It was March 6th. The Nashville Predators had just been embarrassed at home 6-2 by the Florida Panthers. Multiple star players were on injured reserve and as many as six rookies were gracing the Predators’ lineup. The team was staring down the longest road trip in the franchise’s history, 8 games in 15 days, with many of those games against the top teams in the Central division. The hockey punditry, both locally and nationally, had written the Predators off as a bottom feeder team needing to tear it down and start over. What followed was a 6-3-1 record over the subsequent 10 games finished by two dominant wins over Detroit in the return to the friendly confines of Bridgestone Arena.
Now the Predators find themselves just four points behind Chicago for the final playoff spot with 22 games remaining. Roman Josi is back in the lineup and his presence has been felt immediately. Matt Duchene and Luke Kunin are both back skating and their return feels imminent. Hope and even a little belief have returned to the hearts of the Predators and their fans.
So the question must be asked, should the Predators now turn their focus to chasing a playoff berth? There’s one challenge however… to playoffs or not to playoffs isn’t the right question to be asking. Why is that, you might ask. It’s because the Predators, while getting better results, have not suddenly become a good team. Per Natural Stat Trick, in this 10 game stretch the Predators at 5v5 are sub-50% in almost every possession and scoring chance metric which places them squarely in the average to below average category. They’re also allowing almost 34 shots on goal per game which is 5th worst in the league.
So how are the Predators winning games? The big differences have been goaltending and the power play. Since returning from injury, Juuse Saros is on an absolute heater. In those 4 starts Saros has a 0.980 save percentage at 5v5 which is simply mind blowing. He is playing like the best goalie in the league which while awesome to watch likely isn’t sustainable. With the power play, over the 10 game stretch the Predators are converting at 24.1% (7th in the NHL), shooting 25% overall (2nd) and shooting an eye watering 60% on high danger chances (1st, obviously). The impact of Eeli Tolvanen’s emergence as a consistent goal scoring threat cannot be understated. So in summary, the Predators are a below average team overall finding success behind a red hot goalie and a power play that has finally found its way.
Ok now that we’ve laid the context for the success let’s get back to the right question. It’s not if the Predators should try and make the playoffs. That’s easy, of course they should. The real question is who should be on the roster making the playoff push? There are actually three ways to answer this:
- Take advantage of a buyer’s market and go all-in for a playoff run
- Essentially stand pat, maybe a low end move or two, and see how it plays out
- Be a calculated seller, move some veterans out and let the kids make the run
For option one, please no. The Predators have been buyers too many times and can’t afford to do that again. With option two, not the worst scenario as long as the rookies can keep getting minutes but not managing assets with value would be repeating the mistakes of 2020. That leaves option three which is actually quite intriguing. The Predators have found some success by injecting youth into the lineup (albeit by necessity from the myriad of injuries). Coach John Hynes has found ways to put these young players in positions to contribute and that should continue. The opportunity in front of the organization is to give the existing young talent, including Rem Pitlick and Jeremy Davies who are currently on the taxi squad, as much experience as possible in NHL games that really matter while also acquiring the capital to grow the talent pool for the future. If the kids come in and push into the playoffs then the trade off for a lower first round pick is the invaluable experience gained with games that really matter.
Accomplishing this plan means some potentially difficult decisions must be made and veteran players must be moved out. To be clear, this does not mean a tear down is necessary, but some targeted moves with the future in mind would be timely. Forwards Mikael Granlund, Brad Richardson, Nick Cousins and Erik Haula as well as defenseman Matt Benning all would have some value to contending teams. Those are the easier decisions. The harder choices are around Mattias Ekholm and Calle Jarnkrok who are both having strong seasons, are long time Predators and have a year of contract left. Moving them now might maximize their value and make expansion (remember that?) easier to manage but are subjectively more difficult choices. The next couple weeks will be very interesting for the Predators and their fans but at the end of it a younger but still talented roster could be setting the table for an accelerated rebuild back to contention.
All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com