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Core Values: Predators changing course, but still lean on Shea Weber

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Few players mean more to their team than Shea Weber does to the Predators. (USATSI)
Few players mean more to their team than Shea Weber does to the Predators. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Nashville Predators have been in a tough spot over the last few years. After back-to-back appearances in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010-11 and 2011-12, the Predators have lost a number of players via free agency or other means and have been in a state of restructuring.

General manager David Poile made the difficult decision to let go the only coach the organization has ever had in Barry Trotz this summer. Though the Preds' issues were not solely on Trotz, bringing in a new voice and a new style in Peter Laviolette, who has won a Stanley Cup as a head coach, could be refreshing for the players that will be charged with bringing the Predators out of this brief malaise they've been in.

The Preds have long been a team that was built from the net out. Typically they have had really strong goaltending and still do in a hopefully-healthy Pekka Rinne. His absence last year had a lot to do with the Preds' inability to put a competitive club on the ice.

The blue line remains very strong with Shea Weber being one of the league's best defensemen. He has support in Roman Josi and a host of youngsters including Seth Jones, coming off a strong rookie showing, Ryan Ellis, Victor Bartley and Mattias Ekholm. The club also added veteran Anton Volchenkov to bolster depth.

Where the team has struggled rather mightily over the years is the forwards' ability to score consistently. The Preds made the aggressive move of trading for former 40-goal man James Neal at the NHL Draft. They've brought in young prospects in trades like Calle Jarnkrok last year and Filip Forsberg the year before.

Additionally, the Preds went out and signed a litany of veteran centers like Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy, who could be suitable stopgap veterans to allow the younger players more time to mature.

There's a lot left to be done, but this offseason represented a change in course for the team. From the new coaching staff to more aggressive pursuit of scoring talent, things could be turning around. The core, however, remains largely defense heavy with much to be discovered about their forward group this year.

Core Values: Nashville Predators

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): D Shea Weber (29, 12 years), G Pekka Rinne (31, 5 years), LW James Neal (26, 4 years), D Roman Josi (24, 6 years), D Seth Jones (19, 2 years), C Mike Fisher (34, 1 year)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $28,982,143 (42% of salary cap consumed by six players

Average age: 27.1

Total point production in 2013-14*: 62 goals, 108 assists, 170 points (30% of team's total point production)
* - Does not include James Neal's 27-34—61 line from the Pittsburgh Penguins

About the core

Shea Weber: There's a pretty good case to be made that no player means more to his team than Shea Weber does to the Predators. Sure, there are better players in the league, but where would the current Predators be without Weber right now? Despite a rough year for the Preds, Weber posted a career season in 2012-14. He tied his career best with 23 goals and surpassed career highs with 33 assists and 56 points. Weber led the Preds in points and played nearly 27 minutes a night. For the third time in his career, he finished in the top three in Norris Trophy voting, but did not win. Since his first full-time NHL season in 2006-07, no NHL defenseman has as many goals as Weber's 129. He has 347 points in 607 career games. Having had to match Philadelphia's aggressive offer sheet two years ago, Weber will be 41 when his contract expires and though he's still very much in his prime, the Preds still seem a ways away from being a contender. Things are changing, but they may not change fast enough. Regardless, Weber is a player that can help fill the seats and he'll likely still have some really strong years ahead. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 49th overall

Pekka Rinne: Having only been able to appear in 24 games last season, Rinne's absence was absolutely felt last season. After Rinne suffered an infection in his hip, the inexperienced Carter Hutton was not quite ready for what he was asked to handle. As a result, the Preds ended up with a .904 team save percentage as one of the team's great strengths disappeared. Now Rinne appears to be healthy and ready to return to his rightful place as the team's No. 1. In his limited action last year, Rinne wasn't great himself, posting a career-worst .902 save percentage and 2.77 goals-against average. He is just two years removed from a remarkable 73-appearance season in 2011-12 in which he posted a .923 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average en route to his second-straight Vezina finalist finish. Rinne will turn 32 years old early next season and it will be tough for him to return to that kind of form after the hip woes he dealt with over the last year-plus. Rinne's career numbers are solid, with a 163-98-37 record, .918 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average. He may not be able to be one of the league's elite goaltenders like he was before his injury, but he remains vital to the Predators' chances of surviving in the very tough Central Division. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, eighth round, 258th overall

