The NHL’s realignment for this season has brought some interesting teams together to compete for a playoff spot. For some organizations, it has really worked in their favor, and yes, I am talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Adversely, this does not hold true for the Nashville Predators. They find themselves in a challenging and unpredictable Central Division.
As I write this, the Predators have played 24 games and have a record of 10-14-0. As we quickly approach the halfway mark of the season the Predators are sixth in their division, as well as 11 points out of a playoff spot. While it is pretty obvious in the other three divisions as to which teams are playoff-bound, the Discover Central can be considered wide open.
For the past few weeks, the Predators have been on the outside looking in at a playoff spot. While it is safe to say that the Tampa Bay Lightning are making the playoffs, it is just a matter of where in the top four they finish. Looking at the standings, we have the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators all vying for the remaining three spots. This means the Predators need to shake things up, and rather swiftly, if they plan on making the playoffs. After careful examination of Nashville’s current situation, I believe the following needs to happen in order to make a playoff appearance.
When the shortened 2020-21 season was announced and it was confirmed there would only be 56 games, fans instantly knew injuries could be the X-factor of the season. In a typical season, injuries can hurt a team’s chance of making the playoffs. When you look at a shortened season, and a player needs three months to recover, it can be damaging, to say the least.
Since the middle of January, the Predators have had Mikael Granlund, Calle Jarnkrok, Brad Richardson, Ryan Johansen, Mattias Ekholm and Juuse Saros all out at certain points dealing with either injury or COVID-19 protocol. Currently, one of the biggest blows to their roster is having Ryan Ellis off of the ice for the next four to six weeks. Hopefully, the Predators can put their injuries behind them and look ahead to a healthier second half of the season.
Play Better Against the Dallas Stars
The Predators will face the Dallas Stars five more times before the season ends in April. In their first two battles against the Stars, Dallas walked away with the win. In their last six games against their division rival, the Predators only won twice.
On Jan. 22, the Stars handed the Preds their worst loss of the season by a score of 7-0. Although they did not play Dallas in February, they are facing off three times in March. John Hynes’ team must be prepared to grab some regulation wins over their southern rival if they will have any chance at success in a division that is so tight.
Defense Needs to Step Up in Ellis’ Absence
Losing Ryan Ellis for any amount of time is a blow to the team. Losing him for four to six weeks when there are only eight weeks left could be devastating. Night after night, Ellis along with his partner, Roman Josi, see about 25 to 30 minutes of ice time per game.
The question now is, who is going to step up? Will it be 22-year-old Dante Fabbro? My guess is we will see veteran Mattias Ekholm logging a lot of time. In the Predators’ last game against the Florida Panthers, he was on the ice for 20:56 and the game before that he clocked 27:14 of time on ice. What I do know is Josi can’t carry the defense the rest of the way while Ellis recovers. Nashville has an impressive defensive core and now there is an opening for someone new to make an impact.
Find a Solution to Special Teams
How many times do fans see a game decided by special teams? The correct answer is too many to count. The Predators’ penalty kill is near the bottom of league and the kinks need to be worked out if they want to end the season in the top four of the Central Division. Their penalty kill net percentage is in the bottom three of the NHL at 71.6 percent, with only the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings below them.
The first power-play unit currently consists of Johansen, Granlund, Forsberg, Tolvanen and Josi. On paper, that’s a respectable power-play unit. However, since the beginning of the season it has been mediocre at best. The good news for Nashville is Tolavenen has brought life to an otherwise dying power play. Tolvanen has four goals in 15 games and three of those goals came on the power play. I know John Hynes likes to juggle his lines and players but I am begging him to keep Tolvanen on the first power-play unit.
Need More Production From Johansen & Arvidsson
Ryan Johansen is currently in the middle of an eight-year contract worth $64 million. In 15 games this season he has one goal and five assists. Simply put his production needs to be better, especially when he is earning $8 million a season.
Head coach John Hynes has defended Johansen stating, “When you look at Ryan’s overall game, he’s playing well. I don’t think anyone’s complaining about work ethic or (that) he’s cheating the game. He’s playing some good hockey. He’s working. He’s skating. He’s detailed when he doesn’t have the puck. He’s had some scoring chances that haven’t gone in.” (from ‘Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene are overpaid and unproductive. What’s the fix?,’ The Athletic, 02/04/2021)
The bright side of Johansen’s game is his faceoff percentage at 53.85 percent. With Matt Duchene on injured reserve, there is more pressure on Johansen while he plays on the top line against the league’s best. It is hard to win the game when your team does not have possession of the puck and it all begins at the face-off circle.
On March 7, Viktor Arvidsson scored his first goal since Jan. 30. He now has three goals and nine assists in 24 games. He has shot the puck 82 times this season, and is second on the team behind goal-scoring leader Filip Forsberg. Like most Predators’ players, the puck is simply not going into the net. When Arvidsson gets going he is one of the most underrated players in the league. Hopefully, he will remain on a line with Forsberg and the points will start coming for the winger.
Can the Season Be Saved?
Sean Henry is the Nashville Predator’s CEO and during an interview with Adam Vingan of The Athletic, he said, “Everyone’s angry and confused. We all believed that this roster would produce more. We all want more, and it doesn’t matter who you talk to.” (from Q&A with Predators CEO Sean Henry, The AthleticNHL – 02/18/21)
The Nashville Predators have enough talent to at least be competitive for the rest of the season. If they can remain healthy and John Hynes can find consistency in his lines, they could potentially sneak into the fourth spot of the division. If the hockey world learned one thing watching the St. Louis Blues in 2019 it is that anything can happen. Do not count a team out just because they are near the bottom of the standings at the halfway mark of the season.
Hey fellow hockey fans! I am a freelance writer elated to be covering the Nashville Predators. I have been a hockey fan since Steven Stamkos was selected first overall. It was a beautiful time when Scott Niedermayer was still on the ice and Zach Parise was reaching his prime as a New Jersey Devil. During the NHL season you can find me at a hockey arena near you with nachos in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.