They say you’re only as good as your last game. If that’s true, the Nashville Predators do not look very good. The last time we saw them they were fist-bumping the Arizona Coyotes in the bubble after being eliminated from the best-of-five, Stanley Cup qualifying series.
That’s not how the Predators want to be remembered. Ask any member of the organization and they’ll more than likely tell you that the performance was not indicative of who they are as a team. Nevertheless, the result is the result and since that Game 4 loss, the Predators have set their sights on next season, whenever that is.
The Predators have been trending in the wrong direction ever since their 2017 Stanley Cup Final appearance. They’ll need a much-improved season if they want to be considered as serious contenders again.
To get back on track they may need to hit a few of these bold, but attainable predictions.
Remember these are bold predictions. Some of them may cause raised eyebrows. But it’s kind of like planning what you would do if you won the lottery. Sometimes it’s fun to imagine the Predators having record-breaking years, even if they are only franchise records.
So, let’s get to it.
Matt Duchene Will Be a Point Per Game Player
Arguably the Predators best centerman left a lot to be desired after his debut season in the Music City. Duchene himself would be the first to tell you that last season was a disappointment. His down performance is hard to explain. He wasn’t thrown off rhythm with long or frequent injuries, as he played 66 of the 69 games. Nor can it be chalked up to a new system, after all, he’s no stranger to moving teams.
He hit the ground running when he was traded from the Colorado Avalanche to the Ottawa Senators in 2017, recording 49 points in the 68 games he played for the Canadian squad. Then, including playoffs, Duchene was able to notch 23 points in 33 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets when the Senators shipped the former first-round pick to the Buckeye State in 2018-19.
So, if you can pinpoint what was off with Duchene and why his first season with the Predators was a letdown, you’d probably make a pretty fine coach.
But fear not because this bold prediction not only has Duchene bouncing back to form but also having a career year. If next season were to be a full 82 game schedule, this prediction would read: Duchene cracks the 80-point mark. However, with it looking more like a reduced season, we’ll settle for him being a point per game player instead.
Just before arriving in Nashville, Duchene had 70 points in 73 games. So, he’s not that far removed from hitting the types of numbers general manager David Poile expected him to produce when he handed Duchene a seven-year, $56 million deal.
Through his first 50 games of the 2018-19 season – the year he split time between the Senators and the Blue Jackets – Duchene had 58 points, giving him a point per game average of 1.16. Meaning had he played a full season – let’s say with the same team – he would have recorded 95 points.
It seems that despite the overhaul that Poile has done so far during this offseason, Duchene will be in a gold jersey next year, where he should feel more comfortable and more familiar with the system to which he is playing. Head coach John Hynes will have the luxury of conducting training camp and fully projecting his plan and style on to the team.
Duchene will also have several other factors going his way, which will help his points production. Firstly, he will see a lot of power-play time. Unless he’s injured or the guilty party sitting in the box, Duchene should see action on every man advantage this season. Secondly, he will have the opportunity to play on a line with some extremely talented individuals.
With a spot in the top-six forward group all but guaranteed, Duchene will be playing with some of the best the Predators have to offer. If the projections hold up, it seems that he will be situated on a line with natural goal scorer, Eeli Tolvanen and recently acquired, Luke Kunin, who by all accounts has a lot of potential. Kunin is fresh off a 15 goal, 31-point campaign and is still only 22 years old.
Now is the time for Duchene to assert himself as one of the league’s best. Achieving this bold prediction would go a long way for Poile, so this acquisition isn’t seen as another disastrous, overzealous signing by the Predators’ GM.
Mattias Ekholm Will Finish in Top-15 for Scoring by Defensemen
It’s tough for Ekholm to receive the recognition that he deserves. When discussing the Predators’ blue line, talk is almost solely regarding captain, Roman Josi, which is understandable, he is the current Norris Trophy winner. But Ekholm may be one of the most underrated defensemen in the league.
