If you recall this time last summer, the Nashville Predators had missed the playoffs for a second-straight season, and Nashville General Manager David Poile entered the offseason with a clear mandate to add offense in order to bolster Nashville’s prospects for busting out of the non-playoff funk. But the revamped 2014-15 offering did more than merely earn a postseason spot; it far exceeded expectations. For two thirds of the season, the Preds proved there is far more here than a team content to simply qualify for a Top Eight berth.
Below, I set out three lessons learned this past season that would indicate Nashville might be ready to compete with the best of the Western Conference.
The Defense Improved Measurably:
Heading into 2014-15, the D corps was widely regarded as one of the best and brightest in the business. With an average age in the mid-20s, the Predators put three pairings on the ice that provided a terrific mix of dynamic offense and sound defense. You won’t want to change much here.
In terms of the first pairing, Shea Weber was Shea Weber – but Roman Josi had the sort of year that really turned heads. A League leader in shot blocks, he also set new career highs in all offensive categories. He may have been the most valuable defender to the group on a season-wide basis.
Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm both took significant steps forward while making up a very solid second pairing. Ellis showed he was one of the smartest players in camp; he operates like a quarterback on the second power-play unit. Ekholm demonstrated, where he had not before, that he has a great feel for when and how to activate up into the attack from the opposition’s blue line. He made a number of game-breaking plays from the backend this year at crucial times.
A Healthy Rinne Still Ranks Among the League’s Best:
Up until the time of the injury to his knee, Pekka Rinne was enjoying the best season of his career. He also appeared to be the lead dog in the Vezina Trophy race. However, it took him (and his team) some time to get on track once Rinne was ready to take the net back following his lower-body injury. To be completely candid, after his return, Rinne’s game never saw the same consistency that he had shown through the first two thirds of the season. Having said that, this team does not want for strong goaltending if No. 35 is able to return to camp in the same shape as he was to start 2014-15.
The Forward Corps Could Still Do With an Upgrade:
One area requiring the organization’s attention this summer remains the forwards. Yes, Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and others added punch to what was a sputtering offense in years past, but that’s not to say that more isn’t needed. The Preds saw long stretches of hockey where they struggled to find the back of the net and it hurt them; especially during a late-season slump. A survey of key Western Conference competition shows it takes three or four lines that can add scoring. Another key signing or two might be just what the doctor ordered for the Predators.
Also, I’ve long believed that this group could stand to be bigger on the front line. To point out Bryan Bickell, David Backes, Ryan Reaves and Ryan Getzlaf is to name just a few of the Western Conference big bodies the Preds will need to neutralize if they hope to withstand the heavy going and put together a deep run next season. There was a lot to like in someone like Chris Stewart – acquired by the Minnesota Wild at the deadline this year; a physical force who shows up on the scoring sheet consistently.
But in summary, the Predators are in a much stronger position than they were last year at this time. A couple of key adds in the offseason, strong seasons from the majority of the group and a healthy Rinne from October to April would no doubt put the club in a great spot.
The return of the young defenseman has been noticeable, not just offensively (the goal was also Ellis’ seventh of the season, a career high), but in his own end as well. Now with six points in his nine games back in the lineup, just how important has it been having the 24-year-old a part of the defensive corps again? I’d venture to say a lot.
Let’s review, Ellis misses 24 games due to a lower-body injury. Sure the team holds its own in his absence; the Predators go 14-7-3 during that span. However, wouldn’t you much rather have Ellis in the mix? Rhetoric, folks. Of course you would. He’s been one of the bright surprises to contribute – meaningfully – to Nashville’s terrific success this season.
The power play is perhaps the aspect of the game where Ellis’ absence was felt most. He acts as a quarterback on the point when the Predators occupy the opposition zone. First, he has terrific vision; he sees the ice exceptionally well. Second, the blueliner possesses great anticipation. He knows his teammates and has a great sense of their tendencies - as smart players do.
Third, the above-mentioned attributes and his physical tools allow him to make some awfully dynamic plays. For instance, consider the fake shot that ends up being a hard, diagonal pass to Craig Smith, James Neal or Colin Wilson when they pop out at the far side of the net. Hard to defend against that when it’s executed properly.
In 5-on-5 play, Ellis is every bit as effective as he is with the man advantage. For the most part, he keeps it simple. He holds the middle of the ice, keeps the attack to the outside and uses the confines of the rink to shut his opponent down.
