Imagine the Discover Central Division sitting around a poker table. All eight players know that the Tampa Bay Lightning have the best hand, perhaps a straight or royal flush. The Florida Panthers are sitting with three of a kind and the players cannot underestimate the Carolina Hurricanes as they have had consistently good hands. While it is only a matter of time before Detroit folds, the other four players all find themselves in the same precarious position trying to make the cards work in their favor.
The Nashville Predators are in an intriguing position as we reach the halfway point of the season. Out of all the above teams, it is the Predators that have the ability to change the game altogether. They possess the hand that can alter how the game ends.
It is safe to say the Lightning and Panthers are a lock for the playoffs. From the way things are trending, it appears Carolina will secure a top-four spot as well. The final spot, however, is completely up for grabs. The Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, and even Nashville all have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs even though it looks like it will come down to Chicago or Columbus. Teams like to be in control of how their season ends. An unfortunate few put themselves in a situation where they relinquish control of their season and need other teams to assist them. Nashville has the capability to help a team like Columbus, and at the same time, ruin Dallas’s chance of a postseason appearance.
Trade Deadline Moves
The trade deadline is on April 12. In an article published on The Athletic, (‘NHL trade deadline: What to expect for all 31 teams,’ The Athletic, 03/10/2021) both Ian Mendes and Sean Gentille go into detail explaining what to expect from all 31 teams during the deadline. To no one’s surprise, they listed Nashville as sellers, but interestingly enough they also list Chicago, Columbus, and Dallas as sellers. One of these teams will make the playoffs and it will be interesting to see what their roster will look like when that happens.
Nashville has an extremely desired player on their roster, and that is Mattias Ekholm. I can’t think of a team that would not want him for a playoff push or the postseason. Ekholm has played 22 games this season and has 12 points, including one game-winning goal. Defense wins championships and any roster will be better with the addition of the 6-foot-4 defenseman.
Ekholm understands the situation his team is in and admits being traded and moving his young family during a pandemic is less than ideal. During an interview with The Athletic, he said, “We’re very aware that things can happen when our team is not doing great, so it’s not that we are going tore totally blindsided if it were to happen.” (‘from Mattias Ekholm 1-on-1: Potential trade from Predators ‘not the ideal situation’, The Athletic, 03/09/2021)
While it is a long shot of Nashville trading with a normal Central Division rival like Dallas or Chicago, how about a team like Columbus or Florida? Looking ahead to next season, if the world resembles any kind of normalcy, Nashville will no longer be in a division with the latter two. Right now, there are reports swirling that the Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens want Ekholm, but wouldn’t it be something if he lands in Columbus.
The Remaining Schedule
Nashville has 26 games left this season. The Predators will face the top three teams of the division a total of seven times before the season concludes. Currently, Nashville is in seventh place, and as they slip down the standings, it appears a playoff appearance is less and less likely. When you glance at the Predators’ remaining schedule, it appears that they are in a position to play an active role in which team makes the playoffs.
The Predators will see the Blackhawks and Stars quite a few times in the next several weeks. Wins against Nashville will be imperative if either team wants to secure the fourth spot in the Central Division. Dallas will need to win all five matchups against their division rival if they intend on making another postseason appearance.
Chicago has been holding onto that last playoff spot and currently has a four-point lead on Columbus. While no one expected Chicago to perform as well as they have, they find themselves in an interesting spot. The Blackhawks will see the Predators six more times before the playoffs begin. For those six games, it is safe to say every Blue Jackets fan will be rooting for the Predators to steal two points.
Nashville’s Special Teams
The Predators’ penalty kill has been abysmal this season. They find themselves at the bottom of the league standings. A bad penalty kill usually means bad defense, which is intriguing when you consider Nashville is known for their defensive core. Back on Jan. 27, my colleague Dwayne Dunham wrote about Nashville’s need for better special teams. It has been an issue all season and the absence of Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi is not helping the situation.
The Predators will face Chicago three times in a row towards the end of April. Within those games, one of the best power plays will be up against the worst penalty kill. Chicago’s power-play success is one of the reasons they are currently in a playoff spot and it can be argued that the Predators are where they are in the standings because of their penalty kill. We have all seen a hockey game where special teams dictate the outcome, and the Blackhawks’ special team success against the Predators may propel them into the postseason.
The next couple of weeks will be very telling for the Nashville Predators. Are they going to pull the trigger and be sellers at the deadline? Will they move players within their new Central Division? The Predators hold a ton of cards, and while they do not have a royal flush, they may have a few surprises up their sleeves. What we can agree on is all eyes will be on Nashville as time runs out on the season.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.