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It’s February 25th, 19 games played…do you know where your Nashville Predators are?
In this wacky 48-game season, that’s a tricky question to answer for any team. When you look at the way the Predators’ results have taken shape, it becomes downright baffling.
By their own admission, and by the observation of even the slightly objective fan (and as Martel will tell you, objectivity has never been an issue for me. I’m not one to don the mustard-colored goggles), the Predators have underperformed this season. Basically every player not named Pekka Rinne, Colin Wilson, or Roman Josi has been a disappointment in at least some regard. If not for those three, the Predators could very well be playing “Dungeons and Dragons” and sipping Ovaltine in the basement with their portly, suspender-wearing chum Columbus.
In spite of that dire analogy, the Predators are somehow in sixth place. So it can’t be all that bad, can it? Well, I guess depending on your perspective, it could be worse. The Predators have played 19 games, and have lost 11 of them in some form or fashion. While it’s great to get points in your losses, it’s not something to brag about either. The highlight of the season was likely beating St Louis 6-1, but upon closer inspection, Jaro Halak was injured and the Blues were free-falling back into orbit after a stratospheric-type start. Aside from that victory, things have been pretty ho-hum. The defense has been mostly good, albeit prone to the sort of mistakes that seem to invariably end in the back of the net. The goaltending has been mostly great, aside from Mason’s woeful day in Colorado and some early-season shootout vulnerability for Rinne. The offense has been…well…abysmal. But for all of this Chicken-Littling, the bottom line is that the Predators are still in sixth place in the Western Conference, so all is well, right?
Maybe not. The Predators currently hold a two point lead on San Jose, Dallas and Phoenix (7-9 respectively), and a 3 point lead on LA and Minnesota (10 and 11, respectively). The troubling thing about such a tenuous lead is that Nashville has at least one more game played than all of those teams, and in some cases 2. In the case of the Kings, the Predators have actually played THREE more games. So as the numbers start to even out, there’s a serious risk that the Predators could have another weekend like the one they just endured and wake up in 12th.
So, why are things the way they are?
I said before the season that, on paper at least, this iteration of the Nashville Predators was pretty thin in some key areas. The team is perennially a top-six forward or three short. The defense is painfully green (Josi, Blum, Ellis) or frighteningly immobile (Gill, Hannan). Shortly before the season began, I wrote that I actually wasn’t worried about the offense, and was instead concerned about the defensive unit after Weber. I suppose you can take a measure of satisfaction in pointing out that I actually had it backwards. The defense has been a pleasant surprise, although I think a solution needs to be worked out that allows Weber and Josi to continue playing together but keeps Hannan and Klein apart, as the two just seem to be a disaster together, while fine apart. Ellis has been a pleasant surprise for me, after being skeptical of him and his place on the roster. Blum has rebounded nicely, with only a few hiccups. Gill…well, if you follow me on Twitter, you know my thoughts there.
Conversely, the offense has been terrible. I thought that it was due for a little bit of a let down. It’s not the Predators’ way to have a team that’s 8th in GF and number 1 on the power play, but to see those rankings plummet to 29th and 25th is a surprise. Dead last in shots per game(24.2) and goals per game (1.95) as well. I’m a big fan of FANCY STATS, but not so much of blogs that try to utilize them in pedantic fashion, so I’d urge you to do your own digging there.
What you’ll find, to summarize, is that Nashville is a very, very bad puck possession team. But why is that? Suter couldn’t have made that much of a difference, could he? Well, to some extent, yes. He was probably the best zone entry on the team, although Josi looks like he’s getting there…but Suter’s absence doesn’t tell the whole story. I think the real answer is a lot less scientific: there were a few guys that overperformed last season, and a few that are badly underperforming this season. If you throw statistics completely out the window and just use our eyeball meters, Mike Fisher, Sergei Kostitsyn, David Legwand and Martin Erat have not been very good this year. Of that group, Erat has put up some points, but has seen his turnover numbers spike into rarefied air. Any team with that much of their (air quotes) “Top Six” having a crummy season would struggle.
The problem is that the bottom six has become such a hodge-podge of spare parts that hoping for secondary scoring is a fool’s gamble. On most teams, you’ll find a player or two like Brandon Yip, Matt Halischuk, Rich Clune, Paul Gaustad, Nick Spaling, and to a lesser extent Brian McGrattan. The problem for the Predators is that on a given night, you might see all 5 of those guys in the line up at ONE TIME. I like Spaling (divergent thought…his name autocorrects to ‘Sapling,’ which I think is an awesome nickname idea!), Gaustad is overpaid and injury-prone but good at what he does…but the rest are faceless grunts that either don’t serve any particular purpose, or serve a purpose that’s not all that useful. They’re the equivalent of “Star Trek” redshirts. You know that when they’re on the ice, nothing good is going to happen.
I feel like everyone on a roster should serve some specialization, in addition to their stock icetime. Spaling isn’t much for offense, but he’s a tremendous penalty killer. Gaustad can barely skate without tripping over his own feet and causing his shoulder to explode into a million sharp, tiny bone fragments–but man, can he win a draw! There are power play specialists, PK specialists, shootout specialists…but where does that leave Brandon Yip? True, he doesn’t do anything particularly awful, but he’s not really good at anything, either. This becomes a problem when your lineup is so cluttered with no-identity players that you can’t help but pair otherwise-useful players like Smith and Bourque with them. The result is trickle-down mediocrity, and I think that this concept, in conjunct with a poor showing from several “key” players, does a good job in explaining why the Predators’ offense is bad even by their own standards.
