This is certainly one heck of a way to kick off the new NHL season, isn't it?
A compacted schedule and exclusively in-conference match-ups over the next 48 games were already factors in projecting an intense sprint to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it doesn't appear that the Blue Jackets will waste any time in getting back in the swing of things. A familiar foe -- the Nashville Predators -- awaits in the season opener on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena.
The Blue Jackets' struggles in that arena have been well-documented throughout the years and the coaches and players have heard about it in the weeks leading up to the season. As far as they're concerned, the page has been turned to a new chapter of Blue Jackets hockey and the slate is wiped clean.
When they arrive in Nashville, they'll be welcomed (well, maybe 'welcomed' isn't the appropriate term) by a Predators team that has undergone its fair share of changes over the offseason. Gone is top-pairing defenseman Ryan Suter, who was lured away from his only NHL home by the Minnesota Wild with a massive 13-year contract. Nashville nearly lost both of its top blueliners, as GM David Poile had to match a 14-year offer sheet that was extended to Shea Weber by the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Predators retained Weber, their captain and one of the best defensemen in hockey, and that will help their chances immensely in 2013. Coupled with mainstay Pekka Rinne in goal and Barry Trotz's consistency behind the bench, you can expect Nashville to get back to its traditional grind-it-out, tough-as-nails defensive style with everyone pitching in on the offensive end.
Seven players contributed at least 40 points for the Predators a season ago, including Suter with 46. Suter and Martin Erat led Nashville in assists with 39, while fourth-year forward Patric Hornqvist was the club's top goal scorer with 27. Most of Nashville's offense up front is back for 2013, but there's been some shuffling along the blue line after Suter's departure.
Nashville hopes 22-year-old Swiss defenseman Roman Josi can take a big step this year and play with Weber on the top pairing. It's a lofty expectation for a young player, but Josi was solid in his rookie year, putting up 16 points in 52 games with the Predators. Kevin Klein, Hal Gill, Ryan Ellis, and Jonathon Blum are also back this season, and free agent pickup Scott Hannan is likely to find his way into the mix, as well.
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This is a guy that Nashville is looking to for a big year, building off a strong 2011-12 season in which he compiled 15 goals and 35 points. Poile rewarded Wilson with a new three-year contract in the off-season and he's going to get every opportunity to lock down a spot in the top six. He bounced around the lineup a bit last year, but the Predators hope he finds some consistency in his game and makes his fourth NHL season his best yet.
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