Well, hockey fans, we made it! After a bubble, a condensed season, and weird, temporarily aligned divisions, we are knocking on the door of returning to “normal.” A full, 82-game season, with more familiar divisional rivals, is about to get underway for the Nashville Predators. Of course, the Central Division doesn’t look the same as it once did. The Seattle Kraken will debut this season, meaning the Arizona Coyotes have been bumped into the Central, so the Predators will be seeing a lot more of them than usual.
Speaking of the Kraken, the Predators will kick start the 2021-22 season with a matchup against them on Oct. 14. That means we will soon be back to watching, analyzing, and debating NHL hockey once more. For the Predators, there will be many storylines to pick from when discussing the team from the Music City, but these may be the most intriguing.
Is Juuse Saros Who We Think He Is?
The Predators’ faithful have long been appreciated for their embracing nature. Meaning, unlike some other fan bases, they rarely boo the hometown team. They’re often patient and understanding, all while having a passion for winning on the grandest of stages. So, the love shown to Juuse Saros last season was, in a way, expected. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he had an absolutely stellar season. Some may go as far as saying Vezina finalist-worthy. But hey, let’s not get into whether the nomination snub for the top goalie award was right or wrong. For the record, it was wrong. Dramatically wrong!
The 26-year-old stepped into a role that was arguably impossible to fill. He was following the Pekka Rinne Show, which is one tough act to follow. But he handled his first year as a starter brilliantly. His numbers were off the charts, and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to claim that he was the reason the Predators were able to turn last season around, a campaign that was historically bad at the midway point of the year. The Predators were dead in the water, the fire sale seemed inevitable, but they managed to qualify for the playoffs and it would’ve never been remotely possible if it wasn’t for the man they call “Juice.”
However, right or wrong, in sports, there tends to be the attitude of, what have you done for me lately? Saros will always have the accomplishments of last season tied to his name, but it’s in the past now. He was also handsomely rewarded in the form of a new contract. The Finnish goalie signed a four-year, $20 million deal this offseason. The deal gives him an average annual value (AAV) of $5 million, a significant bump from his $1.5 million AAV under his previous contract.
Saros must build on that breakout season with another strong performance. The Predators will once again certainly need some top-notch play from their goalie to stand a chance in the fierce gauntlet that is the Central Division.
In the locker room, there was almost certainly a vote of confidence for Saros last season. The coaching staff must have assured the young goalie that he was the starter, despite having Rinne still on the depth chart. But, there must have been some pressure knowing that the future Hall-of-Famer and beloved goalie was capable and ready to step back in if Saros couldn’t handle the number one role. At the same time, maybe it also fueled him. Maybe there was a drive to show his idol and mentor what he learned and could do.
Whatever the case was, Rinne is no longer on the roster. Saros must show the world that this is his team, especially now there’s no all-time great waiting in the shadows as a safety blanket. With all due respect to backup, David Rittich, the Finnish goalie, is the best the Predators have.
Saros isn’t paid like one of the league’s top goalies, but he isn’t being paid like a backup anymore either. This is the Saros era in Nashville. It’s off to a promising start, but he will need to prove that he can perform well consistently. Predators fans aren’t exactly accustomed to poor netminder play.
How Will The Defense Handle Losing An All-Star-Caliber Defenseman?
On July 17, general manager David Poile made a dramatic change to the backend of the team. He sent one of the Predators’ best defensemen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Philippe Myers and Nolan Patrick. Of course, Patrick wasn’t around for very long, as he was quickly flipped to the Vegas Golden Knights for Cody Glass, who was perhaps the real player Poile had his eye on.
The Predators have long been lauded for their ability to scout, draft and develop quality defensemen. Not that long ago, they had an absolute embarrassment of riches when it came to blueliners. So much so they were able to use them as trade bait to land other quality players, such as swapping Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K Subban.
But as the years went by, that deep pool of talent that once arguably put the Predators clearly atop of the “NHL’s best defensive corps” dwindled. For the record, the Predators still had strong defensive players and did last season, too. However, they have removed another key component and replaced him with a forward. This is not an argument to say that they were wrong for making the trade. The team has been historically weak when it comes to offense and their depth may be among the worst in the league. It’s an area they must improve if they stand a chance at any meaningful success.
Nevertheless, Ellis was the second-best d-man on the roster and was a longtime partner of Roman Josi. The two worked well together, mainly because they’re both All-Star caliber players but also due to the chemistry they’ve built over years of playing together.
