Predators’ Slow Season Start Revealing Larger Concerns

They say the NHL season is full of ups and downs. It’s sometimes compared to a rollercoaster. Well, if that’s true, the Nashville Predators’ 2020-21 ride started with an exciting incline, only to experience a harsh and scary drop immediately.

The Predators got off to a hot start of sorts. They were able to rally from behind in both wins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The two victories weren’t overly impressive, meaning, the Predators weren’t a dominant force that ran right over John Tortorella’s squad. But they were able to get the job done despite a bad start. They demonstrated to fans and critics that they could win the close games and that they had the mental toughness to bounce back after finding themselves down on the score board.

The game against the Carolina Hurricanes was a little different. The Predators played extremely well — they again conceded the game’s first goal — but they seemed to click as a team. The puck never went in the net as much as they would have liked, obviously, but they came away from the contest with something to build on.

There aren’t any moral victories in professional sports, so there was a level of disappointment. However, the game just felt like the Predators were on the wrong end of some puck luck and if they put forth a similar effort in future games, the bounces would eventually start going their way and the wins would begin to pile up.

Then came their series against the Dallas Stars, which was… interesting. If you’re a Predators fan, you may feel words such as infuriating and embarrassing are more accurate. They first lost 7-0, after completely collapsing in the second period, allowing five goals in the frame. The Predators then came with a better performance in the second game, but they still couldn’t overcome their divisional foe, losing 3-2. Whatever the word you use to describe the two-game set, it was a reality check. But what did we expect?

After seeing the Predators meander through the past several seasons, showing they are nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack team, capping off 2019-20 with a 3-1 series loss to an Arizona Coyotes team, who arguably didn’t belong in the playoffs, did we really think that the Predators were a changed team? Scratch that, did we think they could be a changed team overnight? We wanted to believe that they were dramatically improved because it would finally justify many of the individual salaries.

Ryan Johansen Nashville Predators
Ryan Johansen, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Alas, it’s much of the same that we’ve grown accustom to with the Predators. There was a coaching change midseason last year and a significant roster shakeup before this shorten campaign got underway. But, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, “the more things change the more they stay the same” as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said.

Now, the Predators were able to rebound a little, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks twice, both wins coming in overtime/shootout. Yes, there are no easy wins in the NHL. And yes, the Blackhawks always give the Predators trouble, despite how bad Chicago’s season is going or how well Nashville’s is. But, those two wins against a team you that must capitalize against — especially in a shortened season — does not erase what we just saw against the Stars.

Related: Predators’ Duchene Reaches 800 Games in Rollercoaster Career

Admittedly, it was just one game where the Predators were run out of the building. But it was a wakeup call if you thought this season, they were drastically improved, or the Predators were going to be catapulted into contender status. They should have been extra motivated going in to the second game against Dallas, and they probably were, but no matter how bad they wanted to avenge the previous loss, they couldn’t find away. So, how do you think a seven-game, postseason series would go against the Stars or a team of equal/superior quality?

Well, the Predators are fresh off a game against another contender, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They ultimately lost 4-3 on Jan. 30 and there were some positives to be taken from the game, mainly how strong they finished. However, what cannot be ignored is their complete failure in the second period. The Predators were up 1-0 going into the second frame, only to surrender four unanswered goals, three of which came in the first eight minutes of the period. This was the second time the Predators have allowed an onslaught of goals in one period, so it’s a concern to see how fast they can unravel.

Not So Special Teams  

Bringing up the Predators’ special teams seems like beating a dead horse at this point. Unfortunately, it must be addressed. The penalty kill is not just bad, it’s frightening how ineffective it has become. The team allowed five power-play goals in that 7-0 drubbing mentioned earlier. They’re dead last in the league, killing off just 63.6% of the penalties they take. There’s supposed to be parity in the NHL — it’s what makes the league exciting — but there’s nothing exciting about the Predators’ penalty kill, mainly because it’s just so predictable.

Before the season started, if you said that the Predators penalty kill would be one of the worst in the league, it wouldn’t be that shocking. After all, they finished 29th last year, it was a real sore spot for Nashville. However, this season, the team may want to lobby the league to try and implement an intentional walk type rule. At this point the penalty kill is so unreliable, it seems conceding a goal is inevitable, so saving the time may be more valuable. Obviously, this is said in jest, but that’s how awful the penalty kill has been.  

At least they have their power play, right? Well, about that. The Predators finished 25th league wide in 2019-20, so again it’s no surprise that their man-advantage is off to crawling start. They have converted 12.1% of their opportunities, which is the sixth worst, league wide.

Juuse Saros Mark Borowiecki Nick Foligno
Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mark Borowiecki and Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

There may be a positive with this one though. The Predators’ percentage may be sitting in the basement, but their chances for while on the power play is in the top-10. They’re getting the looks; the puck just isn’t going in the net. With the talent the team has, the tide has to turn. Last season when they finished 25th on the man-advantage, the Predators also ended the year 28th in chances, so there is some correlation.

Related: Predators Need to Fix the Penalty Kill

There are discussions that the Predators’ competitive window opened and closed without a Cup. The Athletic’s Adam Vingan wrote a piece that attempted to make sense of this season. But he mentioned, “the Predators’ supposed glory days came and went.” Although fans would love to disagree, currently there isn’t much evidence to suggest he’s wrong. (from ‘Nashville Predators fans are mad, but there’s a ‘different vibe’ this season,’ The Athletic, 01/28/2021)

So, What Can Be Made of This Start?

The Predators own a 4-4 record and if you’re disappointed, you may need to change your perspective, or at least manage your expectations. It’s early in the season, but the club is performing the way they have for the past two years. Their goals for per game is average, their special teams are sub par and their goals against per game is their only real bright spot, but still isn’t boast worthy.

If you’ve read other pieces here about the Predators and their start to the season, you would have seen articles with an underscoring tone of excitement due to the potential. But that may have been a little overzealous now knowing what we know.

This isn’t an argument to say that the season is a total loss because the truth is, it isn’t. However, you do need to see the Predators for who they are. They’re a team who will have high peaks, but very low valleys. They’re a team with several individuals whose names carry more weight than they probably should. They’re a team that isn’t structured to be the gold standard in the league. But most importantly, they’re a team with a 4-4 record because they’re just slightly better than an average team. Once we’re at peace with this, it might make this season a little more bearable.