, Fisher struggled defensively with his new team as evidenced by an ugly plus-minus rating of minus-19. Looking ahead, Fisher will be called upon once again to be a top-six forward, a role he has not excelled at over his career. Furthermore, the Preds are not exactly a top-tier offensive club, so he doesn't have an abundance of talent surrounding him.
David Legwand (C): Legwand looked to be turning the corner back in 2006-07 when he scored a career-high 63 points, but has since followed that up with seasons of 44, 42, 38 and 41 points. This steady, if unspectacular, level of production should once again earn him second-line center honors for next season, but at 31 years old, don't expect him to suddenly catch fire. Oddly enough, Legwand tends to elevate his game in the playoffs (20 points in 18 games over the past two years), but there's little evidence to suggest he can carry this over into the regular season.
Ryan Ellis (D): Ellis put up some impressive numbers last season - his last year of junior - posting 101 points in just 58 games for the Windsor Spitfires. He was the first defender in the OHL to break the century mark in points in 17 years and the first blueliner to nab Player of the Year since Brian Campbell did it way back in 1998-99. With a solid training camp, he may prove he's ready to jump directly into the NHL. Otherwise, he will likely open the season at the AHL level, but the kid will eventually crack the Preds' lineup for good - he's about as blue-chip as they come.
Taylor Beck (RW): Beck, 20, was a third-round pick (No. 70 overall) by Nashville in 2009. With 95 points in 62 games for the Guelph Storm – his second consecutive 90+ point season – he proved he has some serious offensive skills. Beck will likely need at least a year of seasoning at the AHL level, but the Preds are desperate for a high-end scorer and at the rate he's developing, they won't be able to keep him in the minors much longer.