The 6-foot-4 Swede likes to carry the puck and is not afraid of getting involved in the cycle while in the offensive zone. Last season he finished with 33 points, the 35th-most amongst defensemen. Now, it may seem like he has a lot of climbing to do in order to crack the top-15, but only 13 points separated Ekholm from the 10th spot last season.
Like many other Predators, Ekholm had a slightly down year last season. His points per game dipped to 0.49, after finishing with a 0.55 average in 2018-19. The 30-year-old even experienced a major drop in plus/minus, ending the 2019-20 season as a minus-1, compared to the plus-27 he posted the season before.
Although he often plays on the second defensive pairing, Ekholm’s average time on ice (TOI) is not that far from the top unit’s. Last year, Ekholm logged an average of 23:22 TOI, which was just eight seconds fewer than Ryan Ellis’. The coaches may have the same amount of confidence in Ekholm as they do in Josi and Ellis and his ice time shows it.
The eighth-year defenseman has an offensive style to his game and he’s already knocking on the door of a breakthrough into the top-15. Over the past two seasons, he has the 25th most points, tallying more than top defensemen such as Seth Jones, Jared Spurgeon and Oliver Ekman-Larsson during that span.
You never want to rely on one line, or defensive pairing too much. If the Predators want a resurgence and a better season than last, they’ll need their second pairing to be an effective part of a one-two punch along with Josi and Ellis.
Admittedly, Ekholm’s stats are not quite at that elite level yet, or even to the point where a reasonable observer would conclude that a stellar, top-tier season is inevitable. However, a little of this prediction is based on the eye test. Just watch Ekholm and you’ll see that he has the skillset needed. He is just a few bounces or lucky breaks from being a top-15 defenseman. And hey, if he misses the mark next season these are bold predictions after all.
Tolvanen Will Be a Calder Trophy Finalist
Okay, this one is really bold. But the Predators have been waiting on their highly touted, 2017 first-round pick since they were able to snag him 30th overall. The 21-year-old’s development has seemingly taken longer than expected, but all good things come to those who wait. Playing on the larger European ice surface may have played a role in the delay. However, he’s shown he can play against fully developed pros, illustrated by his 2017-18 KHL record for most points by a player under the age of 20.
Since then there’s been immense pressure for the youngster to be the Predators’ next great scorer. In reality, his offense was never in question. He probably could have registered impressive numbers from the start. However, it was his defensive game that gave the coaching staff pause, leading to the decision to keep Tolvanen in the minors while he figures out the nuances of playing defense on the North American ice.
It looks like next season will be the Finnish forward’s first real shot in NHL. He’s projected to slot in on the second line with Duchene and Kunin. As mentioned with Duchene’s prediction, the projected second line for the Predators has a lot of skill and even more potential, setting Tolvanen up for the best chance of success at the top level.
He’s coming off a season in the AHL where he scored 21 goals – the Admirals’ second-highest total – and tallied 36 points, good for the team’s fifth-most, showing that his offensive game translates in any continent.
Currently, Tolvanen is on loan in the KHL with Jokerit. So, when training camp rolls around he should be game ready and poised to make an impression in his rookie season. Through 19 games, Tolvanen has 10 points (4g-6a), which is good for the eighth-most in team scoring.
Now, this prediction will be difficult to come to fruition as there are several talented rookies to contend with. Igor Shesterkin, Kirill Kaprizov, and of course, Alexis Lafreniere will all be in the mix. But, with the promise Tolvanen has shown in Europe, paired with the opportunities he should receive with the Predators, those being top-six forward minutes as well as power-play time, Tolvanen could shock the league and insert his name into the conversation for rookie of the year.
Undoubtedly, the Predators will want better results than they received last year. Josi had a historic season, but they cannot have their defensemen leading the team in scoring. The offense is going to have to step up and produce. Yes, these are bold predictions, but if some of these don’t land or there isn’t a significant improvement in team play, the Predators being considered as serious contenders could be just as bold.