The Nashville Predators are looking to return to the playoffs this year after a two-year absence from the post-season. Last year, the Preds were dreadful in the middle of the season and the extended drought kept them three points out of a playoff spot when the dust settled. That was enough to cost Barry Trotz, the only coach the team had ever known, his job and Peter Laviolette was brought in to help the team return to form. He promised a more open style than the Trotz-era teams that would allow the Predators’ young talent to showcase its skill set. The organization also brought in James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy to provide offence and experience. The team has responded early in the season and sits atop the Central division through six games with nary a regulation loss to their name.
It’s hard to imagine the Predators will be holding down top spot in the Central come April but any points you can get early in the season help when the games get tougher after the All-Star break. Still, it’s fair to ask the question whether this is a bounce back year or just a team that’s jumped off to a hot start and will slide back into the cellar by the turn of the calendar. It’s a small sample size with only six games played but let’s examine the difference between this year and the previous campaign.
The return of Pekka Rinne
It’s safe to say that Pekka Rinne was not himself last year. After a decent nine game start to the season, Rinne was sidelined with an E. coli infection in his surgically repaired hip and didn’t find his way back into a Preds sweater until March. At that point the Preds were six games out of a playoff spot with 20 games left. It seemed entirely possible that Rinne’s return would be enough of a boost to propel the Predators in the playoffs, if even by the slightest of margins. Instead, Rinne won just two of eight on his return, including being pulled in back-t0-back games. Rinne finished the season with a .902 save percentage (well below his career .919 average) and a 2.77 goals-against average (his highest since he became a starter).
So far this year, Rinne has been Vezina-caliber. His goals-against average is a measly 1.55 with a .940 save percentage, including a 31-save shutout against the Jets in which he made some excellent stops. His confidence is back, he’s no longer fighting the puck, his angles are better and he looks 100 percent recovered from his hip inury. It’s impossible to believe that he can keep up that torrid pace but even if he levels out to his career average it would still be well above the numbers Carter Hutton, Marek Mazanec and Rinne combined for last year. That improvement alone would likely help bump the Predators into a playoff spot.
The biggest change in Nashville has been the presence of Peter Laviolette behind the bench after Barry Trotz was let go in the offseason after 15 seasons with the club. Laviolette promised a more attacking and offensive team than the ones employed by Trotz and management followed suit by adding some weapons for him to work with (but we’ll look at them later). Laviolette’s past history also suggested a more offence-focused style was coming to Nashville; every team he’s coached for a full season has finished the year as one of the top 13 offences in the league. He also brings experience, with a Stanley Cup to his credit from 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s been obvious already that the Predators are more keen to jump into the rush on offence or hold the blue line in the attacking zone to keep the pressure on their opponents but has it really translated to more goals. Obviously the sample size is small, and thus holds less weight, but last season the Predators ranked 19th in the NHL with 2.61 goals per game; this year they moved up a spot to 18th but have actually scored less goals, potting goals at a rate of 2.5 per game. Nashville also seems to be shooting less so far this season with only 27.3 shots per game, down from the 29 they averaged last season. And the power play has been dismal through six games, scoring only twice in 21 opportunities and even surrendering a shorthanded goal.
While Laviolette’s talk was all about offence, the troops have yet to deliver on that promise, though Laviolette is still 4-0-2 as a Predator.
As mentioned, GM David Poile restocked to offensive cupboard in the offseason signing free agent forwards Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy. He also shipped off Patric Hornqvist and Nick Sapling to Pittsburgh for James Neal, a player who has cracked the 20-goal mark every year as a pro and even managed 40 in his only full season as a Penguin. The shot against Neal is that offensive impact has been buoyed by playing with players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the past few seasons.
So far, the Preds new quartet has combined for five goals and six assists, though Jokinen remains pointless thus far. Neal and Ribeiro have shown some chemistry together from their playing days in Dallas many years ago with two and three goals, respectively. Meanwhile, Roy has been the biggest surprise in the first couple weeks, showing deft touch to the tune of four assists playing mostly alongside Craig Smith. Jokinen remains in the mix as Laviolette rolls three lines most nights looking for chemistry. Despite Jokinen’s struggles offensively, the newcomers are doing their job and providing enough offence to win some games.
On the up and up
The last piece of the winning puzzle for Laviolette has been the emergence of Filip Forsberg and the continued development of Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis. It was one of Poile’s heists that brought Forsberg to Nashville at the 2012 trade deadline in exchange for long-time Pred, Martin Erat. Until now, Forsberg had gotten merely a taste of NHL action with only 18 NHL games under his belt. After posting 24 points in 47 games last year in the AHL, a promotion was in order this season and Forsberg certainly hasn’t disappointed. Through six games he’s tied for the team lead in points with five (with Ribeiro) and has the team’s highest plus/minus at +7. His strong play has even garnered him a spot on the top line with Neal and Ribeiro and if he can keep this up he could be a Calder candidate come June.
On the back end, Jones and Ellis have solidified the Predators second and third pairings. After a strong rookie year in which he scored 25 points, Jones has been asked to play a more defensive role this year alongside Anton Volchenkov. He’s still being asked to push the play as Laviolette likes getting the defence involved but it’s his defensive game that’s been better so far; he was a -23 in the plus/minus department last year. Ellis on the other hand has been allowed to take the reigns off a little as was evidence in the Arizona game on Tuesday. In that one, Ellis contributed on all three Nashville goals (a goal and two assists) before capping the night with the winning goal in the shootout. Ellis showed poise with and without the puck and created the turnover with helped the Predators back to a tie just 21 seconds after giving up a go-ahead goal in the third. His skill was on display in fourth round of the shootout as well as he undressed Devan Dubnyk with some nifty stick work
With so much of the Predators roster under the age of 26, last year’s growing pains have quickly become lessons learned for this season and converted into wins. Of course, the steady and reliable Shea Weber remains the backbone of the team and Mike Fisher will be back at some point as well to bring his always-intense style of play. Between the resurgence of Rinne, the offensive help of the new faces, the added experience of the young players and the steadfast play of the teams veterans, the Predators look primed to once again return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Whether they battle to the last day of the regular season to get in and how far they can go if they do is still debatable but let’s not forget that this is a team that missed the post-season by just three points last year, despite playing most of it without their starting netminder. See you in April, Smashville.