And this isn’t said often enough. It’s not that common for a smaller athlete to play defense in the NHL. Your “ideal defender” should look more like Shea Weber than Ellis, but Ellis compensates for his lack of size very well. It’s all about body position and striking at the right time in the right way. It takes a smart player to be a good defender.
Lastly, Ellis and his defensive partner Mattias Ekholm are a great fit for one another; their games seem to complement each other very well. Ekholm is more apt to jump into the attack through neutral ice while Ellis will get involved in the offense mostly by pushing down the walls in the offensive zone. For this reason, they end up being in a sound defensive posture while giving the other side a lot to deal with in their own end.
The boy’s back, thankfully, and the club is better for it.
Big win in the desert on Monday. Yes, I agree, the Nashville Predators “have” to beat the Arizona Coyotes, but sometimes you’re going to run into a hot goaltender who puts the outcome in question, even if you’re playing a bottom-dwelling team.
The thing that lingers with me after that game is the determination shown by the Preds. They scored first and outplayed the Coyotes for much of the game, but the host team refused to roll over. Arizona hung in there; got one in the third to tie it, and they pushed it to extra time.
The way things have gone over the last handful of games, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where that one gets away from the Predators. But at the same time, you expect a player like James Neal to come through and make a difference at a key moment like he did.
The fairly straightforward point I want to make is how critical scoring from the deeper part of the roster becomes, especially at this time of year. Remember, it’s shut-down center, face-off specialist, first-wave penalty killer, part-time tough guy, Paul Gaustad that opened the scoring and registered the Preds only regulation goal of the night. That was the first time in 12 contests Nashville had potted the first goal of a game - don’t tell me that’s not a huge tally.
This time of year, you’re facing three types of teams, generally speaking: those that are fighting for their playoff lives, those that are battling to draw a more favorable first-round opponent and those that are battling for home ice. And with that, everyone you play tends to have their game in order.
For that reason, lines one and two cannot always be counted on to contribute everything offensively, because they’re often playing through heavier coverage. Therefore, you often need the bottom six forwards to have a greater impact. It’s a winning recipe when lines three and four can outplay their counterparts on the other side. This is what makes for the most entertaining hockey of the season now that we’ve reached this time of year.
Watch for Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and the rest of the top two lines to do what they do. But also look for the Gabriel Bourque, Taylor Beck and Eric Nystrom types to play hero from time to time through March and beyond.
The Nashville Predators drop four in a row! I know. Roughest stretch all year.
Whether you’re a player, a fan or the coach; you can’t turn a blind eye on a patch like this. Before this run of losses to the Wild, Red Wings, Rangers and Devils, the club had only ever lost two in a row, at most.
Oh yeah, how’s that?
The 2014-15 season has been a blissful run to this point. Not that things have come easy, but this group has earned its way to top spot. The fact that the Predators sit atop the NHL standings three quarters of the way through the 2014-15 season - that grew out of a perfect storm. For the club to be ranked where it was at the 60-game mark, everything needed to go right. And it has.
Rinne has been remarkable – even for Rinne. The brightest young defense corps in the League has grown its game by 20 percent on both sides of the puck. And Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Filip Forsberg have combined to form one of the most dynamic lines in the entire NHL.
That being said, the one thing that may be lacking as you look to the postseason is experience. With the exception of Matt Cullen (with Carolina in 2006 and 2009) and Neal (with Pittsburgh in 2013), the current Preds lack the collective experience of what it takes to go on a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A common thread amongst the teams that typically go deep is that there’s an solid inner core of players that have learned how to navigate that path. These players help point the way.
What’s the point, Stuart?
Where the current Predators are concerned, there’s certainly no way to inject any meaningful experience into the room now. But, imagine if, at this late date, that the Preds are able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and revisit the sort of hockey they were playing earlier in the year. A lesson like that may just provide the sort of steely reserve this group requires to make some noise in the postseason.
Trust me, as a player, nothing brings you together like being able to rally back when the rest of the (hockey) world was counting you out. For this version of the Nashville Predators, it might be just the thing.
Having said all that, feel free to rip off a little five-game run anytime, fellas!
You may recall a day early in the 2014-15 season when the Predators power play was anemic; I mean nearly last in the League anemic. Which is not to say that the current 17th ranking should be characterized as lethal by any means.
However, if you look a little deeper, you’ll see a very bright line marks the improvement.
Since Dec. 27, 2014, the Predators are 20-for-72, or 27.8 percent, with the man advantage. That ranks third in the NHL during that stretch. Compared to the first 33 games of the season where Nashville’s power play was an ineffective at 11.3 percent and 29th League wide, that’s a seismic turnaround. You weren’t so worried early in the year because the wins were coming consistently, and that was due to the way the group was playing five-on-five. Best in the business in fact, and still is.