So what can be done? Well, if it were up to me, I would immediately waive Yip and Clune. Relegate Halischuk to utility\every third game duty. I would call up two of Watson\Beck\Mueller and let those three (and Hali) duke it out for icetime. Watson and Mueller can both play a defensive role while also providing some skill in the bottom six. Beck could float up and down the lineup in an offensive role and maybe do some spot duty on the half-wall on the power play. With some healthy competition and youthful skill and exuberance, you might start to see the ship begin to right itself.
The real, long-term fix is for Poile to sign (unlikely) or trade for (slightly more likely) a true top six forward that can generate offense consistently. There’s a bumper crop of high-quality UFAs coming up this summer…so why not try to grab one that you can perhaps re-sign? The issue there is that heavy spending at the last few trade deadlines has left the cupboard a little barer than it has been in the past. The only chips of value are ones that are going to be painful or downright unthinkable to trade in most deals. Jeremy Smith doesn’t interest anyone…they’re going to want players like Ellis, Blum, Watson, Hellberg…and in some cases, for certain players, GMs are going to want to include names like Wilson, Smith, Bourque. Just something to keep in mind, the next time an insiderrr tells you that a player is available, and you’re spitting on your keyboard to tweet “OMG WHY IS POILE NOT IN ON THIS?”
Speaking of assets and bare cupboards, that brings me to my final conundrum, and today’s discussion point. To this point in the season, the Predators have been mediocre in every sense of the word. With only a little over a month until the trade deadline (April 5), there’s not much time left to determine what sort of team this is and what its chances are. Now, if you’re a draft guru like I am, you know that the 2013 class is ridiculously jammed with high-end talent in the top 12 or so. So with that in mind, if it looks like the Predators are floating in the 8-11 pack and the deadline rolls around, do you want to see Poile part with picks and prospects for a player that may be just a rental for the sole purpose of perhaps getting into the playoffs…or do you roll the dice, stick with what you have, keep your picks, and hope for the best? As a third option, if the Predators are sitting at say, 11 or 12…do you part out whatever you can as a seller and try to grab a few more picks in this epic draft?
My concern is that so many times, Predators teams that weren’t true “contenders” spent picks and prospects and finished in the mushy middle. No true Cup chances, but too good to get anything but an average draft pick. In this shortened season, and with an iffy roster–I’m just saying, it might not be the worst year to finish out of the playoffs and grab a top ten pick. It wouldn’t necessarily turn into a full rebuild, but might give you a player with the sort of gamebreaking offensive ability that the Predators haven’t seen since it partied its way from Russia to Quebec to Milwaukee to Nashville back to Russia back to Nashville to Glendale back to Russia. Mackinnon, Drouin, Barkov, Lindholm, Monahan, Shinkruk, Nicushcin–these are all prospects that could conceivably step right into the Predators top six as early as next season, and with a few defensemen woven into the rankings, a top ten pick would virtually guarantee that Nashville could snag one of them.
So, gentle reader, what do you think? Comment below or tweet me at @PredatorialJN with your thoughts.
A few quick hits:
This seemed to rock the hockey world, but I wasn’t surprised or bothered by it. A couple of ex-players (Matthew Barnaby, notably) had said that Lindy wasn’t always the most beloved guy among his players, for reasons that went beyond “he really worked us.” I think that if not for his tenure, a start like the one endured by the Sabres, combined with the disappointing season they had last year would have gotten any coach fired. I think that Darcy Regier is probably not far behind him. It’s not to say that either of these guys is bad at their job, quite the opposite–but there comes a time when you have to change something up, and as the old saying goes–you can’t fire the whole team. The Sabres will always draw a kinship with the Predators due to the reign of the GM\Coach and market size, so this firing got several Predators fans talking. Would there ever come a time that David Poile or Barry Trotz could find their jobs in danger? It took a new owner for the Sabres, and I think it would take an equally earth-shattering foundation change for such a thing to happen in Nashville. GMDP\Trotz have such a reputation for turning penny teams in dollar production that the admittedly not-hockey-savvy ownership is likely willing to give them as much rope as they could ask for, regardless of who gets hung in the end. That’s not really a good situation to be in, and while I’m not advocating a FIRE TROTZ!/FIRE POILE! mentality, I think there comes a point where accountability is key, and offering “stay as long as you like, you’ve earned” arrangements just because these guys are part of the Predator identity is a bad move.
I actually sort of love the rumored new division for the Predators. While it stinks to lose Detroit games, it’s probably time we admit that outside of the ones living in Nashville, Red Wings fans have never really considered us the rival that we consider them. They are more invested in Chicago and St Louis–actual two-sided rivalries, and their fans are more worried about losing that than games with the “pesky”(adjectives that need to go away, bee tee dub) Predators. In that way, the Blue Jackets moving east may be a bigger loss. I do think the new division offers a few rivalry options that might rest in more fertile soil for mutual hatred– Minnesota for example.
Remember to sound off on your thoughts regarding the Predators approach to the trade deadline\draft\offseason!
See ya in the funny papers