The Nashville Predators' first season without defenseman Ryan Suter was a trying one, as the club missed the postseason for just the second time in nine seasons.
Suter, who left Music City in the summer of 2012 to sign a mammoth 13-year, $98 million contract with Minnesota, was sorely missed by both the team and his former defensive partner, Shea Weber.
This season, the Predators will try to regain the respect lost after missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but it won't be easy. Thanks to the NHL's realignment plan, Nashville is now in the Central Division along with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues and Suter's Minnesota Wild, all teams who figure to have a better chance at landing one of the division's three automatic playoff bids.
Still, it's difficult to count the Preds out considering the club's longtime general manager/head coach duo of David Poile and Barry Trotz have managed to coax playoff-qualifying seasons out of teams with similar skill levels to this one.
Perhaps, the addition of highly-touted defenseman Seth Jones, who fell to Nashville at the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, could provide the boost needed to make a return to the playoffs.
FORWARDS - Under Poile and Trotz, Nashville's strength has always been on defense and that doesn't expect to change in 2013-14.
Nashville's punch-less offense finished 29th in the NHL in scoring last season, averaging a paltry 2.27 goals per game. Signing Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen to free-agent deals over the summer could help improve things somewhat, but generating offense will likely be an issue for the club once again.
Even though his performance during last year's lockout-shortened campaign was disappointing, Weber still led the Predators in scoring with 28 points. That left David Legwand as the club's highest-scoring forward with just 25 points in 48 games. Legwand is the franchise's all-time leading scorer, but he doesn't he exactly strike fear into the hearts of a opposing defensemen.
Mike Fisher is best suited at playing a two-way role with an emphasis on defense, but the centerman once again will be called upon to be one of the club's top-scoring forwards. Fisher posted 21 points on 10 goals and 11 assists in 38 games last season after notching 51 points (24G, 27A) in 72 contests during the 2011-12 campaign.
Both Cullen and Stalberg will likely land on one of Nashville's top-two lines, units that will be centered by Fisher and Legwand. Cullen would've been the Predators' top-scoring forward last season when he posted 27 points (7G, 20A) over 42 games with the Minnesota Wild, while Stalberg had nine goals and 14 assists in 47 outings for the Blackhawks.
Stalberg could be in line for a career season in 2013-14 after spending the last three seasons battling for playing time on a stacked Chicago offense. He won't have to fight nearly as hard for minutes among Nashville's thin forward group.
Nashville's offense would benefit greatly from a rebound season from winger Patric Hornqvist, who led the team with 27 goals in 2011-12 before falling to four goals in 24 games last season.
Poile also added former Washington winger Matt Hendricks over the summer after he tallied five goals and three assists in 48 games for the Capitals. Eric Nystrom was another free-agent pickup and is coming off a seven-goal, 11-point season with the Dallas Stars in 2013-14.
Perhaps, Filip Forsberg (no relation to former Predator Peter Forsberg) could provide a spark up front. The winger was the 11th overall pick by Washington in 2012, but was acquired for Martin Erat at last season's trade deadline. Forsberg had one assist in a five-game run with the Predators last season.
Anyway you slice it there isn't a whole lot of scoring to be found in this forward group, but even the slightest improvement from last year's anemic offense would be considered a success.
DEFENSE - Although Weber appeared lost without Suter at the start of last season, Nashville's captain was in All-Star form by the end of the campaign.
Weber had no goals and only two assists through the first 14 games of last season, but he still wound up finishing in the top-10 of NHL defensemen in scoring. Although the slow start had to have a little to do with losing his longtime skating partner, it's possible Weber was rusty due to the long layoff caused by the lockout.
Weber also played his best hockey of the season once Trotz settled on Roman Josi as his permanent skating partner. The 23-year-old Swiss blueliner proved to be a suitable match for Weber and ended the season with five goals and 13 assists in 48 games.
Although it'd be tempting to pair Jones with Weber this season, Trotz is unlikely to put that kind of pressure on the club's most recent first-round pick. Jones, the son of former NBA veteran Popeye Jones, is billed as the complete package and the Texas native, who won't turn 19 until early October, already has NHL-ready size at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds.
Jones is expected to begin the season partnered with veteran Kevin Klein, who had 14 points (3G, 11A) in 47 games last season.
Like Jones, Ryan Ellis is another first-round talent on the Nashville blue line. The 11th overall pick of the 2009 draft is coming off his second season as an NHLer and recorded two goals and four assists in 32 games last year.
Trotz may use Victor Bartley as a partner for Ellis this season after he recorded seven assists in 24 games as a rookie last season.
GOALTENDING - Outside of Weber, the Predators' best player is two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne, but even he suffered through a down season in 2013.
Rinne went 43-18-8 with a 2.39 goals against average and .923 save percentage in 2011-12, but his numbers took a hit last season when he went 15-16-8 with a 2.43 GAA and .910 save percentage. The big netminder also underwent hip arthroscopic surgery in the offseason, but he is expected to be ready to go for the start of the regular season.
The 30-year-old is usually a workhorse and that was the case last season when Rinne started 42 of Nashville's 48 games. Unless injuries slow him down, Rinne could get an even higher percentage of starts in 2013-14 considering backup options Carter Hutton and Magnus Hellberg have a combined one game of experience between them.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Poile and Trotz, the only GM and head coach this franchise has ever employed, have made a name for themselves by getting the most out of rosters that are usually short on big-name talent. The club builds through the draft, but that strategy may not be paying off the way it once did. Nashville hopes Jones or Forsberg can replenish the organization with breakout years, but all signs point to the club missing the postseason once again.