Is the window rapidly closing for the Nashville Predators?
It has been a tough road for the Nashville Predators ever since they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, and they have consistently punched below their considerable weight ever since their coming-out party.
There is such a thing as an NHL Hall of Horrors. What is that I hear you ask? Well, it is basically a series of different factors that result in horrific nightmares for a franchise.
From draft busts to trades that have gone wrong, huge and expensive misses in Free Agency, ill-timed and devastating injuries and just cruel twists of fate, every NHL franchise will have their own Hall of Horrors at some point or another.
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And it seems that the Nashville Predators are currently living that terrifying reality.
Although it isn’t in the grand scheme of things, 2017 seems like a lifetime ago and it must feel two lifetimes ago for Predators fans, who will be wondering what gruesome fate awaits this team.
Ever since pitting their wits against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final where the hockey world fell in love with Smashville, the Predators have never quite recovered from losing in six games and they have consistently swung and missed in their attempt to get back to the promised land.
Despite General Manager David Poile making a plethora of audacious moves in order to bolster his roster and keep their Stanley Cup window wide open, the magic just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.
It all culminated in 2019-20 when Head Coach Peter Laviolette was fired, paving the way for former New Jersey Devils Bench Boss John Hynes to fill the hotseat.
There were subtle signs and hints of improvement in the system under Hynes, who took the reins on Jan. 7, 2020, but any goodwill soon vanished when the slumping Predators were bounced in the best-of-five Qualifying Round to the Arizona Coyotes and it wasn’t particularly close.
Given that the Coyotes hardly set the world alight themselves during the 2019-20 regular season, it was a really ugly loss for Nashville to suffer and it was perhaps the biggest indictment of a franchise that appears to have lost its identity.
So, will the free fall and the pain and suffering continue in 2020-21, or will this still talent-laden Nashville Predators team right the ship and morph back into a legit contender?
It is a loaded question and one that is not entirely straightforward to answer, but we will try to do just that anyway.
We’ll start with the biggest positive going for the Predators right now and that is the fact they still boast a stupidly talented roster packed with star power and an offense that has the weapons to strike fear into any NHL defense.
However, it is all well and good having the names but it matters little if they can’t deliver and that was the case in 2019-20 with both Forsberg and Duchene both failing to hit the 50-point mark, despite both being paid to do just that, while Johansen recorded just 36 points (14 G, 22 A) in 68 regular season games.
Nashville’s only saving grace was stud defenseman Roman Josi, who carved out a year for the ages to not only make a bad situation slightly better for his team, but he also won the first Norris Trophy of his career after a stellar 2019-20 season.
Josi led the Predators in points with 65 (16 G, 49 A) in 69 games, while he was just an absolute dominate force all over the ice,
He really elevated his game and he’s the bedrock of what is still a very good unit on the backend, despite the fact that Nashville ranked 20th in Goals Against Per Game (3.10), although that might have more to do with the fact that goalie Pekka Rinne really struggled with a 3.17 Goals Against Average and a .895 Save Percentage, while Juuse Saros was just above average leading to questions over the future between the pipes for this franchise.
But not being able to keep the puck out of the net and struggling to light the lamp at the other end of the ice is a complete recipe for disaster, and it proved to be a perfect storm for Nashville in 2019-20.
When you invest huge money in stars such as $56 million over seven years for Duchene and $8 million per year for eight years for Johansen, you expect to see a consistent return and the Predators just aren’t getting that from some of their biggest stars outside of Josi.
And that is a major slice of the pie when looking at what exactly has gone wrong.
Of course, form comes and go but class is permanent and all of that mushy stuff, so we know that certain players may come back with a vengeance in 2020-21.
It then comes down to the coaching staff and whether they can get the best out of the current group, while consistently putting their team in the best position to win and ensuring that the four main ingredients – offense, defense, goaltending and special teams – are there and firing on all cylinders.
As we’ve already mentioned, there was a slight improvement under John Hynes both when looking at the stats and the eye test.
The Predators went 6-3-1 in the final 10 regular season games before the pause, with the team playing a more balanced and a more structured style of hockey, while even special teams showed some signs of progress.
Hynes is known for his substance-over-style approach and his ability to get the best out of the defense and the penalty kill, which is crucial given that the Predators also ranked 29th on the PK in the entire NHL (76.1).
That just isn’t going to get the job done and, as I’ve always said, if you don’t get special teams right, then you are aren’t going anywhere great in the NHL.
Hynes will have no doubt done a lot of work on his team’s defensive structure, their play without the puck and their setup on special teams throughout the offseason, and it will be up to him to get those ideas across during Training Camp.
Again, he has the talent at his disposal and he also has a GM in David Poile who isn’t afraid of making a move or two, as we saw during the offseason when the likes of Mark Borowiecki, Nick Cousins, Brad Richardson and Luke Kunin were all recruited.
Borowiecki and Cousins will make the Preds harder to play against and a tougher out, Richardson will add a different dynamic to the bottom-six forward unit and I really, really like the addition of Kunin, who was swapped for Nick Bonino who went to the Minnesota Wild.
Bonino did record 35 points (18 G, 17 A) for Nashville in 2019-20, but Kunin is a much-younger upgrade who can play in all situations, play up and down the lineup, man the PK, slot in on the power play and he’ll contribute offense too.
Kunin, like so many of the moves made during the offseason, just gives the Predators more options and a different way to play, which is crucial as I think they have become far too easy to figure out for opposing teams.
Hynes now has the pieces to be able to learn that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and that sense of unpredictability should only aid the Nashville Predators in 2019-20.
If he can also maximise the talents of the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Eeli Tolvanen, who has taken a little longer to develop, then that would add another high-end weapon to the Preds’ already loaded top-six forward unit.
Overall, there is far too much talent on this Predators roster for us to be talking about their demise or the end of their window, but there’s a number of flaws they have to put right in 2020-21 if they are to flourish and become the intimidating Smashville again.
If certain big-hitters can put it all together, young talent can shine and John Hynes can solve this team’s struggles in their own zone and on special teams, coupled with the hope that Roman Josi continues to play at a Norris Trophy-caliber level, then count on the Nashville Predators being well and truly back in 2020-21 and maybe even ready to go on a deep postseason run.