Trading for James Neal was one of the Predators' most aggressive moves of late. (USATSI)
Trading for James Neal was one of the Predators' most aggressive moves of late. (USATSI)

James Neal: One of the biggest deficiencies for the Predators over the years has been an inability to score consistently. So GM David Poile went out and got one of the most prolific scorers of the last few years in Neal, who spent the last three-plus seasons with the Penguins. Over the last three seasons, only four players have scored more goals than Neal.'s 88. He has at least 21 goals in every season since he entered the league in 2008-09, including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. He is among the top-20 scorers in the NHL since his rookie year with 161 career goals. The big issue that may face the Predators is in who will be Neal's primary set-up man. Mike Fisher is out for a good chunk of the first half of the season, recent signee Mike Ribeiro is coming off a dreadful year and some of the younger centers might not be ready. That will be an adjustment for Neal who had Evgeni Malkin feeding him pucks the last few years. That said, bringing in Neal was a statement move for the Preds. This is a team not interested in a slow rebuild. They want to get better now. At just 26, Neal can be a big part of both the present and longer-term future for Nashville. Finding more depth for the forward corps is going to be important, but Neal offers the bona fide scorer the Preds have really needed lately. How he was acquired: Traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling on June 28, 2014

Roman Josi: Roman Josi might be one of the best kept secrets in the NHL. Make no mistake, though, Josi is an incredibly gifted two-way defenseman and while underrated, he may soon be known as a top-tier NHL defenseman. The 24-year-old turned in a career year in 2013-14 with 13 goals and 27 assists in 72 games. He averaged more than 26 minutes per game and has proven to be a capable replacement for Ryan Suter who departed two years prior. Some may have scoffed when the Predators signed Josi to a seven-year extension coming out of his entry-level contract, but the Preds seemed to know what they had. Now they have Josi for six more seasons at a sensible $4 million cap hit. Despite heavy usage, particularly in tough defensive situations last season, Josi put up a positive relative Corsi, showing that the team was possessing the puck better with him on the ice. His mobility and puck-moving skills rate highly and he should continue rounding out his game over the next few years. By then, the Preds still will have him under contract for multiple years to squeeze some serious value out of his contract. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 38th overall

Seth Jones: With so much promise and high expectations, Jones had a lot to live up to as an 18-year-old rookie last season. The native Texan seemed to make a smooth transition to the NHL, even garnering some U.S. Olympic Team consideration, but he cooled off as the year progressed. That said, Jones was more than adequate as a rookie. He averaged nearly 20 minutes per game and put up 25 points, a respectable figure for a rookie rearguard. Now with a year of development under his belt, the team will likely be looking for Jones to take yet another step forward and play a more substantial role as part of the team's top four. Being able to study under Weber and Josi is quite the education. Jones also has assistant coach Phil Housley, once a highly-touted American defensive prospect himself, to guide his development. There were flashes of the brilliance Jones showed throughout his junior career last season. With more confidence and comfort in what he is doing, there could be a heck of a lot more of that on the horizon. As a little appetizer for next season, Jones became the first American defenseman to take home best defenseman honors at the IIHF World Championship since John Mayasich in 1962. His head coach at that tournament was new Predators bench boss Peter Laviolette. Not a bad way to introduce yourself to the new coach. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, fourth overall

Mike Fisher: Knowing that Fisher will miss a good portion of the first half of the season while recovering from a ruptured Achilles suffered this offseason, it wasn't a given he would be included in this core. That said, Fisher has been an effective veteran for the Predators and a rare producer among the forwards still left on the roster. In three-plus seasons with Nashville, Fisher has average 0.63 points per game. He had 24 goals in 2011-12 and 20 last season. When he returns from injury, he could slot in as the team's No. 1 or No.2 center depending on how the likes of Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy do in his absence. At 34 years old and with just one year remaining on his contract, Fisher may not have a lot of time left in his career. If he returns strongly enough from injury, the Preds may be able to get him under contract on a bit of a discount deal to see what else they can squeeze out of the veteran forward. Fisher has appeared in 887 NHL games between the Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators. He has 481 points. How he was acquired: Traded from the Ottawa Senators for a first- and third-round NHL Draft pick on February 10, 2011.

