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2013 Predators Preview: Blue Line Buzz

Mark McLarney

Mark McLarney writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Following three successful seasons that saw the Predators establish themselves as one of the top teams in the Western Conference - getting through to the second round of the playoffs two years in a row - the team took a major step back last season, finishing second-last in the West with a disappointing 16-23-9 record. So what went wrong? The Preds have always been a team that wins games primarily on top-notch goaltending and strong defense. However, even though the team was solid defensively for most of the season (27.8 shots allowed per game, eighth in the league), they were surprisingly lax in allowing goals (2.77 goals per game, 20th). Furthermore, despite already being an average offensive team at best, the Preds struggled even more to find the back of the net last season, tying the Panthers for the lowest goals-per-game in the NHL with 2.27. Looking ahead, the team will need to see a rebound from some of its better players (including Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Pekka Rinne) if it has any chance of getting themselves back into the playoff picture in the West.

Heading into this season, however, there are even more questions surrounding the state of the Preds' offense, and where the scoring is going to come from. Veteran winger Martin Erat was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline last year, while Sergei Kostitsyn bolted for the KHL during the summer. In addition to Hornqvist, Wilson and Smith, the Preds will need to rely on youngsters such as Taylor Beck, Filip Forsberg and Austin Watson to step up and help fill the void. The team also signed free agents Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen over the summer to help supply some much-needed secondary scoring. On defense, the team is still as solid as ever, led by Shea Weber and a strong supporting cast including Roman Josi, Kevin Klein and Ryan Ellis. They will also be joined by blue chip prospect Seth Jones, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft, who is expected to make the team out of training camp and add further stability to the Preds' blue line. In goal, Rinne will once again be the team's workhorse between the pipes, assuming he's healthy following offseason hip surgery.

The Big Guns

Shea Weber (D): The 2012-13 lockout-shortened season was one of adjustment for Weber, playing for the first time without his regular blue line partner Ryan Suter, who departed in the offseason as a free agent to Minnesota. Not surprisingly, it took a while for Weber to find his game offensively, opening the season with just a single point in his first 12 games, however he finished with 28 points in 48 games, putting him in the top 10 in scoring among NHL defensemen. Looking ahead, Weber should enjoy another solid season on the Preds' blue line.

Pekka Rinne (G): Rinne was once again a workhorse between the pipes for the Predators last season, tying for second in the league in games played (43) and games started (42). His five shutouts tied him for first with four other goalies, however his 15 wins put him way down the list in that category. Pound for pound, Rinne remains one of the NHL's most talented netminders, however playing for an offensively-challenged team like the Preds means he will be in tough to get a win on any given night. If your league rewards for peripheral goalie stats such as GAA and SV%, Rinne is a great pick. However for wins-only leagues, he's a bit of a risk.

Mike Fisher (C): Fisher finished last season with a respectable 21 points in 38 games last season, tying him for third in team scoring, despite missing 10 games to a hand injury. This year, Fisher is a virtual lock to open the season as the Preds' top-line center once again. At 33 years old, Fisher is not likely to have a breakout campaign at this stage of his career, however should finish the season somewhere in the 45-50 point range, assuming he can stay healthy.

On The Rise

Roman Josi (D): Josi re-signed with the Predators in June after skating in all 48 games last season, logging an average of 23:32 of ice time on the team's first defensive pairing alongside Shea Weber. He recorded 13 assists and five goals on the year, and should remain a top-four blue line option for the Preds this season. At just 23 years old, Josi is still learning the ropes, but by signing him to a seven-year, $28 million contract, the Preds are clearly putting a lot of faith in him.

Craig Smith (C): Smith underwent the dreaded sophomore slump last year after registering 36 points in 72 games during as a rookie two seasons ago. Last year, he had just 12 points in 44 games and even spent some time at AHL Milwaukee to get his game together following a lengthy slump. At 23 years old, Smith still has a ways to go before he enters his peak scoring years, so the Preds are understandably being patient with him. Looking ahead, he should open this season as the team's second-line right winger.

