What a first half of the season it has been for the Nashville Predators. Deemed in the offseason by GM David Poile to be in the midst of a “competitive rebuild”, the team has unexpectedly excelled. After 45 games, the Predators sit at 27-14-4 which slots into the second spot in the Central Division. When the season began the expectations landed squarely as a playoff outsider but now the conversation has shifted to whether the Predators can end up hosting a first-round playoff series (let’s face it, nobody is catching the Avalanche). Altogether it is a pretty amazing development that a roster that lost Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson, Calle Jarnkrok and Pekka Rinne is not only improved but significantly better. With the first half in the books, let’s take a look at some areas of the Predators where the stock is up and a couple where questions remain.
Stock Up: Top of the Lineup
It has been said around the Predators for years that they need their best players to be the best players and probably the biggest change in ‘21-22 has been the performance from the top of the lineup. The level of production from Josi, Forsberg, Duchene, Granlund and Johansen has been nothing short of spectacular.
It is amazing to think that Matt Duchene could hit 80 points for the first time in his career and have fewer points than a defenseman. That is the level that Roman Josi has been at thus far. He is contributing in all situations and has been even better than his 2020 Norris Trophy season. Filip Forsberg has truly embraced what he is capable of and has been simply dominant in scoring goals.
Not to be left behind, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Johansen have both regained their playmaking touch and have centered the first and second lines very well. Both could end up in the 60 point range which would be a huge boost for the lineup. Overall, what was once a question mark (well, except for Josi) has suddenly become a strength driving the Predators roster.
Stock Up: Rookies
With the amount of roster turnover in the offseason, there was a significant opportunity for younger players to step in and make an impact. So far in ‘21-22 there are no better examples of taking advantage of the opportunity than Tanner Jeannot and Alex Carrier. Jeannot has placed himself squarely in the Calder Trophy race with a combination of goal scoring (leads all rookies with 13), stepping up in high-pressure defensive situations, plus a relentless physical intimidation game.
On the defensive side, Alex Carrier has formed a tremendous pairing with Mattias Ekholm. While only seeing 38% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, Ekholm and Carrier have only been on the ice for 4 high danger goals at 5v5 which is second only to COL’s Makar and Toews. Simply put, they lock down the net front and force the play outside. Carrier has also proven to be a solid puck mover and offensive contributor with 14 assists on the season which is second among Predators defensemen.
Outside of these two, the Predators have also received a solid contribution from 2019 first-round pick Philip Tomasino. While he has largely played the minutes at even strength, Tomasino has chipped in 15 points including 3 power-play goals. His game is evolving nicely and as he gets more comfortable he should see more of his chances go in the back of the net.
Stock Down: Generating Offense
The return to form from the top of the lineup offensively has been great for pushing the Predators into a playoff spot. There are, however, reasons for concern that the offensive output may not be exactly sustainable. A dive into the underlying numbers reveals that the Predators are just in the middle of the road in terms of generating chances.
When you dig into 5v5 metrics (removing the Predators 8th ranked power play), Nashville is 15th in the NHL in scoring chances created and 19th in high danger scoring chances while scoring the 11th most goals. In short, the Predators are doing an excellent job finishing their chances but if the shooting percentages fall there is not enough volume of scoring chances to offset.
Stock Up: Value of Coaching
It has been well covered that the hiring of John Hynes so closely following the departure of Peter Laviolette was… questionable. We were told to have patience, that Hynes was the right fit for the organization and the players. Patience was required as the Predators barely made the playoff bubble and were bounced by the Coyotes (yes, the Coyotes) in the play-in round. Patience was required as the 2020-2021 season started off rough with both Rinne and Saros struggling to find footing and the team looking lost. But slowly the coaching took hold. The identity being preached started to reveal and the Predators became one of the hottest teams down the stretch into the 2021 playoffs. A full offseason allowed the coaching staff to find their footing together. John Hynes now had the time to build real connections with his players, especially those who needed to step forward. Then for the first time, the coaching staff had a full training camp to drive home the identity of intensity. As the ‘21-22 season has come forth the Predators have embraced the responsibility to deliver on the time spent by the coaching staff. A team that was very recently fragile in the face of adversity has gained a sense of toughness and resolve. One needs to look no further than the Herd line of Sissons, Trenin and Jeannot to see that identity come to life. They push, they grind and do not back down from anyone. They stand up for each other. And when the game is one the line, they deliver. The Predators coaching staff deserves tremendous credit for taking a broken team and giving them purpose.
The Predators are proving thus far in ‘21-22 to be a special group. While it’s not likely anyone will label them a Stanley Cup contender just yet, the progression from a potential full rebuild into a surefire playoff team is remarkable. Add to that the possibility the Predators could have a finalist for as many as 5 season awards (Norris: Josi, Calder: Jeannot, Vezina: Saros, Adams: Hynes, Masterson: Duchene) and it is clear there will be a team to pay attention to in Nashville.
Statistics courtesy of the NHL, Natural Stat Trick and JFresh Hockey