As October creeps closer, another NHL season creeps with it.
In the 16th of a series of team-by-team summer reviews and season previews, here's a glimpse at the ...
The Predators got off to a rough start last season with a 2-5-1 October stretch, which included an 0-4-1 mark at home. By season's end, however, Nashville had its fourth straight postseason appearance and became the hottest story of the season, and Bridgestone Arena became a national landmark as the roaring territory of an underdog Stanley Cup contender. With 30-goal seasons from Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson and lots of energy from an active defense, the Preds (41-29-12) surged their way to the first conference finals appearance in team history and gave the repeat Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money in the biggest series of them all.
Downed 4-2 by Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, the Predators took to the summer ready to lock up some of the pieces that drove them from a 16th-ranked playoff seed to Stanley Cup runners-up, and they did just that. They also said goodbye to a few faces, but their expectations have to be high entering 2017-18 now that their potential has been tapped.
It was a give-and-take offseason for general manager David Poile.wasn't a surprising revelation, although it certainly left a sentimental mark as much as it opened questions about the team's captain vacancy. Seeing Neal land in Vegas on the same day Wilson was sent to Colorado wasn't exactly a ringing triumph, even if neither guy had a guaranteed long-term spot amid Nashville's snipers. But throwing Emelin into the already-stocked blue-line mix and, more important, stealing some veteran center depth from the Penguins in Bonino were sure signs of the Preds' hunt for a repeat playoff run in 2017-18 -- and good, high-reward moves, at that.
Even more prominent were Nashville's negotiations with Arvidsson and top-line center Ryan Johansen, both of whom inked new deals and are now under contract through at least 2024. Plain and simple, the Predators took care of in-house business.
If you want a team that's built to contend now and for years to come, look no further than these Nashville Predators. A superstar-ridden roster like that of the Edmonton Oilers would be in the conversation, but one look at tells all: Johansen, Arvidsson, Forsberg and defensemen P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are all locked up through 2020. And Johansen, at age 25 coming off a 61-point season, is the oldest guy on Nashville's top line. Throw in D-man Roman Josi and forwards Austin Watson, Pontus Aberg and conference finals standout Frederick Gaudreau, all of whom are paid as Preds for at least the next two seasons, and you have an impressive amount of protection for your heaping collection of playoff-experienced vets.
Here's the tricky thing with the Preds, though: While their talent -- plus Bonino, minus Neal -- dictates they should be far better positioned for a playoff run than when they earned the West's second wild-card slot in 2016-17, it could be darn near impossible for Nashville to replicate the way it peaked as an underdog Stanley Cup contender a season ago. Goalie Pekka Rinne, 34, might or might not have another dominant close to the year in his tank even if the high-scoring, high-energy defense in front of him stays the course. And even if the rest of the team cleans up some of the infractions its own aggressiveness caused, it remains to be seen whether the younger guys -- the ones who stepped up in place of an injured Johansen and Kevin Fiala down the stretch -- can help drive the Preds as far.
This is a team that should be in the mix for the playoffs, no doubt. (And that's assuming clubs like the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars will all be very competitive.) But to peg them as Stanley Cup Final favorites is probably giving the team too tall a task. Keep that expectation handy, though, because this is a franchise ready to keep pushing for years to come.