Imagine if the Nashville Predators were a Boeing 747. In the middle of January, they took off in hopes of reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While there has been plenty of turbulence, it seems that they have finally found clear skies. The talk that they will be sellers at the April 12 deadline has calmed down in the past few weeks, and it no longer seems to be the case.
If you told me in February that the Predators would be in the fourth spot of the Central Division, I would have laughed. For most of the season, it was almost a certainty that they would be sellers at the trade deadline. Nashville’s biggest trade target ahead of the deadline was Mattias Ekholm. However, my colleague, Alex MacLean, explained why the Predators should hold onto Ekholm, and I agree. If they trade him now, it would be a slap in the face to a team that has climbed up the standings and is now in a position to be buyers.
The Predators have had a pretty impressive run as of late, mostly because a handful of players have stepped up. Calle Jarnkrok has 11 points in his last 12 games. He was also named the NHL’s First Star of the Week a couple of weeks ago after scoring six points in four games. Forward Luke Kunin has six points in six games and Roman Josi has 16 points in 16 games. How else have the Predators switched gears from buyers to sellers? Here are a few reasons.
The Predators’ special teams were an abomination early in the season. In early March, their penalty kill was drowning near the bottom of the league. A month later, in their last 13 games, the penalty kill has improved to 33 for 36. During this condensed season, Nashville is second in the league in time shorthanded at 133 times.
Switching gears, Nashville’s power play has improved as well. In their last 13 games, they are 8 for 28. A big reason for their recent success is the play of Eeli Tolvanen and Josi. Tolvanen leads the team with six power-play goals, while Josi has 13 points. The enhanced power play is even more impressive when you realize it is missing Filip Forsberg.
When the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019, part of their success was that goaltender Jordan Binnington got hot at the right time. Last week, Juuse Saros was named the NHL’s Third Star of The Week, and his play has been phenomenal. During the week of March 28, 2021, he stopped 80 of the 82 shots for a .976 save percentage.
Not long ago, Saros was recovering from an injury. Since his return, he is fourth among goaltenders with a .930 save percentage. Injuries have also hurt the Predators’ defense this season. Fourteen defensemen have been used this season, and 12 were used in the last 21 games. The team would not be in the position they are in without Saros.
The Collapse of Other Central Division Teams
In the past few months, the Central Division race has been wide open. At any given moment, Nashville, the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars all had a chance at that final playoff spot. We are at that point in the season when teams need other teams to help them out. The decline of a couple of teams in the division has helped boost the Predators.
The wheels have come off in Columbus, who are now seventh in the division. Things took a really bad turn when they announced Zach Werenski will be out for the rest of the season with a sports hernia. The Stars began the season with four straight victories, but they have not been able to put a winning streak together since. During the week of April 19, they will face the Red Wings four times in a row, but even if they win all four games to try to catch Nashville, it may be too little too late.
No one expected much from the Blackhawks this season. They have been a pleasant surprise and Patrick Kane should be a Hart Trophy finalist. Nashville has a two-point lead on Chicago, and the two teams will play each other three times next week. With six points up for grabs, this series should be a battle.
Predators Played Themselves Into Buyers Role
The Predators have the skill to remain in a playoff spot. If I was general manager David Poile, I would hold on to Ekholm. It would also not hurt the team if he adds one or two depth players before Monday’s deadline. If we learned anything from the LA Kings in 2012, it is that once you make the playoffs, it’s a different ball game. If Nashville can survive the next month, they have as much of a chance of raising the Cup as any other team.
“I feel like we’re a pretty confident group right now, and we’re on a mission,” forward Erik Haula said during a post-game interview after Nashville’s 7-1 victory over Detroit. “We have a lot guys who have had playoff tastes, and I feel like we know that we have a good group, and now it’s just kind of putting the product on the ice. We can be proud of how we’ve stepped up and played lately. We’ve got 15 games to go, and we’ve got to keep the pedal down. It’s a tight race all the way to the end, but you’ve got to give kudos to the guys stepping in. We have a lot of first this year and a lot of young guys and they’re all stepping in and playing well and contributing, so it’s been awesome to watch.”
At some point in the next 15 games, the Predators may face a bit more turbulence especially against the Blackhawks next week who are also fighting for that final playoff spot. The good news is it appears that they have weathered the major storm. I can hear Josi saying that they are beginning their descent to the their final destination, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.