For the established NHL teams, a playoff series victory is generally expected each season, but the Nashville Predators are hoping that last season's brief playoff success is the stepping stone to much more.
Prior to last season, the Predators had made the playoffs five times, but never advanced. Nashville came into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference for a matchup with Anaheim and dispatched the Ducks in six games to move to the second round for the first time. The team went on to lose in the next round against the eventual conference champions, Vancouver.
Nashville has been a consistently good team since the 2004-05 lockout and has finished with at least 40 wins in each of those seasons.
The strength of the team is a defense that features one of the top blueliners in the league along with a top-notch man between the pipes. Last year, the Predators finished third overall in goals against, behind Vancouver and Boston, which both played for the Stanley Cup.
FORWARDS - This was the Achilles Heel of the team last season as they finished just 21st overall in scoring and 26th on the power play.
The organization is pinning its hopes on Mike Fisher, who the team acquired from Ottawa last season. The 31-year-old had 12 points in 27 games and added three goals and four assists in the team's run to the semifinals. What the Preds need is for him to solidly anchor the top line and top his previous career highs in goals (25) and points (53).
Playing to the right of Fisher will be Martin Erat. The 30-year-old will be entering his 10th season in the NHL, all with the Predators, and should have his typical 20-goal, 50-point season once again.
On the left side will be Sergei Kostitsyn, who led the team in goals last year with 23. Look for the 24-year-old to have a breakout campaign in 2011-12 and a 35-goal season for him is possible with the solid top line that he plays on.
Big things are expected this season from center Colin Wilson, who was drafted with the seventh overall pick in 2008. The 21-year-old had 16 goals and 18 assists over 82 games last season.
The Nashville offense had eight players in double-digit goals last season so the team has some depth. The problem is that there is not much offensive power, overall.
A Norris Trophy finalist last season, the 26-year-old Weber finished third on the team in scoring last season with 16 goals and 32 assists along with a plus-seven. Look to see more of the same for him and again see his name mentioned as one of the top blueliners all season.
While not putting as many pucks into the net as Weber, Suter did lead the team in assists with 35 and plus/minus at plus-20. The seven-year pro has never broken into double-digits in goals, but has put up at least 33 assists the past three seasons and has developed his defensive game.
The second pairing of Kevin Klein and Jonathon Blum, who is entering his second season, is strong as a defensive unit, if not on the offensive end, while the other pairing should consist of either Francis Bouillon, Ryan Ellis, the 11th overall pick of 2009, or Brett Lebda, who the team acquired in a trade with Toronto this past offseason.
GOALTENDING - As good as the defense is, the netminder is even better in Pekka Rinne.
The 28-year-old Finn appeared in 64 games last season and finished with a mark of 33-22-9 with six shutouts, a 2.12 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.
Just entering his prime, expect to see him play even more games this season and, barring injury, again challenge for the Vezina Trophy, and possibly win this time.
Backing up Rinne is Swede Andres Lindback. He did an adequate job in net when the when the top goaltender needed a rest and also during a couple of injuries that Rinne suffered last season. He went 11-5-2 with two shutouts and a 2.60 GAA in 22 games.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Predators play in one of the tougher divisions in the league, but the strong goaltending and defense will guide this team to another playoff spot. While defense wins playoff series, you still have to be able to score and if Nashville can find some consistency in its offense, a deep playoff run is very possible.