The truth is, you can get away with ineffective power play, especially early on in the regular season.
There are countless examples of teams with poor power plays who rank in the top of their division and conference. Conversely, there are numerous teams with Top 10 power plays who are on the outside of the playoff picture: see Philadelphia, Columbus and Arizona. However, come the postseason, when games are tight and goals harder to come by, special teams are often the difference-maker.
And that’s why the special teams extravaganza versus the Jets on Feb. 12 was so inspiring. Shea Weber in the first, Filip Forsberg in the second and James Neal’s goal in the third, which will go down as even strength but, in truth, it was scored just six seconds after Dustin Byfuglien returned to the ice following his minor penalty. For all intents and purposes, it was Pekka Rinne and three “PPGs” that skinned Winnipeg for two points on that night.
So the takeaway is…well, it’s taken some time for the new pieces to mesh together. Remember, you subtracted David Legwand and Patric Hornqvist from, what was then a very effective power-play unit, and added the likes of Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro and Neal. Great additions all, no question. But it takes time to create precision where precision is critical. However, now that they have, the man advantage is rounding in to form at a time when its importance is greatest.
April, and the playoffs, will be here before you can say “Roman Josi back to Forsberg, Forsberg off the half-wall through the Fisher screen … scores!”
The Nashville Predators go 4-2-2 while they’re without the best goaltender in the free world. After being out just two days past the three-week mark, Pekka Rinne is ready to return. Crisis avoided, right? You bet, you’d take that outcome every time.
So the focus shifts to Thursday night back at Bridgestone Arena as Nashville hosts the Anaheim Ducks – the very club with whom they share the League lead. Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette declares Rinne his starter. High drama; this is going to be great. Players, fans and broadcasters can’t wait to see the goaltender return to hold Ryan Getzlaf and “Scorey” [Corey] Perry off the board.
But just three minutes into the game, Rinne mishandles a puck he had just stopped and Anaheim’s shorthanded chance ends up in the back of the net. Hang on a minute - that wasn’t in the script. More than that, just four and a half minutes into the second period, the Preds trail 4-0. Wait a second, this game wasn’t supposed to look like this.
You’re asking a fair question if you’re wondering how does a game that was supposed to be so good end up so bad? A few things to consider:
First, focus on Rinne. There are two aspects to a player’s return from a long layoff. The mental and the physical. In my view, Rinne was physically ready to go. The knee was 100 percent by all accounts. He’d had ample practice reps leading up to the Anaheim game. However, on the cerebral side, there is no substitute for actual game reps to sharpen the mental aspect – the decision-making side of a player’s game. That’s the part that got the better of Rinne on the first legitimate play at the Nashville net. Under normal conditions, he either smothers Jakob Silfverberg’s initial shot or he pushes it out to the other corner, away from the Anaheim forechecker.
Second, consider the team in front of Rinne. Going into the Anaheim game, two things may have undermined the Predators’ preparation. The first was Rinne’s return to the roster. Sounds strange, I know, but I believe the group let the netminder’s return take away from the urgency required to be their best versus a team like the Ducks. The moment you allow yourself to say “Pekka’s back, problem solved, we’ll be fine …” that’s the moment that distracts you from preparing to put your “A-game” on the ice.
Along that same line, if you recall the moments just before this game started, top-line center Getzlaf was announced as a scratch from the Anaheim lineup. He was injured in pregame warm-up – a total surprise to everyone on either side of the matchup. Yet another distraction in terms of the Predators’ collective mindset. “Hey, if they don’t have Getzlaf, they can’t possibly be as good as we thought they would tonight.”
Uh, not so.
So Rinne’s return ends up a clunker for the entire group rather than a glory-filled win to claim sole possession of first place in the NHL. Is that cause to sound the alarm? Not at all, but there is a teaching moment in it for the group. We’re familiar with Laviolette enough to know that class is in session all day Friday as the team prepares to host a handful from the Eastern Conference. League-leading, goal-scorer Rick Nash brings his 30-15-4 New York Rangers to town for a matinee matchup on Saturday.
See you there!
The play looked harmless enough right?
Pekka Rinne’s collision with Chris Higgins of the Vancouver Canucks was accidental and far from violent. Moreover, it appeared that Rinne felt good enough to plead with Andy Hosler, Predators head athletic trainer, to allow him to remain and close out the lead over the visiting Canucks.
