According to TSN, the regular season remains the NHL’s top priority. Sources report that Gary Bettman spoke with the board of governors and “reiterated the league’s preference and its priority to try and have some regular season games before a playoff.”
There have been many scenarios batted around in an attempt to find a solution to conclude the regular season in the fairest and most effective way possible, from setting the playoff field based on points percentage to rolling every team back to 68 games.
Recently it was proposed that the NHL could hold games in North Dakota. A similar idea has been explored by other major leagues, such as the NBA who’ve suggested isolating and playing all games in Las Vegas and the MLB possibly playing solely out of Arizona and Florida.
This is very optimistic, but in these times, we need that hope. We’re starved of sports, and there is a desperation to see competition return. So much so that we might be blind to the logistical problems here. Sports Illustrated has been the bearer of bad news, explaining that “isolation leagues” are not scientifically ideal. Although no one wants to hear this, some experts believe the season may need to be abandoned.
If all our optimistic ideas fall through as we wait out this pandemic, will we ever know who the 2019-20 Nashville Predators are?
The Predators’ high expectations entering this season and the team they became as it progressed were completely different. Originally led by Peter Laviolette, they were considered Stanley Cup contenders. However, after October, they looked far from it. They didn’t look like a playoff team, sitting outside of a wild-card spot for more than two months. Of course, Laviolette was relieved of his duties and John Hynes was tasked with resurrecting the season.
With the coaching transition came a change in style. The Predators were playing better and moved into a wild-card spot. However, like in previous seasons, there’s parity in the Western Conference. As it stands, the Predators hold the second wild-card spot and regulation wins tiebreaker over the Vancouver Canucks.
Just four points separate the Predators from the Arizona Coyotes, who sit behind the Minnesota Wild and the Canucks. You can see how easily and quickly they could fall back.
Would the Predators Have Made the Playoffs?
Under the pressure of pursuing a sixth-straight playoff berth, the Predators were collecting wins and playing fairly consistent despite the tight race. Through their last 10 games, they had a 6-3-1 record. Of the teams competing for the wild-card spots in the West, only the Wild had performed better over the same 10-game stretch.
Not only were the Predators performing better than a .500 team, but they were also improving. They entered the unscheduled break on a three-game winning streak, the third-longest active streak in the Western Conference.
Unlike most of the season, the Predators no longer have games in hand. They’ve played 69 games, the same amount as both the Canucks and Wild. However, they have two games in hand on the Winnipeg Jets and trail them by just two points. Had the season continued, the door would have been open for the Predators to move into the first wild-card spot.
According to MoneyPuck, Nashville entered the break with a 53.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, their odds would shoot up to 63.7 percent with a win in their next game, originally scheduled to be against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Mar. 12. As for the Jets, their odds were at a 43.6 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.
The Predators’ (potentially) remaining opponents have a combined record of 467-336-105, and seven of their remaining 13 games are against a playoff team. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that they would skate into a playoff berth, but with the way they were playing before the pause and with the ability to control their own destiny, it is all the Predators could hope for at this point, especially considering where they were just a few months ago.
Would the Predators Have Secured a Divisional Playoff Spot?
Let’s be honest, a few weeks before the stoppage, no one thought the Predators could move into the Central Division’s top three. Securing a wild-card spot was their best-case scenario and that may still be the case.
But what if? They are four points behind the Dallas Stars with more than a dozen games remaining. The closer you get to the 82-game mark, the bigger a two-point gap looks, so a four-point lead – with all things being fairly equal in terms of games played – is a pretty good position to be in.
However, the Predators were fresh off a home-and-home sweep of the Stars, shutting them out in both games. They earned those wins, goaltender Juuse Saros played outstanding, and the Stars have been struggling to find offence for awhile. Dallas’ lack of firepower has resulted in a three-game losing streak and a 3-5-2 record in their last 10 games. Yes, a four-point lead in the standings is usually comfortable in mid-March, but the door may have been left open for third place, and the Predators could have shot for it.
How Would the Predators’ Special Teams Have Performed?
Inefficient is synonymous with the Predators’ power play over the past few seasons. It was a letdown in the 2019 Playoffs, to put it nicely. With the offensive talent and the addition of Dan Lambert – famous for turning power plays around – this season was supposed to be different for the man advantage. It didn’t go as planned. Their power play sat on the brink of last in the league for most of the season.
Unlike previous seasons, the struggle wasn’t contained to half of their special teams. This season, the power play couldn’t put the puck in the net, and the penalty kill couldn’t keep it out. Under Laviolette, the power play ranked 23rd, converting 16.8 percent of the time and the penalty kill was 29th, with a 74 percent efficiency.
Their special teams’ fortunes seemed to change when Hynes stepped in. Through the 28 games under Hynes, Nashville’s power play has operated at 18.1 percent and their penalty kill has been successful 79.3 percent of the time.
Sometimes the most successful teams are the ones that get hot late in the season and carry that momentum into the playoffs. Case and point are the 2017 Predators. Well, the same can be said for special teams. This season’s poor play would be forgotten if the power play and penalty kill clicked in the playoffs. It may seem like wishful thinking, but they were trending in a positive direction.
During the Predators’ last 10 games their power play was succeeding 22.6 percent of the time. As impressive as that is, the penalty kill was even better. Over the same 10 games, they killed off 25 of 28 penalties, or 89.3 percent, ranked sixth in the league during that span. If that positive trend continued, their special teams may have surprised in a good way.
Who Would Be the Predators’ Starting Goaltender in the Playoffs?
Pekka Rinne has one more season left on his deal, and it seems increasingly likely that next season he could be the official backup. Saros has played phenomenal of late, and Hynes seems to have rewarded him for his performance. For the first time in more than a decade, a healthy Rinne is not being utilized as much as the backup.
Hynes has led the Predators for 28 games, in 17 of those he has elected to start Saros. Hynes may have his guy, but experience is invaluable in the playoffs. There is no question that Rinne is battle-tested when it comes to the postseason, but in his last 11 games, he has posted a .895 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.59 goals-against average (GAA).
If Saros becomes the starter next season, hasn’t Rinne earned one last playoff run? In an early-March interview on Nashville radio, 102.5 The Game, general manager David Poile expressed confidence in Rinne. The team’s only GM said he felt the 37-year-old goalie would still be a big part of the team moving forward this season, helping the Predators win meaningful games.
Monitoring Rinne’s starts to keep him fresh for late regular-season games and the playoffs have been a priority for several seasons now. Maybe Hynes also sees the Vezina-winning goalie as the Predators’ starter for a playoff run, keeping his workload to a minimum. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Rinne lead the team out of the tunnel for Game 1 when or if the playoffs take place.
No one knows the time frame we’re dealing with. It may be as unclear now as it was in mid-March if and when sports will return. We all want to see seasons resume and conclude. If the NHL season is canceled, there will be many unanswered questions about the 2019-20 Predators. The magic of the 2017 team had was special and rare, but this 2020 team had an advantage – with their experience and improvements.