Predators’ Reasons for Optimism

It’s been tough for Nashville Predators fans to read team news this season. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if many fans have just resorted to switching off their team notifications from any sports apps they have. After all, positive outlooks for the team are extremely scarce and for good reason. There is no shortage of content reporting negative projections and trends that the Predators are ultimately facing, and again if the shoe fits…

For a team that was thought to be a cup contender this season, it was a no-brainer that they were a lock to make the playoffs. Now, the postseason is looking in doubt. Possibly inspired by the shock factor of the Predators’ season ending after 82 games, there has been much content analyzing, criticizing and decoding what has happened to this awfully talented, but drastically underperforming team.

Related: Predators’ All-Star Break Comes at Perfect Time

However, for a change of pace, could there be an article that tries to find a reason for optimism? You know, optimism of making the playoffs this year rather than the optimism of favorable odds in the draft lottery. 

Austin Watson, Pekka Rinne
Nashville Predators’ Austin Watson taps goaltender Pekka Rinne on the shoulder (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

For the majority of the season, no matter which way you held the screen you used to view the standings or how hard you squinted, the Predators were in a bad spot. They’re still not exactly where they want to be, but things are improving thanks to the mini-winning streak they’ve built on their current road trip. Many of the major stats are still working against the Predators and it will be an uphill climb for them. But we can still try and find positives for the boys in gold, so here we go.

All is Not as Bad as it Seems

MoneyPuck has the Predators’ playoff chances sitting at 59.6%. They received a massive boost after posting victories against their divisional rivals, the Winnipeg Jets and their conference rivals, the Calgary Flames, who are also battling with the Predators for one of the two wild card spots.

The Predators’ season has been extremely disappointing, there’s no getting around it. But with a record above .500 (26-20-7), it hasn’t been terrible. Maybe it’s those high expectations that make the middle-of-the-pack performance feel like the Predators are 10 games below .500.

Maybe the expectations cause many to forget that the Predators have been in similar situations before. Through 53 games in 2015-16, the Predators compiled a record of 25-20-8 and they sat in the second wild card spot. The first team chasing them, the Minnesota Wild, were behind the Predators by three points, but had a game in hand.

Roman Josi Nashville Predators
Predators captain Roman Josi (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After having a record virtually identical to this season’s Predators, the 2015-16 team made the playoffs. Of course, the big difference was the Predators were in a playoff spot at this point in 2016 and this year they’re not. Teams around them are having better seasons — the bar has been raised. However, the team still has games in hand against the majority of the teams ahead of them.

Hypothetically, if Nashville wins their “catch-up” games, they would sit somewhat comfortably in a wild card spot. The Arizona Coyotes hold the first wild card and have two more points than the Predators, but have played three more games. The team Nashville just beat, the Flames, are up by just a point and have played two more games.

Yes, the games in hand are only useful if the Predators win them, but come on, we’re being optimistic, remember?

It was a similar story in 2016-17. Through 53 games the Predators were 26-19-8, again virtually identical to the record that they have through 53 games this season. Nashville hovered anywhere from third in the division to the second wild card spot during a span as little as three games, it was that tight. Through 55 games that season the Predators were holding on to the second wild card spot by a thread, up one point on the Flames. As every Predators fan knows, that season culminated with a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the very last team in and a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Calle Jarnkrok battles for a faceoff win (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Los Angeles Kings can relate to sneaking in to the playoffs and seeing what can happen. In 2011-12, similar to the Predators, the Kings had a 25-18-10 record through 53 games and were sitting on the cusp of falling from a playoff seed. At the end of the regular season, the Kings were the eighth-seed, the last Western Conference team in to the dance. That was the season the Kings rolled through the postseason and were crowned champions after defeating the New Jersey Devils in six games.

So, the Central Division three-peat is most likely off the table, but a postseason appearance is certainly in play. The Predators are in a position right now where they can control their own destiny. It’s very much a “win and you’re in” type situation for Nashville, and what more could you want than that?

Key Players Stepping Up

The recent performance of key players is also something to watch. In the last 10 games, Filip Forsberg has seven points, Kyle Turris has seven points and Mikael Granlund has six points, which includes five goals. Heading down the stretch tasked with winning their games and not scoreboard watching, the play of their stars could dramatically swing the Predators’ fortunes.

Related: Predators Owe Season to Hart Candidate Josi

Then there’s the boost the Predators will receive to their defense. It’s been reported that Ryan Ellis is close to returning from the concussion that he suffered on New Year’s Day against the Dallas Stars. Ellis is with the team on their Western Canadian road trip and participating in morning skates.

Although it’s highly unlikely that he will see action on the trip, it’s a positive sign for the Predators that their top-pairing defenseman is close to game-ready.

Road Sweet Road?

Strangely, the Predators’ road games are something that fans can feel hopeful about. This season, the team have been road warriors. Away from Bridgestone Arena, Nashville is 15-9-3, which is the fifth-best record in the NHL and the second-best in the Western Conference. Under John Hynes, the Predators have played seven road games and they’ve won six of them.

Nashville is halfway through their Western Canada trip right now and have two more opponents, the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. Early in a jam-packed March, the Predators will embark on another long road trip, consisting of five games. Based on how they’ve played away from home, the Predators could be well served by playing in enemy territory.

However, the Predators’ home games are a different story. When playing in front of the loyal legion, Nashville is 11-11-4, the fourth-worst record in the league. Since Hynes took over, the Predators have won one game in five contests. Obviously, a record they will have to improve if they want to extend their postseason appearance streak to six straight.        

Roman Josi,Calle Jarnkrok
Nashville Predators’ Roman Josi and Calle Jarnkrok (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

While the Predators record at home has not seen any improvement since firing Peter Laviolette, there have been elements that they can feel good about. Nashville’s special teams have both seen improvement. Since the coaching change, their power play at home has jumped from 12.2% to 17.6% and the penalty kill has risen from 81% to 85.7%.

If you can’t move past the Predators’ struggles at home, lets try one last Hail Mary and take it back to an inspiring moment that occurred 20 years ago.

On Jan. 8, 2000, the Tennessee Titans squared off against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card game. Down 16-15 with just 16 ticks of the clock remaining in the fourth quarter, the Titans had very little options left. On the ensuing kickoff following the Bills field goal that gave Buffalo the lead, Frank Wycheck threw a lateral pass across the field to Kevin Dyson who ran 75 yards for the winning score.

Long story short, as most sports fans know and nearly every football fan knows, to this day the play is remembered as the Music City Miracle. That moment was 20 years ago — isn’t a team from the Music City due for another miracle? Why not the Predators?