No such luck. The Predators announced today that Rinne will be out of action through the All-Star Weekend with a sprained knee. The goaltender will be re-evaluated after the Jan. 24-25 festivities and is expected to miss the next three to five weeks.
Saying Rinne has played a key role in the team’s turnaround is a point too blatant for even Captain Obvious to make. There is no doubt, taking the hottest goaltender in the free world out of the mix should be a blow to any team’s fortunes. Having said that, there are a few points to be made to give the fan base reason to be a little more optimistic.
First, Carter Hutton, who is sure to shoulder most of the load, is a better goaltender than when he first signed with the Predators in the summer of 2013. During Rinne’s 51-game absence last year, Hutton pulled himself up by the bootstraps and got to a point where he was turning in reliable minutes on a nightly basis. Don’t forget Hutton won 20 games last year.
Second, this year’s Predators are sharply distinct from last year’s version in that they simply defend better. With the emergence of Ekholm and Ellis (currently injured) as a solid second pairing and a significant upgrade at forward (see: James Neal, Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen, Calle Jarnkrok, etc.), this group is stingier than perhaps any team the Predators have iced in the past.
Last year, the Preds allowed 2.84 goals against per game, good for 23rd overall. This year, they lead the League with a miserly 2.17 goals per game. That’s an improvement of more than half a goal per game. Yes, Rinne is a big part of why this club gives the opposition very little. However, even Rinne is quick to say that the team in front of him is an important part of why he’s on pace to post the best season of his career.
Lastly, the above-mentioned upgrade at forward is starting to really to bear fruit. The Predators were winning early in the year but this new high-powered offense we’d heard so much about was hard to spot. Through October and November, the club was still scoring at a fairly modest rate; the first 20-25 games are peppered with 3-2 and 2-1 games. However, over the last 15 or so games, the new parts are fully integrated and the new identity seems to be taking root; fans are seeing more three and four goal spreads in the Predators favor.
So, Hutton’s a better keeper, the team defends better and it scores more. Does that mean Rinne’s absence will go unnoticed? Uh, not a chance. But the elements I just mentioned, plus the fact that a portion of his time off falls over All-Star Break, should take some of the sting off of this setback.
You were promised an exciting ride…not one without an occasional dip in the road.
Roughly a third of the way through the 2014-15 regular season and the Nashville Predators push their record to 19-7-2 with a convincing win over the Arizona Coyotes. Yes, this team is going well and it’s keeping pace with the best teams in the Western Conference. That much is obvious. Here’s a few things that may have been overlooked along the way.
The Resiliency Factor:
Last season, if scored on first, the Predators record was 11-29-6. This was a very fragile club. A goal against in the early going usually meant defeat. This year’s edition of the club is unaffected if it’s trailing early. In fact, their record if scored on first is a startling 9-6-1 (through just 28 games).
Case in point, the Preds spotted Arizona a 1-0 lead to start the opening period and then proceeded – just two and a half minutes later – to go on a three goal run to send Arizona back to the room down two goals. It was never very close after that point. Fun to watch, no?
James Neal is an iCorsi Beast:
Head Coach Peter Laviolette swears by the total attempts his team takes at the opposition's net. Strong numbers in this regard, according to many, is a recipe for success over the course of an entire season. Why? Because attempts lead to chances even if the initial attempt does not result in a direct shot on net.
After Thursday’s action, James Neal was second in the NHL in total attempts at the net or iCorsi (the total number of shots, misses or blocked shots a single player attempts at his opponent’s net). Neal has 160 attempts and the attempts leader, Brent Burns of San Jose, has 161. However, dig a little deeper and it begins to get interesting. Burns has played three more games than Neal and Burns has over 100 minutes more total time on ice (TOI) than Neal this season. Burns’ TOI is 532:17 while Neal sits at 412:03. So you begin to appreciate that Neal generates total attempts at a rate similar to the current attempts leader Burns but while using far less TOI.
What does a 19-7-2 record get you in the West? Would you believe just a five-point cushion over the ninth placed team who just happens to be the defending Stanley Cup Champs? Don’t get me wrong … this is a good problem to have but how about a little separation when you go 7-3-0 over your last 10 games? I suppose you can chalk that up to “well, that’s just life in the West.” And the one benefit this Predators team does seem to draw from the tight rankings is the motivation to refine its game. It’s a tough conference, and you have to keep your game sharp to stay in the mix.
Stay tuned, lots of hockey left to play!