The Predators have experimented with different partners for Josi over the past season or two, so the transition may not be as harsh. But no longer having the “Josi-Ellis” option to call upon may be extremely noticeable, especially when playing the league’s elite teams.
Since 2018-19, Ellis has the 14th most points by a defenseman during 5v5 play. That production from the backend will surely be missed in the seasons ahead. But it may be his leadership in the locker room and on the ice that will be harder to replace. The veteran defenseman was a member of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final team and has pretty much seen it all. He was an alternate captain for the past four seasons and a valued member of the leadership group.
With the plethora of young talent entering the Predators lineup, the guidance that Ellis provides could have been invaluable. Sure, there are other voices in the locker room, those who have just as much experience as him. But when it comes to a skilled, knowledgeable, and well-rounded player, as Ellis is, can you really have too many?
The impact that Myers will have on the Predators is yet to be seen. He was no slouch while playing for the Flyers, so rest easy knowing that another quality defenseman is arriving. But let’s get one thing clear, he’s not as elite as Ellis yet. Again, this is meant with no disrespect to the members on the Predators roster, but the talent of their defensive corps has declined with the subtraction of the bearded wonder.
Arguably, their forwards got better, as Glass is a promising young forward. But this season could see some growing pains on the blueline as we wait to see whether the tradeoff was worth it.
How Will The Youth Movement Cope In An Extremely Competitive Central Division?
Speaking of the youth that would have benefitted from Ellis’ mentorship. Fans and critics must be wondering how they will stack up against the competition in one of the league’s best divisions?
The Central Division is loaded with talent. The Colorado Avalanche have been considered contenders for the past handful of seasons and this year is no different. They’re arguably the division’s top-dog and will be a difficult matchup for the Predators all season long.
NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk has the Predators finishing second from dead last in the division, with only the Coyotes compiling a worse record. Why do the writers at the publication have such little faith in the Predators? Well, they actually don’t say, but the low ranking sure seems to have a lot to do with the teams battling around them. No surprises, the panel had the Avalanche finishing at the top of the pile. But with the upgrades that the Winnipeg Jets made to their blueline, in the form of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillion, they foresee the Jets taking a big step forward. They believe the Dallas Stars will make noise with a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, as well as the Minnesota Wild being a difficult opponent.
Honestly, it’s tough to argue against those points. The predicted top teams all have game-changing talent. Although a lot of stock may have been bought in Kirill Kaprizov early, but that’s beside the point. The Predators arguably have elite talent too, but the problem is they haven’t exactly shown it as of late. How much faith do you really have in the Predators’ forwards? Until they show that they’re reliable, the bottom half of the standings may be a fair assessment.
The average age of the Predators roster is 26.4, which is below the league’s average of 27.4, according to CapFriendly.
Entering the 2021-22 season, the Predators are tied with the Avalanche as the youngest team in the Central Division. Their age may be why the Predators are being overlooked this season. After being bounced from the bubble in 2020, Poile vowed to turn the team into one that was younger. Well, last season, we never really saw that plan come to fruition, but we may be finally seeing it unfold this year.
The Predators have the youngest forward group in the Central Division, with an average age of 25.6. They are younger than the Avalanche, the only other divisional team whose forwards are younger than 26 years old on average.
With Eeli Tolvanen, Glass, Philip Tomasino, and Tanner Jeannot all making the opening night roster, there aren’t many “old heads” on the team.
Unless the youth is a generational type of talent, then instant success can be difficult and rare. Unfortunately for the Predators, that elite talent among the youth isn’t overwhelming. This isn’t saying that the young guns are bad or there isn’t high potential because that couldn’t be further from the truth. But rather, it’s to say that the Predators don’t exactly possess a rookie Conner McDavid or a rookie Auston Matthews on their team.
This season, making the playoffs and keeping the streak of consecutive postseason appearances alive will be difficult, especially in this division. It’s an extremely tall task with a roster this young. There could be a lot of “Welcome to the NHL” moments this season, and for the sake of Predators’ fans, let’s hope there are more positives than negatives but brace yourselves.
This is the cool thing about sports – the mini-stories within the season. But the main headline here is hockey is back. Although the pandemic isn’t quite over, this is the closest we’ve been to “normal” in a long time. So, Predators fans, the wait is over, it’s time to drop the puck!
I graduated from Mount Royal University with a degree in Journalism with the hopes to pursue a career in sports media. I have been following hockey for many years at various different levels. Whether playing, watching or writing about it, hockey has played a massive role in my life. I was the sports editor at The Calgary Journal as well as a sports columnist for The Calgary Reflector. Follow on Twitter: @A_Grant27