After nearly four months away, we are finally back! The NHL is back in action preparing for an unprecedented playoff tournament to determine a Stanley Cup winner in the strangest of times. While it’s hardly the playoffs we all expected a few months ago, the prospect of an almost March Madness style schedule of playoff hockey is incredibly intriguing. To prepare, the Nashville Predators kicked off an abridged training camp that will lead into the qualifying round series against the Arizona Coyotes. Let’s take a look back at the season that was and try to project how things could play out for the Predators.
Regular Season Reset
The Predators finished the abridged regular season with a record of 35-26-8 for 78 points which was good enough for 4th in the Central Division. Over the course of the season, results were marred by injuries (notably Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson) and subpar play that led to the ousting of Peter Laviolette as head coach and installation of former Devils coach John Hynes at the helm. The team was paced by an exceptional season from star defenseman Roman Josi who led the team with 65 points in 69 games and has to be considered a front runner for the Norris trophy. Josi’s defensive partner, Ryan Ellis, also put together a strong regular season as one of the most effective skaters in the entire NHL.
From the forward perspective, Filip Forsberg led the way with 21 goals but overall the top 6 forward group fell well below expectations. Ryan Johansen, in particular, struggled significantly to find a groove offensively. There was a bright spot that emerged in the 3rd line of Nick Bonino, Rocco Grimaldi and Craig Smith. The combination of talents created one of the most effective lines in the entire NHL in terms of generating offense versus limiting chances defensively. Other skaters graduating from Milwaukee, namely Colin Blackwell and Yakov Trenin, showed positive signs and look like regular contributors going forward.
Goaltending was a significant question mark all season, as both Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros struggled mightily through the end of 2019 and into 2020. Following the coaching change Juuse Saros took the reins of the starting role and not only improved but played like one of the top goalies in the league. Saros started 15 of the final 21 games, posting 11 wins, which helped pull the Predators back into playoff position. From the end of January on, Saros had the highest goals saved above average and goals saved above expectation in the NHL. Simply put, Juuse Saros was dragging the Predators kicking and screaming into a playoff spot.
Reasons for Optimism
The Predators are a veteran laden team. In fact, they are one of the oldest teams in the league by average age (Hamhuis and Rinne impact that significantly though). Also, much of the core roster has been together for multiple seasons and know each other well. The positive outlook stemming from this fact is that the uniqueness of the moment should not overwhelm this group. The shortened training camp and jumping directly into the high pressure action of a best of 5 qualification round can actually play into their favor as they do not have to figure each other out.
Another reason for optimism, oddly enough, is the underwhelming production of the top 6 forwards over the course of the regular season. A forward group containing names like Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, and Ryan Johansen has understandably high expectations for putting pucks in the net. It was hard to believe, and often hard to watch, that seemingly every top 6 forward just could not get it going offensively throughout the season. So why is this a positive? It’s reasonable to assume that following essentially a full offseason multiple of those forwards will find their game in this tournament. If that happens, the Predators immediately become a dangerous team.
Reason for Pessimism
As has been previously stated, this Predators team was basically being carried by Josi, Ellis and Saros plus a 3rd line punching way above their weight. The optimism shared above of the forwards progressing to the mean can also be put in an opposing view. If the forwards don’t produce more and the team sees regression from especially Saros, Josi and Ellis then it is hard to see where winning hockey will come from. If all that happens then this foray into the Return to Play will be a short one and a lottery selection will be in Predators’ future.
When general manager David Poile made the decision on January 6th to relieve Peter Laviolette of his coaching duties and subsequently hire John Hynes, the hope was that a new voice and some translation in style would bring the talent forward and let the team reach its potential. There were some glimpses of focusing on high danger attacks and protecting the net front but when games got difficult it was readily apparent the players would fall back into prior habits. This is understandable because when change happens in-season there is little opportunity for the incoming coach to evaluate players and install real system changes beyond general concepts.
In Adam Vingan’s pre-camp interview with Coach Hynes for The Athletic, the coach noted that “we’ve done a real thorough job of talking about the players, rating the players, analyzing the roles of the players, expectations of the players.”1
A real serious consideration from those comments is that Coach Hynes may come into camp and really look to make some changes to the makeup of the Predators’ lineup. Do young and exciting talents like Eeli Tolvanen, Philip Tomasino or Jeremy Davies get a chance to ply their offensive capabilities? It remains to be seen. Those four months of player evaluation combined with a couple weeks of consistent practice gives Hynes a unique opportunity to make both install systems and look at some different lineup possibilities. That opportunity translated into game action is potentially a team that opponents haven’t really seen before. If the Predators are successful in embracing the change and applying it on the ice, then the change to Coach Hynes could be a serious X-factor in the return to play.
Return to Play Roster
The Predators’ return to play roster was released this week and a couple surprises were included. To the delight of many in the fanbase, 2019 1st round pick Philip Tomasino was invited to Nashville and will at minimum get two weeks of experience being around the big club. While the prevailing assumption is that its unlikely he sees game action, it is worth recognizing that the Preds could be looking at Tomasino for an NHL spot in 2020-21.
The other surprises were some of the players not invited. Veteran Milwaukee players Anthony Richard and Frederic Allard were both not invited to Predators camp. Richard has seen playing time in Nashville and Allard is widely regarded as being near-NHL ready so their exclusion should certainly raise some eyebrows. This is particularly true in the case of Allard since other Admirals defensemen Alexandre Carrier, Jeremy Davies and Ben Harpur did receive invites. It is not unreasonable to wonder what it means for their respective futures with the Predators organization.
So What Happens Now?
The Nashville Predators have a unique opportunity to recapture the promise of a season that went wrong in a number of ways. That starts with a strong training camp implementing Coach Hynes’ system changes and quickly getting the players ready to perform up to their capabilities. It is a lot to ask in two weeks but a veteran laden team like the Predators should have the right mindset to focus on the most important preparations. This is an experienced team who have been through some playoff wars. While they are hardly a front runner, the Predators have a real opportunity to get on a run and make some noise through this unique playoff format.
- Vingan, Adam (2020). John Hynes’ Guide to the Predators’ Return-To-Play Training Camp. Retrieved from https://www.theathletic.com/1886392/2020/07/06/john-hynes-guide-to-predators-return-to-play-training-camp
Statistics courtesy of Charting Hockey and the NHL (nhl.com)