Every year in the National Hockey League, there are at least a handful of teams that surprise, either by plunging in the standings against high expectations or by rising to a place in the rankings that not even the pundits predicted. Here’s a sampling of three from the Western Conference.
Uh, Nashville. The Predators finished out of the playoffs the last two seasons, largely because they were without their large, netminding Finn and goals were awfully hard to come by. A significant retooling was in order, at the forward position specifically.
By adding James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy to the corps, you knew the team was better on paper, but there was no way anyone saw this coming. At the first quarter mark, Nashville led the West and was tied (in points) for the League lead.
Credit General Manager David Poile for acquiring the pieces; credit Head Coach Peter Laviolette for slotting everyone in the proper spot; and credit the players for embracing a new structure and for playing more consistently than any Predators team in recent memory. These guys just might have something here.
Is the Big D for disappointment? The Dallas Stars turned an ankle out of the gate. And I, for one, projected that this team would add 10 or so points to last year’s total. With Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin coming off such strong seasons last year, I was expecting even more results. They essentially added another first line as they acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Spezza has been fine; Hemsky has been nearly invisible and a significant organizational shortcoming has been exposed in a graphic way. The Stars blue line lacks skilled puck-movers and solid defenders. Not sure where it turns for Head Coach Lindy Ruff and the Stars at this point; they’re currently mired in the 11th spot in the West. Not out of it by any means, but they’ve got a tall hill to climb.
What in the Wild West is going on in Calgary? This is a team that was supposed to be in a full-blown rebuild. But this group isn’t paying the experts any mind. As December begins, Calgary sits fifth in the West, trailing Pacific Division rival Vancouver by a single point.
This is not the flashiest forward corps in the West, so you’d speculate the Flames 15-8-2 record is built on a stingy system that gives up few chances. Not exactly. They’ve allowed more goals against than all but two Western playoff teams. The truth is that the Flames are getting terrific production from the blue line. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are first and third in scoring, respectively; they’ve combined for 46 points over the first 25 games. Their counterparts in Chicago, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who form one of the best tandems in the NHL, trail them by no less than an aggregated 17 points. Please don’t say you saw that coming.
So the stretch for the All-Star Break is on. There’s bound to be more of the unexpected ahead.
Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2014-15 season, it’s no longer necessary to qualify commentary with “it’s a small sample size but …” as the Nashville Predators sit atop the Central Division at 12-4-2. At this stage, I find it worth highlighting certain players who benefit the most under Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s regime.
But Stu… How is Olli Jokinen benefiting under Laviolette? He’s pointless in 18 games this season! Exactly. In spite of the fact that “Joki” has been unable to find the back of the net, Laviolette keeps pushing him minutes - into the mid-teens on most nights. And so he should.
Jokinen is a big-bodied veteran of nearly 1,200 games. He is solid in his own end, he wins more than his share of puck battles; and he’s creating as well as getting looks/chances at the other end. I’ve heard Laviolette say on more than one occasion that he’s more concerned about a player’s quality of play rather than his actual statistical production. In fact, he’s made that very point when talking about Jokinen’s contribution specifically.
So what’s my point? Jokinen is being afforded an opportunity – one that he’s earned – to play his way through a little offensive snakebite. Due to the fact that he plays under a coach that sees the value of his game beyond the numbers. Laviolette has taken this approach with others also and it’s paid off. See Calle Jarnkrok, Taylor Beck and Craig Smith.
Mattias Ekholm came to camp a better player by 20 percent to start the year. He is faster, stronger and looking right at home defending against top-six competition.
A key part of the Laviolette structure involves the defenders activating up into the attack; mindful that you have to recover back and be responsible on the other side of the puck also. I didn’t see it before this year, but Ekholm has this feature in his game. The blueliner possesses great offensive instincts and the first step comes quick when he decides to go. Laviolette has referred to Ekholm as one of his “steadiest players at both ends.” Laviolette’s approach is a tailored fit for No. 14. The proof is in the fact that Ekholm and Ryan Ellis appear to have taken over as the number-two pairing.
Laviolette covets offense. James Neal was acquired to provide that very thing. The question then became who will get Neal the puck in good spots? Well, Mike Ribeiro was signed for that reason and the fit has been a good one from training camp forward.
Ribeiro is a skilled playmaker. He sees the ice well and he has this wonderful ability to “hide his play.” He rarely reveals where he intends to move it until it’s too late for the other side to prevent. In my view, the recipe here has been one part Ribeiro making the most of the opportunity and one part that the coach wiped the slate clean and placed his trust in a player with demonstrated assets.
Here’s to another set of beneficiaries rising up down the road.