Who's next in line

Craig Smith is coming out of a breakout season in 2013-14. (USATSI)
Craig Smith is coming out of a breakout season in 2013-14. (USATSI)

The Predators have done a nice job of building up their prospect base over the last few years, and some of those players have been able to make an impact at the NHL level. The organization has long been lauded for its development of defensemen and goaltenders, but now it's the forwards starting to show their value.

Craig Smith is a mid-round draft pick that has really grown over his first three NHL seasons. A natural center who has seen more time on the wing, Smith broke out in 2013-14. He led the team with 24 goals and finished third on the club with 52 points. He'll turn 25 just before the season and now he has a terrific year to build off of with some veteran centers filling spots at the top of the lineup to keep him on the wing.

The team also has a trio of younger blueliners beyond Jones that are likely to make an impact going forward. Ryan Ellis is a former first-round pick that is still awaiting a new deal as a restricted free agent, but his offensive tools help bolster the Predators' scoring depth. Mattias Ekholm and Victor Bartley are the other two rearguards who could be looking for more ice time in 2014-15. The 24-year-old Ekholm got into 62 games last season, while 26-year-old Bartley saw action in 50 games.

The Preds will soon need to see former first-round pick Colin Wilson start putting things together. He hasn't produced as expected and had 33 points last season. The same goes for Gabriel Bourque, who put up 26 points. They still have potential as they reach their mid-20s and both will be playing for new contracts this year.

Where there's some real excitement for the Predators is in the young forwards they've brought in by trading away franchise stars. The disgruntled Martin Erat was dealt away for top prospect Filip Forsberg, who has seen sporadic NHL action over the last two seasons. The 20-year-old Swede was hampered by some injuries last season but managed to turn in a strong AHL season with 34 points in 47 games. He also was dominant at the World Junior Championship with 12 points in seven games for Sweden as the team's captain.

After he was acquired as part of the David Legwand trade with the Detroit Red Wings, Calle Jarnkrok had a great NHL audition with nine points over his first 12 games in the league. Jarnkrok had been highly productive at the AHL level and only has one full year in North America under his belt. The 22-year-old should be ready for a full-time gig next year and could provide some scoring support.

There's also extremely high hopes for most recent first-round draftee Kevin Fiala. The talented Swiss forward will be playing for HV71 in Sweden's top pro league. The youngster excelled in a 17-game pro stint last year and one more good year in Sweden could make for a quick NHL timeline for him.

Overview

It's fair to still consider the Predators a tomorrow team, but over these last two playoff-less years, the team has been managing to build up through youth and is getting a little more creative than it had been in the past.

The trade for James Neal and signing some stop-gap veterans for this season definitely suggests that the Preds will try to put together a run to the postseason in 2014-15. If a lot goes right, they may have a chance to sneak in somehow, but as is well known, the Western Conference is stacked.

Aside from some of the free-agent signings this summer, the other player personnel moves have indicated more of a long-term vision for this team. Neal still has four years on his deal, youngsters like Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok have a few more years to mature into their roles. Draft picks like Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev possess high-end skill and could one day be top-six forwards.

They'll help bolster a lineup that already includes a top-flight goaltender and a deep, improving defensive unit. There are also younger veteran forwards like Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Gabriel Bourque who could yet round out into more productive players.

If Peter Laviolette can come in and help give a fresh voice and perspective to this team, there could be some improvement in the scoring department right away.

Even if next year doesn't bring playoff success, there are going to be ways to move the organization forward. Considering this team already looks a lot different from the ones that made some noise in back-to-back postseasons a few years back, there's going to be a little more time to get this group ready for something like that again.

For years, the Predators were extremely predictable, loyal to a fault and maybe even a little bland. Part of that was self-induced. Another part has been due to perception of the franchise. Free agents tend not to sign in Nashville and most recently, Jason Spezza blocked a trade to go there, so it makes it harder to find immediate help when it's needed.

It seems as though the Preds are finally finding ways around that by getting more aggressive with trades and taking special care at the draft as they so often have. They're going to need a lot of these young guys to hit at the next level and that's never a guarantee, but at least it isn't the same old approach that has left the organization often looking like it was running in place.

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