The 2019-20 NHL season is finally upon us. After a longer summer than they would have liked, the Nashville Predators are set to kick off their latest quest to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup with a home date against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night.
The season is long, grueling and full of ups and downs. After an eventful offseason, including the arrival of a All-Star center and departure of a Norris-winning defenceman, there will be a handful of story lines to keep an eye on during the Predators’ 22nd season in the NHL.
Will Matt Duchene Be What the Predators Hoped For?
Where Matt Duchene will slot into the lineup is still being debated, first line center or second line, but what is certain, the former Columbus Blue Jacket will be wearing gold this season. There has been speculation for many years that Duchene would call the Music City his hockey home, but the deal never happened.
Now that the Predators have their man, will he provide that secondary scoring that the team so desperately needs? Duchene is a two-time 30-goal scorer and has eclipsed the 70-point mark twice in his NHL career. Other than top free agent prize, Artemi Panarin, Duchene was one of the safest bet’s general manager David Poile could have made to improve the team’s depth scoring issue that has plagued them for many seasons.
However, the Predators will have to be careful where they play him. If they are tempted to see what fire power they can produce with Duchene centering Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, their second line could see more of the same average play that fans are begrudgingly accustomed to.
Ryan Johansen finished last season with 64 points and the Predators seemed fairly happy with his production. Sixty points may be a good bench mark for assessing whether Duchene’s season is a success or not and surpassing that total would improve the team’s scoring depth. He has recorded 60 or more points three separate times in his career, so asking him to put up similar numbers to Johansen isn’t unrealistic.
Will the Power Play Leave the Basement?
One of the Predators’ lowlights last season was their dead last-ranked power play, at 12.9 percent efficiency. It can’t get any worse, so it’s safe to say, their man advantage will look better. However, along with Duchene, the Predators hired Dan Lambert, who may be the biggest reason for optimism. Lambert, the former head coach of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Spokane Chiefs, has an impressive power play track record. Last season, his Chiefs power play led the WHL, clicking at 29.1 percent; it was also the second-highest among all CHL teams (WHL, OHL and QMJHL).
Being unable to rely on the power play during the regular season hurts; in the playoffs, it kills you. The Predators were unable to muster a single goal with the man advantage in their first-round matchup with the Dallas Stars last April. Having a power play that finished 0-for-15 was one of the major reasons the Predators were eliminated in six games. The Chiefs had no such worries with Lambert at the helm during their postseason run. Spokane led the WHL with the best power play in the postseason, operating at 36.1 percent, converting 13 times on 36 opportunities.
Lambert has NHL experience and his success on the power play has translated to the professional stage. The Saint Boniface native was able to turn the Buffalo Sabres’ power play around a short time after they had two straight seasons of finishing last and second to last in that regard. After one season with Lambert, the Sabres’ power play efficiency jumped to 12th in the league. Although he moved on, Buffalo was set up for success in the following season. In 2016-17, they finished with the NHL’s best man advantage, converting 24.5 percent of the time.
If the Predators want to shake their disappointing playoff reputation, they need to fix their power play and soon.
Replace P.K. Subban?
To sum up the the Predators’ offseason: Duchene is in, P.K. Subban is out. The Predators traded their fan favorite, former Norris-winning defenceman to clear the necessary cap space to sign free agents. Subban registered 40 or more points twice in the three seasons he was in Nashville and finished third in Norris Trophy voting in 2017-18. It always hurts to lose an All-Star player, but Poile expressed confidence in his defence, explaining that the only reason the deal could be done was because of budding star, Dante Fabbro:
“I probably wouldn’t have made this trade if Dante Fabbro hadn’t signed with the Predators and hadn’t played as well as he did,” Poile said to Sportsnet’s David Morassutti. “That gave me good confidence that … we still could have a good defence and trade somebody like P.K.”
Subban’s presence will be missed. As promising as Fabbro looks, he is only 21 years old and has played all of 10 games in the NHL. The future may be bright for the young defenceman from Coquitlam, British Columbia, but, for now, there will be an adjustment period for the Predators who will not have the same powerful one-two punch from their top-two defensive parings.
Can Pekka Rinne Still Play at an Elite Level?
Pekka Rinne is getting old in hockey years. It may not show, but he will turn 37 in November. The four-time All-Star, Vezina-winning goalie has been a huge reason why the Predators have been contenders for the past few seasons. Ask any long-time Predators fan about the team’s identity and they’ll tell you it starts with the goalie and defence. Nashville has been spoiled with the quality between the pipes, and although it seems like the Finnish netminder is defying his age, at a certain point, we will see a decline in play.
During his career in Nashville, Rinne has started in 60 or more games five times, reaching a career high of 72 starts in 2011-12. However, since the 2015-16 season the Predators’ starting goalie has seen his number of starts gradually reduced, especially with the rise of backup Juuse Saros.
Even at 36 years old, last season, Rinne finished 10th in goals-against average and 13th in save percentage among goalies who played 20 or more games. Even as the oldest player listed on the Predators’ opening night roster, Rinne is no liability as the last line of defence.
Pegged to be one of the favorites again this season, the Predators will need Rinne at the top of his game, and if preseason action is anything to go by, that will not be a problem.
Will Turris Succeed on the Wing?
Let’s face it, Kyle Turris has yet to live up to expectations. The former Ottawa Senator who the Predators acquired via a three-team trade involving the Colorado Avalanche, has struggled to develop into the Predators’ clear second-line center.
At one point last season, the Predators made Turris a healthy scratch after a handful of poor performances. However, the Predators have Duchene now, which puts Turris’ chances of playing second-line center in jeopardy. Well, jeopardy may be the wrong word because with Duchene on the scene, it crushes Turris’ chances.
Paul Skrbina of The Tennessean explained that, “the only way for Turris, who carries a $6 million cap hit for the next five seasons, to crack the top two lines will be a position change,” (from ‘Moving past the past could mean Kyle Turris plays on wing for Predators, The Tennessean, 09/17/2019).
The Predators have never had the “too many” centers problem, and although it’s a good problem to have, they have some difficult decisions to make. With Johansen, Duchene and Sissons all playing center, the only option for Turris to stay at his preferred position is to play in the bottom-six and maybe on the fourth line. However, with his scoring ability and when he’s at his best, he would be in the top-six on most teams.
As the saying goes, “you’re only as good as your last game,” and the former third-overall pick was not very good. Turris will have to earn the coaching staff’s trust to move back to his natural position. Without the responsibility of playing center, the three time 50-point scorer could thrive on the wing, which would do wonders for his confidence and the team’s success.
After waiting more than five months for the Predators to return to the ice, fans are ready to kick off the team’s latest effort to be the last team standing come June. As they say, “you have to be good to be lucky, and lucky to good.” If the Predators can end up on the favorable side of these story lines, they stand a good chance of playing in to the warmer months of 2020.