The window is opening for the Nashville Predators. For years, this defensively stingy team had iced decent, if budgeted, lineups that, were they in any other division, would have ascended to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League. Under the league’s old setup, the Preds were stuck in a five-team division with perennial powerhouses Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues. With the 2013-14 divisional realignment, things got worse, with the Columbus Blue Jackets being shipped out to the Metropolitan (three seasons later and it’s still a dumb name for a division), with the Avalanche, Jets and Stars joining the Predators in the Central. Yikes.
That said, the Preds have trudged through the slugfest to make the playoffs the past two seasons, before falling to the Blackhawks (first round) and Sharks (second round) in successive years. Outside of their record, things look rosier this season for the Predators in the Central. From the top:
Chicago is the team to beat, make no mistake. Any core consisting of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Artemi Panarin, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews is a force to be reckoned with. The Corey Crawford-Scott Darling tandem has been spectacular in goal, with both sporting identical .927 save percentages. However, the Blackhawks are one of the oldest teams in the National Hockey League and have cringeworthy depth at both forward and defense. Any injury to – or drop-off in play from – a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman could prove disastrous.
Here’s where it gets better if you’re the Predators. Does anyone really think that the Minnesota Wild are for real? Bruce Boudreau is a great coach and Eric Staal has found a second wind, but the Wild, as per Corsica, lead the league in PDO – the sum of team save percentage and team shooting percentage. Some of that is Minnesota’ second-ranked shooting percentage, and the rest is Devan Dubnyk having four shutouts and a .947 save percentage. He’s been great – most of the Wild have. But these numbers are bound to come back down to Earth at some point.
St. Louis is still St. Louis. But only sort of. David Backes and Troy Brouwer left via free agency and were replaced with David Perron and Nail Yakupov. Okay, that’s fair enough. But chasing starting goaltender Brian Elliott out of town – competent third-stringer Anders Nilsson, too – and bringing in Carter Hutton to back up last year’s backup – and supposed Blues goalie of the future, Jake Allen – is looking to be a bad move. Thanks in large part to the pair’s brutal save percentage – .889 and .905, respectively – the Blues are giving up nearly three goals per game.
Combine this issue with the fact that there is a very real chance that star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk leaves the fold at the trade deadline, and it seems as though the Blues are in a transition year. As their other-worldly record at home (13-2-3, as of today) begins to normalise, St. Louis will drop in the standings. And I didn’t even mention the goofy coaching situation that definitely won’t cause any problems or power struggles or internal strife; no, nope, never.
The Winnipeg Jets score a lot, but they also give up a lot. An ever-developing stable of talent will surely make the future bright. The Hockey News even reckons they’ll take the 2018-19 Stanley Cup. But I don’t believe in them quite yet; the Predators are an established, experienced team and the Jets are just too young – the youngest team in the NHL – and too inconsistent to be a serious Cup contender. Here’s hoping they keep the ever-enjoyable Paul Maurice around until they are.
The Stars? Dallas’ scoring hasn’t been as prolific as it has been in seasons past. What has been prolific is their lacklustre goaltending. And when I say lacklustre I mean:
Seriously, $10.5 million bucks for a .904 team save percentage? Brutal. The Stars knew exactly what plagued their team the past couple of seasons and proceeded to do nothing about it. Good news for the Predators, that.
The Colorado Avalanche? Well, same deal, really. Everyone knew the Avs needed better defensemen. The Avs did not acquire better defensemen. Boom. Done. Roasted. With their unbelievably talented forward core and solid goaltending, the Avalanche are basically the Edmonton Oilers 2.0.
The Time is Now
All of this is good news for the Nashville Predators. Yes, their locker room has seen a seismic shift with the summer departure of captain Shea Weber. But that same trade brought back the equally – if not more – valuable P. K. Subban. The defense core as a whole is probably the best in the league; certainly, the top four is. There is scoring throughout the forward group. And starting goaltender Pekka Rinne is back in form.
I have confidence that, at season’s end, the Predators will be, at the very least, in one of the Central’s three divisional slots. If they make it out of their division, the rest of the West isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. The teams in the Pacific are either old and not very good, young and not very good, or the Vancouver Canucks (who aren’t very good).
The Preds have a window here. The rest of their division is either retooling or floundering about, directionless. The team is stacked to the gills with stars and workmen alike. And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing P. K. win a Cup and bring it back to Montréal, à la Phil Kessel. The NHL is waiting for Nashville’s predatory instinct; if ever there was a time to make a run for it, it would be now.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.