By Adam Bess
Just 28 games into the season, the Nashville Predators are having a bit of a problem.
Given their relative success last season and the expectations for this season, along with the acquisition of superstar P.K. Subban, the Predators were expected to be at the top of the Central Division from the get-go, if not the entire conference. Now, one-third of the way into the season, Nashville sits in the final wild card spot, four points below the next wild card spot and six points behind St. Louis for the final slot in the Central Division.
This is a team that has just named a fan favorite gritty player as the new captain, a team that has incredible depth defensively and a pretty good top six forward group. This is a team that is also relying on a proven veteran goaltender who, just last season, got back into Vezina form.
So where’s the problem? Why aren’t they on top of the division?
Let’s take a look at the forwards first. Nashville was extremely excited when legitimate first-line center Ryan Johansen was acquired from Columbus last season. He played well for the remainder of that year and into the playoffs, but this season he has taken a bit of a step back. He is putting up respectable numbers, 20 points in 28 games, but he is having trouble finding consistency for more than a couple games at a time, and that may be because of the revolving doors at his wings. We have seen James Neal, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, and even youngster Kevin Fiala have a go at the top line with RyJo, and none of them have had a lasting chemistry. The Preds depth up front is gritty and serviceable, but the scoring responsibilities primarily lie with the top six, who have played underwhelming so far. Forsberg, after scoring 33 goals last season, only has three so far. Johansen leads the team with 20 points, but even that is not enough to help the team that is currently 7th in the league in goals scored for, but 16th for points.
Defensively, the Preds were considered by many to have the best defense in the entire league, and that was even before the famed Weber-Subban trade in the offseason. Now, the Preds still have the best looking defense on paper, but that hasn’t necessarily equaled the best on-ice product. From early on, head coach Peter Laviolette decided to split up Subban and versatile two-way defender Roman Josi, opting to pair Subban with Mattias Ekholm instead. Subban has adjusted to Nashville well, instilling himself into the hearts of the city and producing well on the ice. He is currently 13th among defensemen in the league for scoring and tied for 3rd in goals. However, his Montreal counterpart Shea Weber is 9th in points and 2nd in goals among defenders. The rest of the defensive squad in Music City is relatively strong, with the team sitting 13th in the league for goals against. Even fringe players like Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber have been decent if not solid.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been the workhorse for Nashville, which is no surprise. He has been a world-class goalie for the last half-decade and this season the Predators continued to rely on him, starting him in 23 games. This season has not been kind to the Finnish netminder, who has dropped off from his Vezina form. He currently has a 2.50 GAA and .916 SV%, a severe drop from his 2015 numbers. He’s at 12-8-4 on the season but recently recalled backup Juuse Saros has looked solid in his limited NHL appearances so far this season, and it looks like he might be getting a couple more starts.
The Preds have just finished a fantastic, six-goal comeback effort against the Blues, and perhaps this could mean a turn of fortune for the team. If not, the team could be in trouble this year. Los Angeles is barely behind them in the running for the final wild card spot. There is still plenty of time to right this ship, and the solution could just be more time and not a shakeup in the roster. However, time will not be on Nashville’s side soon if they continue in mediocrity.
What do you think? Does Nashville need to continue to rely on the old guard like Mike Fisher and Pekka Rinne to guide the youngsters, or is a trade needed to inject some life into a team that looks like it could compete for ultimate glory this season? Let us know in the comments!
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December 15, 2016