The Nashville Predators made quite the jump last season. They missed the 2013-14 playoffs with 88 points, but bounced back in a big way last year — shooting all the way up to 104 points and pushing Chicago to six games in the first round of the playoffs.
It won’t get any easier for Nashville in 2015-16 though. It won’t get easier for anyone in the Central.
The margin for error is extremely thin in that division, so the Preds will need to continue doing the things that fueled their climb up the standings last season. That, of course, means getting elite performances in net, while enjoying top tier play along the blue line — typical Nashville staples. To keep up in the Central though, it also means scoring goals.
In fact, that last area may be the most pivotal. The Preds got much stronger play between the pipes last season than in 2013-14 — but that’s because Pekka Rinne was hurt for much of the previous season. When healthy, he’s routinely one of the very best goaltenders in the world — a three-time Vezina finalist who can be counted on to give his club a chance to win nearly every night. And the defense is always going to be tough with Shea Weber as the anchor. Now it just continues to improve as Roman Josi and Seth Jones evolve their games. But the improved offense? That was something new.
In 2013-14, Nashville ranked 19th in the NHL with 2.61 goals per game. The year before, the Predators were tied for last overall with 2.27. Last season, that number jumped to 2.76 — good for 14th in the league.
So what changed? Filip Forsberg delivered a phenomenal rookie campaign. And Mike Fisher was extremely productive once he returned from the Achilles injury that sidelined him early in the season. Mike Ribeiro was an offensive catalyst as well, and the addition of James Neal certainly helped. Not to mention a combined 43 goals from Colin Wilson and Craig Smith.
In short, all of those players provided a much-needed jolt up front. Which is why they’re all back again this season. But who provides the additional boost now?
The most likely answer is Kevin Fiala. Taken No. 11 overall in the 2014 draft, the skilled winger is the franchise’s highest-drafted forward since 2008. Expectations are understandably high but, at just 19 years old, there’s no guarantee he even makes the big club this season.
Still, if we’re talking strictly about upside, Fiala’s the main guy. He’s not the only new forward who might be able to contribute though. Remember Cody Hodgson — the former top-ten pick (No. 10 overall, in 2008) who was once among Vancouver’s most highly prized prospects? After a brutal season in Buffalo, he signed a one-year deal with Nashville over the summer.
Does he still have anything to offer? Only time will tell, but it’s not as if the Preds invested too much in him. He’s owed $1.05 million this season, so the potential reward far outweighs the risk here. If his production is similar to the numbers he put up last season (13 points in 78 games), they just don’t have to keep him.
There are a few reasons to believe he has something to offer though. He’s still just 25 years old. It’s not like his NHL opportunity has passed him by, he just needs to rejuvenate his career–and he still has time to do that. A change of scenery might be exactly what he needs, especially considering the environment he just left. The Sabres were a mess by the end of last season, with their own fans cheering for opposing teams just so they could remain in the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel sweepstakes. There’s no guarantee that playing on that team is why Hodgson’s stats took a hit — but it couldn’t have helped.
Now he gets a new start on a team where he doesn’t have to be the main guy. In fact, he’ll likely begin as Nashville’s third-line center. He’ll have a stronger supporting cast, he’ll be in a productive environment and he’ll be playing in a more up-tempo offense with Peter Laviolette at the helm. Those are all factors that would seem to work in Hodgson’s favor and play to his strengths — on paper at least.
The other thing to remember with Hodgson is that he has already been serviceable in this league before, so envisioning him as a consistent contributor isn’t purely hypothetical. Two seasons ago, he notched a respectable 44 points with the Sabres. And the year before that, he chipped in 34 points — in just 48 games. In 2011-12, he put up 41 more. If anything, the 2014-15 campaign appears to be the outlier.
Obviously, 40-45 points isn’t going to take home the Art Ross or anything. But that is solid offensive production from a third line forward in the NHL. If the Preds could get that from Hodgson, it would either a) mean even more goals for this group as a whole or b) at least provide a safety net if any of the forwards who produced last season happen to take a step back. And again, the risk here is minimal, while the potential reward could be a nice addition for Nashville.