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2012 Predators Preview: Predators' Focus on the The Top of the Western Conference

Mark McLarney

Mark McLarney

Mark McLarney writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Following their best-ever regular-season finish (48-26-8, 104 pts, 4th overall in the West) and establishing themselves as a possible Stanley Cup contender, the Preds proceeded to bow out of the playoffs during the second round for the second consecutive year. When all was said and done, were the Preds satisfied with being the only Western conference team to make the semifinals in each of the past two seasons? Not on your life. After all, this was a team that went to great lengths to prove to everyone in the hockey world -- particularly their fan base as well as their core players -- that they were a force to be reckoned with. In February, the team went out and acquired reinforcements like Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill, then in March lured Alexander Radulov back to Nashville after a four-year hiatus playing in the KHL. It was not enough, however, as the team fell to the Phoenix Coyotes in five games, seemingly losing their focus after Kostitsyn and Radulov were suspended during the series for breaking curfew. Subsequently during the offseason, the team faced further controversy after losing free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter to Minnesota, and were then forced into matching a mammoth 14-year, $110 million offer sheet to Shea Weber by the Philadelphia Flyers. This season, the Preds will look forward to putting these issues behind them as they re-focus their efforts on becoming one of the Western Conference's elite teams.


THE BIG GUNS


Mike Fisher (C): With 51 points in 72 games last season, Fisher was just two points shy of the career-high 53 points he scored in 2009-10 with Ottawa. After playing as more of a defensive forward with the Sens, Fisher has really discovered his scoring touch and has become a key cog in the Preds' offense, centering the team's first line in between Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat. Looking ahead, he will be given every opportunity to build on last year's success.

Martin Erat (RW): Erat quietly went about his business last season, scoring a career-high 58 points which was also tops on the team. Furthermore, his plus-minus rating of +12 was third-best on the team, not bad for a guy who routinely misses at least 10 games to injury every year. Erat may not be an elite scorer, but his consistency year-in and year-out make him very valuable in most fantasy formats where predictable outcomes are worth their weight in gold. Bottom line, you know what you're getting with this guy. Draft accordingly.

Shea Weber (D): In July, the Preds made headlines by matching a $110 million, 14-year offer sheet made to Weber by the Philadelphia Flyers just days before. By doing so, the Preds are assured of keeping their All-Star defenseman and team cornerstone in Nashville for at least one more season. Weber finished the season tied for seventh among NHL defensemen in both points (49) and plus-minus (+21) and should be at or near the top of your fantasy cheat sheet for defensemen next season.
Pekka Rinne (G): Rinne cemented his status as one of the NHL's elite goaltenders last season, posting a career-high 43 wins. He also ranked among the league leaders in save percentage (.923) and goals-against average (2.39). Along with Weber, Rinne remains one of the cornerstones of the Predators franchise, having inked a seven-year, $49 million contract with the team in November 2011, meaning he's going to be around a long time. Draft with confidence.


ON THE RISE


Colin Wilson (C): Wilson scored a career-high 35 points (15G, 20A) last season and likely would have broken the 40-point barrier if he hadn't missed 14 games with an assortment of injuries. Perhaps more importantly, Wilson was given more offensive responsibility by coach Barry Trotz last season, seeing an average of 16 minutes per night, roughly three minutes more per game compared to the previous two seasons. Wilson, who re-signed with the Predators for three more years in July, is expected to resume his role on the team's second line alongside David Legwand and Patric Hornqvist. A major breakout season may still be a season or two away, but consider him a player on the rise.

Craig Smith (C): Smith started his rookie season with a bang back in October, scoring 14 points in his first 15 games. However, it took him another 32 games to score his next 14 points, and he finished the season with just 36 in 72 games, seeing the majority of his ice time in a checking-line role. It was very likely a case of rookie fatigue setting in for the highly-skilled youngster last season, a situation he should be able to avoid this year. He continues to have tremendous upside -- draft accordingly.

Ryan Ellis (D): The 2012-13 season could be a pivotal one for Ellis. With Ryan Suter having departed for Minnesota as a free agent, the Preds will certainly be looking for someone to fill his skates on the team's top defensive pairing alongside Shea Weber. Ellis certainly has the scoring touch to fill that role, so be ready to bump him up a few notches on your draft sheets come October. At the very least, expect Ellis to play a regular role for the Preds next season after scoring 11 points in 32 games in 2011-12.


TWO TO WATCH


Patric Hornqvist (LW): Hornqvist's offensive totals have been in steady -- if not alarming -- decline the past two seasons, ever since he scored a career-high 30 goals and 51 points back in 2009-10. Last year, he scored a respectable 27 goals, but he suffered in the playmaking category with just 16 helpers, leaving Preds fans -- and fantasy owners -- wanting more. Looking ahead, the team will continue to lean on him as their second-line right winger, but he needs to step up and deliver.

David Legwand (C): Legwand, the Preds' first-ever draft pick and longest-serving player, enjoyed his best campaign in five seasons last year with 19 goals and 34 assists in 78 games. Centering the Preds' second line, he seemed to finally find some solid chemistry with linemates Wilson and Hornqvist. Looking forward, the role of second-line center is Legwand's to lose at this point, however he does have youngster Craig Smith nipping at his heels. We think he's good for at least one more season with output somewhere in the range of 45-55 points.


TWO TO AVOID


Brandon Yip (RW): Yip, who re-signed a one-year deal with the Predators in June, played mostly a fourth line role last season after arriving from Colorado via waivers in January. With just three goals and four assists in 25 regular-season games, Yip does not amount to much more than a depth player at this stage in his career. There's not much to get excited about from a fantasy perspective.

Hal Gill (D): The 6-7 Gill brought experience and size to Nashville's blue line after being acquired from Montreal last season, but sadly, he does not deliver much from a fantasy perspective. Last season, split between the Canadiens and Predators, he produced just one goal and 12 assists over 76 games, while collecting 37 penalty minutes. With a new two-year, $4 million contract under his belt, he should continue to play a top-four role for the Preds for the foreseeable future.


TOP PROSPECTS


Taylor Beck (RW): Beck, 21, was a third-round pick (No. 70 overall) by Nashville in 2009. Playing for the OHL Guelph Storm in 2010, he won the Jim Mahon Memorial Trophy after leading all right wingers in scoring (39 goals, 54 assists, 93 points). Last season, he played his first full year at AHL Milwaukee and registered 40 points in 74 games. He is expected to compete for a job on the Preds' roster come October, but will likely begin the season back in the AHL. The 6'1", 205-lb Beck projects as a top-six power forward but he isn't expected to arrive for another season or two.

Pontus Aberg (LW): Aberg was acquired by the Preds in the second round of this year's draft (37th overall). Playing for Djurgardens, he skated in 47 Elitserien league games as an 18-year-old and was one of four finalists for the league's Rookie of the Year award. Aberg was rated sixth among European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings prior to the 2012 NHL Draft. He is a future sniper but will need some time to adjust to the North American game before making an impact at the NHL level.

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