The National Hockey League’s 2017 Trade Deadline has come and gone; now comes the furious sprint to the finish. For the Nashville Predators, however, it will not so much be a sprint as the calm before the storm.
Let’s be honest: the Preds, who sit third in the Central Division with 18 games to play going into play against the Chicago Blackhawks, are not going to make up 14 and 15-point deficits on the Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, respectively. Likewise, barring some sort of epic collapse – not to mention a simultaneous surge from one or more divisional rivals, they shouldn’t fall out of their divisional playoff spot, either (the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars are six, nine and 13 points behind, respectively. Sorry, Colorado Avalanche.).
Thus, the Predators should use these last 18 games to perfect their game for the seemingly inevitable playoff encounter with a Central Division heavyweight.
For the uninitiated – or for those who simply have trouble keeping up with the NHL’s endless rule changes – the second seed in each division plays the third seed in said division. The winner plays the winner of the first-round series between the division champion and the wild card team they were matched up against. Thus, to get to the Western Conference Finals, the Predators will have to go through at least one of – but probably both – the Wild and the Blackhawks. Yikes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, Minnesota has been atop the Central for what seems forever. One almost forgets the Wild were thoroughly mediocre last year, qualifying for the playoffs as the Western Conference’s lowest seed. The Wild have had high expectations foisted upon them for many years now, but a combination of young talent maturing more slowly than anticipated and running into the Blackhawks in the playoffs every damn year has seen them fall short of reaching their potential.
Now, though, Bruce Boudreau has sprinkled his “magic offensive pixie dust” and boom, the Wild, after years of being defensively sound, now have a potent offense to compliment their stinginess. Combined with Devan Dubnyk and his .933 save percentage, the Wild are going to pose a formidable test for any opponent.
Since divisional realignment in 2013-14, the Predators are 8-10 against the Wild. That said, the Wild have won three of the first four meetings thus far this season, outscoring Nashville 15-8 along the way. Minnesota scores more goals than the Preds – on a lower shooting percentage – and give up far fewer. The Wild have fewer power play opportunities – but score more often, and have a better penalty kill – yet take fewer penalties. The Predators are in tough if they draw the Wild.
Assuming both squads are healthy going into the postseason, Minnesota has the edge when comparing forward corps, mostly due to their impressive cadre of Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Martin Hanzal and Eric Haula locking down the centre position. They’ve got so many good centres that they’re had to relegate point-per-game Mikael Granlund to the wing, for crying out loud. In contrast, the Predators could really use another offensive centre, but did not acquire one at the deadline.
On defense, the Predators boast Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis as their top four. Even though it doesn’t really matter who plays behind them, Matt Irwin has shown the ability to play a bigger role than that of a third-pairing stop-gap. The back end can hang with the best in the league – heck, it might even be the best. Advantage Predators.
In goal? If Dubnyk is still Dubnyk come playoff time, then the Preds are in tough. The dude should win the Vezina Trophy for his utter dominance ever since the puck dropped on this season. However, he has not exactly lit the world on fire in his only two career playoff runs (.896 save percentage in 16 starts). That said, Pekka Rinne is not noted for being a lights-out playoff goaltender, either.
Given the year (or, rather, the three consecutive seasons) Dubnyk has had, I am giving the benefit of the doubt to Minnesota. A dark horse in all this is Nashville’s Juuse Saros, who has been excellent in limited action (13 starts) so far this year. With only 16 career NHL appearances under his belt, scouting reports for Saros will not be as well-padded as those for Rinne, should the former be called to replace his veteran batterymate.
With three Stanley Cups since 2010, you don’t need me to tell you the Blackhawks are good. They have a truly outstanding core – Artemi Panarin, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Patrick Kane. Add in a solid supporting cast and a couple of short-term contractors, and they might well have yourself a recipe for a fourth championship in eight seasons. Of note: the Blackhawks defeated the Predators in a thoroughly entertaining six-game series in 2015.
Since divisional realignment in 2013-14, the Predators’ record against the Blackhawks, like their record against the Wild, is 8-10. Again, as with the Wild, the Blackhawks haven proven problematic for the Preds this season, with Nashville victorious in only one of four games thus far, being outscored 15-10 in the process. That said, despite Chicago’s higher shooting percentage, Nashville has scored about as many goals, though they do give up somewhat more. The Predators definitively have better special teams than the Blackhawks – and draw more penalties, too, but it should be noted that Chicago is shorthanded far less often.
Chicago’s forwards are a nice mix of experience and youth, and of quick-strike offense and responsibility. To be fair, so are Nashville’s. The difference is that the Blackhawks’ forward group is a known, proven commodity. The Predators, outside of their red-hot top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, are a crapshoot offensively. They do score their fair share of goals – ninth in the NHL as a team, but outside of that top line, they do not have anyone you can put out there with confidence should they desperately need a goal.
The Preds’ aforementioned defense corps will be a challenge for the Blackhawks to match up against. Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson are all excellent, to be sure. However, Chicago’s bottom-three defensemen have been a trouble spot for a couple of years now, even during their 2015 Cup run. Oduya and Campbell return to play in a familiar system, but at 35 and 37 years of age, respectively, it remains to be seen how much each has left in the tank. Assuming the top-threes of each team cancel out, I take Nashville’s depth on defense over Chicago’s.
The proven two-headed monster in the Chicago net – Crawford and too-good-to-be-backup Scott Darling – have combined for the league’s second-best five on five save percentage this season. Rinne and Saros are a damn fine tandem, but are a complete mystery in the playoffs; Saros has never played a postseason game and Rinne’s play is a roll of the dice at the best of times. Advantage Blackhawks.
It’s a Long Way to the Top
Look, winning the Stanley Cup is never easy. But the Nashville Predators seem to have in front of them a harder road than most. Whichever Central Division standout they don’t play in the first round, they will more than likely get in the second. However, it should be noted the Predators knocked off a serious Cup contender in the Anaheim Ducks in last year’s playoffs, before taking the eventual Cup finalist San Jose Sharks to seven games.
This team is a good, cohesive bunch. Though somewhat lacking in star talent on offense, the Preds get balanced scoring all around their lineup and bolstered their offense by acquiring P.A. Parenteau at the deadline. They have a top-flight defense corps and an enigmatic goaltending duo with world-beating potential. Nashville is even starting to garner the favour of the hockey punditry, with all three members of the most recent Puck Soup podcast (Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski and Sean Leahy, along with Dave Lozo of VICE Sports, picking the Preds to reach, at very least, the Western Conference Final (1:43:15, for reference).
The Predators’ 2016-17 regular season finishes in 35 days. Come playoff time, it is up to them to truly make it a season to remember.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.