Despite an offseason roster overhaul, the Nashville Predators feel they can improve upon the deepest playoff run in franchise history.
Some much-needed additions have the Columbus Blue Jackets also feeling good about their chances of reaching the postseason.
The Predators and Blue Jackets renew their Central Division rivalry when they open the 2011-12 season at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
Nashville (44-27-11) has reached six of the last seven postseasons, but hadn't advanced beyond the opening round until last spring, when the Predators defeated Anaheim in six games before being eliminated in six by eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver.
"We were all disappointed last year," defenseman Shea Weber said. "Obviously, we were close to being in the third round. Our goal wasn't to get to the second round, so it was disappointing that we lost. So I think guys have got to realize we have to get off to a good start, and it's going to pay dividends later on in the season."
With Weber, a Norris Trophy finalist, back with fellow defenseman Ryan Suter and Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne, Nashville's confidence could be understood. However, the team spent the offseason unloading veterans Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, Cody Franson, Steve Sullivan and Shane O'Brien.
The Predators also bought out the contract of J.P. Dumont, who was a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs after posting 19 points in the regular season.
Barry Trotz, the only coach Nashville has ever had, isn't nervous about the moves, which will allow young forwards Cal O'Reilly (25), Nick Spaling (23) and Colin Wilson (21) to play more prominent roles. Rookies Blake Geoffrion, Jonathon Blum and Craig Smith (22) are also expected to make an impact and potentially garner Calder Trophy consideration.
"We've got a good program where our young guys, we have a good sense of when they're ready for the most part," Trotz said. "We're quite patient with our young guys and when they come up, there's not much of a transition period. They step in and get the job done. For them, it's just getting a little confidence at the next level."
Smith, who opted to forgo his junior year at Wisconsin, appears to be in line to fill in for Mike Fisher (shoulder surgery) on the power play.
"We always have someone to kind of have a breakthrough year," Rinne said. "Obviously, we're going to need that kind of effort from some of the players."
Rinne solidified his status as Nashville's No. 1 netminder with the best season of his career. He went 33-22-9 in 2010-11, with a 2.12 goals-against average and six shutouts.
Rinne is 1-4-0 with a 3.22 GAA in six career starts versus Columbus (34-35-13).
Roster changes also have the Blue Jackets feeling good heading into the season, while Rick Nash is still their main scoring threat after leading the team with 32 goals and 34 assists in 2010-11.
In an effort to get the captain some help, Columbus acquired goal-scoring star Jeff Carter, hard-hitting defenseman James Wisniewski, forward Vinny Prospal and defenseman Radek Martinek. It appears to be the deepest Blue Jackets team ever.
"On paper, for sure," Nash said. "But that doesn't mean much until we do it."
The Blue Jackets, who were swept in their only playoff appearance in 2009, also signed R.J. Umberger to a five-year extension. He's scored at least 23 goals in each of the last three seasons, and had a career-high 57 points in 2010-11.
Steve Mason will be in net for Columbus again trying to prove his Calder Trophy-winning season of 2008-09 wasn't a fluke. He had a 2.29 GAA and 10 shutouts as a rookie, but his GAA has topped 3.00 in each of the last two seasons and he's totaled eight shutouts in that span.
"Yes, there is pressure on me to perform moreso now than ever," Mason said. "The fans deserve it and the organization as a whole really took some big steps forward. Now it's just time to do it on the ice."
Wisniewski is suspended for the first eight games for a hit to the head of Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck in a preseason game. He's considered a repeat offender after serving the same suspension for a hit to Brent Seabrook of Chicago last season.
The Predators took four of six from the Blue Jackets last season, but went 1-2-0 at Columbus.