An in-depth look at this year’s Nashville Predators as the 2017-18 NHL season is finally here.

The Predators begin their newest season on Thursday night with a trip to Boston to take on the Bruins and they’re starting off a season unlike they ever have before as defending Western Conference Champions.

The expectations for Nashville are through the roof and there is no denying that teams around the NHL have the Preds circled on their schedule.

The two glaring questions surrounding this team heading into the year are the exact same as last season: Can the Preds trust Pekka Rinne and are they strong enough at the center position to contend?

Let’s talk about the center-depth first. Nashville lost top-nine center and captain Mike Fisher to retirement this offseason and while that could prove to be a big loss both on and off the ice, the Preds did sign Nick Bonino to fill that void. The 29-year-old’s role will increase in Nashville compared to what it was with the Penguins and it will be interesting to see how he reacts and gels with his new club. Bonino is coming off of a 37 point (18G, 19A) season in Pittsburgh.

As for the rest of the personnel up the middle, Ryan Johansen will headline the center group on the first-line while Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons should round out the bottom two lines.

Now, onto Rinne and the goaltending. The Finnish netminder will turn 35-years-old on Nov. 3 which has many questioning whether or not that this will be the season we see Rinne take a step backwards. Rinne answered that same question last year by posting a much improved save percentage compared to the year prior to go along with a 31-19-9 regular season record. His 14 playoff wins and .930 post season save percentage was plenty impressive as well.

I do believe that even though Rinne is the clear-cut No. 1 netminder and the expectations are still there as a true veteran, having Juuse Saros as the No. 2 takes pressure off of Rinne. Saros had a very strong rookie season a year ago and with that I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Saros’ start count increase closer to that 30 mark from just 19 starts a year ago.

These certainly aren’t the only questions surrounding the team heading into the season. The biggest unknown is how Nashville’s blue line will adapt without Ryan Ellis as he is expected to be out until around the New Year with a knee injury. P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm is a trio that can carry the workload left from Ellis’ absence, but seeing how the three are deployed will be a major storyline to begin the year.

With Ellis out the Predators will be forced to feature some defensive pairings that haven’t been seen too often in the past. Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber are two players that could see increased minutes as well as new comer Alexei Emelin. The Preds’ second-round pick in 2016, Samuel Girard, also made the opening night roster and has impressed through the preseason.

Predicting the forward lines and defensive pairings for opening night:

Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Viktor Arvidsson

Craig Smith – Nick Bonino – Kevin Fiala

Scott Hartnell – Calle Jarnkrok – Miikka Salomaki

Cody McLeod – Colton Sissons – Austin Watson

Roman Josi – Matt Irwin

Mattias Ekholm – P.K. Subban

Alexei Emelin – Yannick Weber

Pekka Rinne starts in goal.

The most interesting line to look at out of that predicted group is the second with Smith, Bonino and Fiala. No player on this roster has received more hype and pure anticipation than Fiala heading into the year. The 21-year-old showed serious flashes of brilliance last year and was playing the best hockey of his career prior to going down with an injury in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Many are predicting Fiala to have a similar season to Viktor Arvidsson’s 31-goal campaign a year ago. Smith is a player coming off of the worst season of his career and will be looking to get back to his more consistent scoring ways while Bonino will simply be looking to fit in as a true No. 2 center on his new team.

Season prediction:

The Preds will finish the regular season as the top wild card team in the Western Conference. I think the loss of Ryan Ellis may hurt this team more than some are assuming, specifically the time it may take to find the right defensive pairings during his absence.

Nashville was a very streaky, up and down team a year ago and I don’t see that trend changing drastically this season based on their offseason changes. I believe Minnesota will win the Central Division with Chicago and Dallas rounding out the top-three.

The Predators snuck into the playoffs last season as the No. 2 wild card team out West and we all know what happened after that.

The Preds and Bruins will drop the puck at 6:00 p.m. CST on Thursday night and you can catch the action on Fox Sports Tennessee.

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