Two To Watch

Colin Wilson (LW): The good news? Following three years of so-so production, Wilson finally broke through last season and scored 19 points in 25 games, giving us a glimpse of the type of player he can be after being drafted seventh overall back in 2008. The bad news? His season was cut short by a pair of shoulders surgeries that leaves him in doubt to start the upcoming regular season on schedule. Once recovered, he should continue to develop into a top-tier fantasy option, but temper your expectations a bit for this year.

Viktor Stalberg (LW): After spending the previous three seasons with Chicago, Stalberg hit the free agent market and signed a four-year, $12 million contract with Nashville in July. With just 90 points in 203 games over the past three seasons, Stalberg still has a lot to prove as a top-six NHL forward, however with the offensively challenged Preds, he now has the opportunity to show what he can do. There is a good chance you will see him open the upcoming season as the Preds' second-line left winger.

Don't Overrate

Patric Hornqvist (RW): The 26-year old Hornqvist is part of the Predators' plan for the future, thus they decided to lock him up for the long run by signing him to a five-year, $21 million contract in April. That's a big gamble on a guy who has seen his offensive output decline every year after he scored 30 goals and 51 points for the Preds three seasons ago. Last year, Hornqvist only played in 24 of 48 games but managed four goals and 10 assists in the process. He will open the season as the Preds' top right winger alongside Mike Fisher and either Colin Wilson or Viktor Stalberg.

Matt Cullen (C): Cullen, who signed a two-year, $7 million deal with Nashville in July, had seven goals this past year with Minnesota after averaging 12 goals per-season the previous three seasons. At 36 years old, Cullen's best days are probably behind him (two 49-point seasons with Carolina in 2005-06 and 2007-08), however he's still a very versatile forward who should be a valuable addition to the Preds' dismal power play. He is expected to open the season as the Preds' third-line center, behind Mike Fisher and David Legwand.

Ryan Ellis (D): Expectations were high for Ellis last season, as he was tabbed early on as one of the favorites to line up alongside Shea Weber following the departure of Ryan Suter. However, it turned out to be a disappointing campaign for Ellis, as he missed the first half of the season with a broken wrist, then registered just six points in 33 games the rest of the way, playing mostly on the team's third defensive pairing. Looking ahead, with the Preds' first-round draft pick Seth Jones expected to open the season with the big club, Ellis could find himself as little more than a depth player come October.

Top Prospects

Seth Jones (D): Jones will most likely start the upcoming season with the Predators after being selected fourth overall in this year's entry draft. Jones was the first defender taken in the draft, and at 6-3, 205, he seems physically prepared to deal with NHL competition. Soon after landing Jones, the Predators proceeded to waive defender Hal Gill in order to create room for him, and it seems Jones should be an immediate contributor for Nashville come October. He will likely start out on the team's third defensive pairing, but he should be an everyday player for the Preds from the get-go, provided he can stay healthy.

Taylor Beck (RW): Beck was a late-season callup last year, filling in for Paul Gaustad who landed on the IR in March. Beck put in a very solid showing, registering three goals and four assists in 16 games, averaging roughly 16 minutes per night with some of that coming on the power play. Beck was leading the AHL Milwaukee Admirals with 41 points in 50 games at the time of his callup, and the scoring prowess he displayed during his final two seasons in junior (188 points in 123 games at OHL Guelph) are well-documented. Beck certainly has the scoring touch the offensively-challenged Preds are looking for, so he is likely to get a long look at training camp this season. He may even land himself a spot on one of the top two lines if all goes well.

Filip Forsberg (RW): Most oberservers thought the Preds got the better part of the deal when they acquired Forsberg from Washington at the traded deadline last season, sending depth forwards Martin Erat and Michael Latta the other way. The 19-year old Forsberg was the Caps' No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft and is expected to be a top-six forward once he arrives. Forsberg got his first taste of NHL action as the season wound down last year, playing in five of the Preds' final six games and posting just a single point in the process; however, prior to that he did score 33 points in 38 games with Leksands IF in Sweden. The Preds are hoping he can one day lineup on their top line, but for now he will probably open the upcoming season at AHL Milwaukee.