Watching the Nashville Predators this regular season was comparable to walking into a movie theater in 1994 to watch Forrest Gump. There were moments of heartache, but in the end, you walked out with an internal feeling of happiness. There is also the realization that one man can truly make a difference. That man is, of course, Juuse Saros.
The Predators season concluded on Thursday when Sebastian Aho scored the overtime goal in Game 6 at Bridgestone Arena. As we approach what can be an unpredictable offseason, let’s enjoy some of the best on (and off) ice moments from the Predators’ regular season.
10. Roman Josi’s Prodigy Was Born
There weren’t that many bright spots on the ice for the first half of the Predators’ season, so let’s start this list with something exciting that happened off the ice. On February 12, 2021, Josi’s prodigy Luca James Josi was born. He and his wife have been married since July 20, 2019, and Luca is their first child together.
We have seen plenty of father/son duos play in the NHL, including J.P and Zach Parise and Bobby and Brett Hull. Josi is the type of player a general manager builds a team around. Here’s hoping that in 2039, the Predators will be drafting Luca Josi to their team, and he seamlessly can step into this father’s skates.
9. A Resilient Group
Injuries played a huge factor in this shortened season. By the end of the regular season, there was not one player who appeared in all 56 games; Colton Sissons played the most at 54. Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Ellis and Eeli Tolvanen all missed time. Coach John Hynes did a great job navigating his plagued roster and inserting rookies into his lineup.
If there was one word to describe the 2020-21 Nashville Predators, it would be resiliency. They didn’t let the injuries or their less-than-ideal start dictate the fate of the season. The Predators climbed up the standing despite everything they had to overcome as a group.
8. Josi Becomes Highest-Scoring Swiss Player
On April 3rd, Josi added another achievement to his résumé. He passed Mark Streit and became the highest-scoring Swiss player in the NHL. He was drafted by the Predators in 2008 and made his league debut on Nov. 26, 2011. He scored his first career goal a few days later, on Dec. 3, 2011.
Josi’s hockey résumé includes a Norris Trophy, a couple of NHL All-Star Games and a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2017. He notched his 435th career point against the Chicago Blackhawks, which propelled him past Streit and gave him sole possession of the top spot. Josi and Streit met back in 2009 when they were teammates on Switzerland’s World Championship team.
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In early April, Streit had this to say about Josi: “Whenever you hold a record, you’re proud of it. You worked hard for it, so it’s not easy to give it up. But I always admired Roman, because of the skills he has and the way he plays, but also because he’s such a great guy. So far, winning the Norris Trophy, captain of Nashville, he’s reached so many things. He keeps going. He wants to get better and better and pushes himself every time” (from “Mark Streit salutes Roman Josi for breaking his Swiss scoring record: ‘I always admired Roman,’”The Athletic, 4/5/21).
7. The Emergence of Tolvanen
Tolvanen was a welcome addition to not only the Nashville roster but to the power play. He finished the regular season with six power play goals, which led the team. Another element of the 5-foot-10 winger’s game is he plays a physical 60-minutes, as he finished the season with 78 hits in 40 games played. The only two players with more hits were Yakov Trenin and Luke Kunin.
At certain points in the season, he played on the top line with Johansen as his centerman. Johansen spoke about linemate and said, “He’s a phenomenal talent. Biggest thing that impressed me is just his work ethic and his compete on the puck and all the little things that you don’t notice on scoresheets. He’s really committed to doing that as best as he can. It’s been fun to watch him. I’ve really enjoyed seeing him grow.” (from “How the Predators prospect influx is giving a disappointing season new purpose”, The Athletic, March 22, 2021)
6. Have You Heard About the Herd Line?
The Herd line originally consisted of Colton Sissons, Trenin and Mathieu Olivier. This fourth line was a pleasant surprise and showed they had a strong forecheck and could compete against any line they faced. On April 10, Olivier was injured and missed 4 to 6 weeks. Thankfully another player was ready to jump on the opportunity to crack the lineup.
Enter into the conversation Tanner Jeannot. The 6-foot-2 forward proved his skill in the 15 games he played this season. Jeannot added more offensive power to the “Herd Line,” while Olivier brings defense to the line. This fourth line was undoubtedly part of Nashville’s turnaround, and along with Saros, they get credit for their brief playoff appearance.
