The 2020-21 National Hockey League season has not been a successful one so far for the Nashville Predators, and the first half of March has been very on-brand for the squad. Injuries are piling up, particularly on the blue line, and the month has seen the Predators swept by the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes so far.
Despite all of the injuries, trade rumours, and talks of a rebuild, there have still been reasons for Predators fans to cheer and even hold onto some optimism moving forward through the rest of the season. Perhaps I am searching blindly for some positivity amidst a mostly disappointing season, and while a lack of success is something the Nashville faithful are not used to, every cloud has a silver lining.
Perhaps that silver lining is that the Predators still have a decent shot at catching up to some of the teams ahead of them in the standings and making a late-season push to the playoffs. Perhaps it is the play in the first 40 minutes, which has been remarkably better of late. In any case, there is optimism aplenty in Nashville which is reason enough to celebrate.
The Blue Line Kids Are Alright
With injuries to the top two defencemen in Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, the blue line was already thin before Dante Fabbro earned himself a two-game suspension for an elbowing penalty against the Hurricanes. Then, in the next game, Mark Borowiecki left with an injury, meaning for the first game of a series against the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning, the Predators had inexperienced rookies Alexandre Carrier, Jeremy Davies, and Frederic Allard in the lineup.
However, the trio of youngsters held their own, despite allowing six goals on 28 shots. Carrier collected his first NHL goal and played almost 22 minutes, while Davies and Allard saw more ice time than most of the Predators’ established stars up front. Both Davies and Carrier have had plenty of opportunity to play top minutes with Mattias Ekholm, the de facto No. 1 blueliner with the injuries to Josi and Ellis. With Ekholm’s trade seemingly imminent, the question could arise as to which of these young guns could replace him as a regular in the lineup.
Davies in particular has looked impressive in his four games, showing confidence beyond his experience. In only his second game, he was manning the point on the team’s first power-play unit, and while the team did not score on the power play, it seemed to draw on Davies’ composure with the puck. Almost a point-per-game player in his NCAA career, Davies is someone who embodies the same type of role as Ellis, a solid, steady, confident two-way defenceman.
This is rarified air for the Predators, who for the last couple of decades have had the good fortune of having defencemen like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, P.K. Subban and Josi, to name a few. All of them are minute-munchers who excel at both ends of the ice, so with the losses of Josi, Ellis and Borowiecki to injury, it has opened the door for Predators fans to perhaps see a glimpse of what the future blue line could look like behind the top pairing.
Tolvanen Continues to Excel
In addition to the surprise steadiness of the young blueliners, Eeli Tolvanen continues to impress. The young forward has now scored six goals on the season, including four on the power play and at least four from almost the exact same spot on the ice. Tolvanen has found a home on the top power-play unit on the left-wing and has displayed evidence of a wicked quick release from there.
After several games on the top line with elite scorer Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund, Tolvanen then settled into a nice second-line combination with Granlund and Calle Jarnkrok. In Monday afternoon’s matinee against Tampa Bay, Tolvanen was once again on the top line with Forsberg, centred by Ryan Johansen. Despite the constant shuffling by coach John Hynes, Tolvanen has not been phased and has managed to play well with whoever his linemates have been.
Not only has Tolvanen been showing off his scoring touch, but he has shown he can make plays in the defensive zone as well. In Monday’s game, he collapsed all the way back into the crease to make an incredible block to prevent what could have been a game-changing goal. This kind of awareness has been rare indeed for most Predators in the defensive zone this season, and coming from someone as young and ready to prove himself as Tolvanen has to be a welcome sight in Nashville.
Rinne Is Rediscovering His Form
This one may sound odd in the midst of a stretch of tough losses and high-scoring opponents, but many of the goals which have been scored have been a result of poor defensive play in front of the goalie, regardless of who has been in net. Recently, however, Pekka Rinne has rediscovered some of his old form, and that was on full display Monday afternoon as he stopped 38 shots en route to a big 4-1 win.
Some of the saves Rinne has made over the six games he played in nine days are highlight-reel material, and vintage Rinne. Has he still let in some softies he would like to have back? Yes, no doubt. But he has been trending towards more consistent play in the crease, and with Juuse Saros nearing a return from an injury suffered early in the month, I will be interested to see how Hynes platoons the goaltenders moving forward.
Rinne’s play even before Saros’s injury would suggest that he’s having the better season and deserves to play more, but if the Predators have any plans of re-signing Saros to another contract once the season ends, they will have to give him some substantial time to see what it is he can give to them. That being said, Hynes and the Predators are in the business of winning games, and right now Rinne is giving the squad the best chance of winning.
With an intriguing combination of veterans and youth spread throughout the lineup, the Predators have struggled to find consistency in many aspects lately. The month of March has been a roller coaster already, with a win trailing a pair of three-game losing streaks. In the middle of all of the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the team, some of the present has been fun to watch and a reason to smile for fans.
Wray has been an NHL fan long enough to remember when Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were linemates, as well as when Colorado and Detroit had a brutal rivalry.
Wray has seven years’ experience serving as the Sports Writer for Mount Allison University’s student newspaper, The Argosy, as well as two years as the Sackville Tribune-Post’s student reporter. After covering football, basketball, and hockey at the university level, Wray worked for four years with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks in a behind-the-scenes capacity, and while currently living in New Brunswick (Canada), is doing lots of writing and podcasting for various topics, including CFL football, movies and television.