With the Penguins set to face the Nashville Predators this evening at 8:00 PM at the Bridgestone Arena, it only makes sense that we should check in with someone who knows a lot more about the Predators than ourselves.
So, we bring in Andrew Hirsh. Anyone who knows Andrew knows that he's a great human being. He spent four seasons as a credentialed NHL writer—three with the Hurricanes, one with the Predators. He currently run Preds Analytics, lives in Atlanta and works for Georgia Tech, who will beat Pitt this afternoon.
I was really looking forward to doing this, as Andrew has become a personal good friend of mine during the offseason, and this will be the first Penguins-Predators related dialogue we'll have. We threw some good Predators-centric questions at him, and have my own thoughts below his answers.
1. How did you feel about the James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling trade when it happened?
I was shocked. Hornqvist was the Predators' best forward last season and recently inked a long, team-friendly contract. Nashville adores him, and no one was expecting him to leave any time soon.
But it made sense. A lot of sense. The Preds have lacked an elite goalscorer through most of their existence, and Neal can fill that void. It helps that he's signed through 2017-18 and is only making $5 million per year.
So I guess it was bittersweet. This trade made the Preds better, but Hornqvist's personality and aggressive style of play will be missed.
Well Andrew, I was pretty shocked too. One thing that I do vividly remember though, is shortly after the trade, one of the first people I talked to was actually Andrew. His first words were 'you're going to love Hornqvist.' I'd say it's a fair assessment so far!
2. Speaking of James Neal, how do you see him fitting in Nashville? It's hard to say now through just a few games, but do you see him as a Predator for the long haul?
Thus far, he seems to be fitting in extremely well. Along with Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Pekka Rinne, Neal should be a franchise cornerstone in the Music City for years to come.
Fans grew a little anxious when he started slow (Hornqvist's fast start didn't help) but he has since quelled those concerns by scoring five goals in his last four games—including a natural hat trick against Chicago. It's pretty clear Neal is going to lead the charge offensively, and I'm sure he likes being the No. 1 guy after playing third fiddle in Pittsburgh.
While Mike Ribeiro is no Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, the former Coyote has looked really good next to Neal in the early going. Filip Forsberg recently joined those two and is playing like a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate–giving the Preds a true first line.
Contrary to what many believe, Neal has a lot of solid players around him. He'll do just fine.
Very good point about liking being the No. 1 guy. I never really thought about that. Tonight is James Neal Bubblehead night, right? Malkin made things easy on Neal, but it's no secret that Neal can score with talent around him. Flip Forsberg is awesome, also.
3. What's the biggest issue that will keep the Predators from getting better? We saw how debilitating the Pekka Rinne injury was last season. Same story, different chapter? Or are there bigger underlying issues?
As long as Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber are healthy, the biggest issue will continue to be forward depth. While Neal, Ribeiro and Forsberg look fantastic, the second, third and fourth lines leave a lot to be desired.
Craig Smith is valuable asset, but who else will produce when the first line is on the bench? Derek Roy is an enigma. Matt Cullen is old and past his prime. Calle Jarnkrok doesn't appear ready for a top six role. Colin Wilson and Viktor Stalberg haven't come close to reaching their potential. Eric Nystrom and Paul Gaustad racked up some points in the first few games, but they won't be regular contributors over the next five months.
Someone might step up, but I'm pessimistic.
Offensively, the Preds will probably have to lean on a select few. Can that work all season? Maybe. But I'd be a lot more confident in this group if someone like Roy or Wilson found a way to pot 20 goals.
I never really looked at Nashville's depth that much....but yikes. You can definitely see why the health of Rinne and Weber, as well as guys like Neal and Josi is ever so important.
4. I think Peter Laviolette is awesome. Is his up-tempo style of play going to be enough to get the Predators back into the playoffs? Nashville is in Central Division Hell.
Laviolette can get Nashville into the playoffs. The Central Division is tough, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Preds beat out the Avalanche for fifth place. If that happens, and if the Pacific only sends three teams to the postseason, the Preds are in.
However, it won't be easy. Nashville's current pace is highly unsustainable, as its 104.7 5v5 PDO illustrates. Question is, has David Poile assembled enough talent for the Preds to maintain a winning record when the numbers regress?
That's impossible to know this early, and one could make a case for both sides of the argument. Yes, there are some holes in the lineup, but Laviolette's teams do so damn good when he takes over.
Also, many forget the Preds finished three points behind the Stars in 2013-14—despite losing Rinne for months. This isn't a Stanley Cup-caliber, group, but it's one that has the ability to make some noise.
I do agree that Laviolette can get Nashville in the playoffs, and when I did my own casual, stupid, no-one-cares predictions, I believe I had the Predators as #8 and one of the Wild Card teams. Being in the Central Division, Laviolette's run-and-gun is almost a necessity to keep up with the speed of teams like Dallas and Chicago.
5. Okay, so where do you see them finishing in the Standings? If they make the playoffs, how far can they go?
I think Nashville will finish seventh or eighth in the West. I initially predicted them to miss the playoffs by a smidge, but Colorado's goaltending woes have led me to change my mind.
My guess is the Preds sneak into the postseason and fall in the opening round. There simply isn't enough depth to win a best-of-seven series against one of the West's elite.
Still, this is an organization on the rise. There's a lot to like about the Preds right now, and 2014-15 is shaping up to be one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history.
Making the playoffs and losing in the first round, coming out of that division, would be nothing to be ashamed of. The team is in a better place than it was a year ago, and just making the playoffs and selling some tickets would be a big boost for the team, financially. I hope it happens.
6. If you were on death row and facing execution, what would your final meal choice be?
I'd order 100 roast beef sandwiches, 100 sides of fries and a tub of BBQ sauce from Harrison's Roast Beef in Andover, Massachusetts. I'd eat until my heart stopped beating.
Oh my god. This is the most amazing and perfect answer I could've hoped for. Well done.
Be sure to check out our Penguins vs Predators coverage right here also.