5. Rocco Grimaldi 4-Goal Game
Grimaldi scored four goals against the Detroit Red Wings back on March 26, 2021, and had a natural hat trick in the first period of play. What’s even more impressive is his hat trick was scored in under three minutes of play. His fourth and final goal of the night came in the third period of action.
This was Grimaldi’s first career hat trick and the fastest hat trick in Nashville’s history. He was a healthy scratch at multiple points in the season, and prior to his memorable night, he went without a goal in 15 games. The Predators went on to beat the Detroit Red Wings by an impressive score of 7-1.
4. Mattias Ekholm Stays in Smashville
Approaching the NHL Trade Deadline, it seemed that Ekholm’s time in Nashville was winding down. Reports listed him as the top available player, and it was rumored that Winnipeg, Boston and Montreal were all interested.
Ekholm is under contract until the end of the 2021-22 season and has a friendly cap hit of $3.75 million. He played in 48 games during the regular season and finished with 6 goals, 17 assists and 23 points. At one point in the season, the Predators were without Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi due to injury, and it was Ekholm that was able to step into the necessary role.
“He’s really stepped up,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “With Roman out for a while and obviously with Ellis gone, (Ekholm) was going to be back there (as) our mainstay D-corps guy, the guy with the most experience. His play on the ice has spoken for itself, but he’s really stepped up. Just his demeanor around the locker room, what he says in between periods, the way that he’s practiced, the things he says on the bench, he’s really taken a step.” (from “Mattias Ekholm or Ryan Ellis: Which Predators defenseman is more valuable?” The Athletic, March 25,2021)
3. Welcoming Fans Back to Bridgestone Arena
Bridgestone Arena is one of the best barns in the NHL. The fans, affectionately known as the “seventh man,” make a huge difference for the home team. I know they say every team has a home-ice advantage, but some are stronger than others. Visiting teams know when they get on the plane to head to Nashville that they will be playing in a tough arena.
For 329 days, there were no fans in Bridgestone Arena, and the “seventh man” was non-existent. My colleague Ashley Grant wrote about the significance of the “Smashville energy,” and a limited number of fans were able to walk through the arena doors for the first time this season on Jan. 26, 2021, to see the Predators’ overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
2. Pekka Rinne’s Season Finale
Pekka Rinne is to the Predators what Martin Brodeur is for the Devils. He is a legend. Rinne has spent his entire career in Smashville, and while his future is currently unknown, it’s almost a certainty that his number will be the first to hang in the rafters at Bridgestone Arena.
He played in 24 games this season with a record of 10-12-1 and finished with a save percentage of .907. The 38-year-old goaltender’s contract expires at the end of the season, and he will be an unrestricted free agent. In what can be a fitting ending to his career, Rinne played in the regular-season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes on May 10, 2021. He stopped all 30 shots and recorded his second shutout of the season, as his team won the game by a final score of 5-0.
“Overwhelming, I guess is the right word,” said Rinne. “Pretty special. I don’t know if I can find the right words for how much I appreciate our fans. My relationship with the fans, this city, it means the world to me. I never want it to be about me. This team is going to the playoffs and we have big things ahead, but I truly, truly, appreciate what happened tonight, and it goes very high on my personal list and my experiences in hockey.”
1. Juuse Saros Stuns
I don’t think I can say anything about Saros that hasn’t been said before. His performance in the second half of the season has put him in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he should be in the Hart Trophy conversation too.
Going back to the beginning of the season, he had a GAA of 3.37. After missing a handful of games due to injury, Saros came back a completely different goaltender. He finished the regular season 10th in the league in GAA with 2.28 and fourth in the league with a .927 save percentage. Saros was the x-factor that led his team to a postseason appearance. He was by far the most valuable player on the roster, and more importantly, over the past few months, he solidified his spot as the number one goaltender in Nashville.
Each season begins with expectations; as fans, we can’t help it. What’s unknown is how realistic those expectations will be. I guess a hockey season really is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get until the team takes the ice for their season opener.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and covers both the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly Youtube show produced by THW. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettosBlog and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.