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.
The Nashville Predators are rolling early on, and there’s no single explanation for the 8-3-2 start. So let me point out a handful of players who have made the kind of impact you may not have seen coming.
We use this phrase a lot in hockey: “He makes the people around him better.” But it really does ring true in Forsberg’s case. The moment he was re-inserted on to the first line with Mike Ribeiro, the dynamic changed and this line became … well, more dynamic. He’s getting Neal the puck in dangerous places, and he’s converting his own chances off this lightning quick release of his. Remember, as Forsberg entered training camp this year, you were asking the question: “Will he stay?” … Never mind, now we’re asking: “Will he lead all rookies in scoring?!”
From his first shift of the preseason, you could tell Ekholm had added something to his game. He came back quicker, stronger and more confident than the prior year. In terms of his play during the regular season, he didn’t kick it in until the Country Music Association awards trip, but kick it in he has. Four points in his last five games, and he’s even getting time with the man advantage now. He defends as well as anyone in the group and is often up in the attack at regular strength. I don’t believe we’ve seen the ceiling on Ekholm’s game yet.
Signing Ribeiro last summer was a gamble; albeit one involving very little risk (One year at $1.05 million). The center was run out of the Arizona organization and sat on the side-lines of unrestricted free agency until rather late. As he signs, it’s very much an open question. Can he be the guy to get James Neal the looks he needs to score consistently? I’m not sure you can answer that after one-eighth of the schedule has elapsed, but the first 13 games look awfully promising. If not for Forsberg, Ribeiro is leading the team in scoring. He’s a very patient playmaker who sees the ice well. I like that he makes the unconventional pass that a defender does not see coming which creates the opening for a quality chance.
You didn’t see Rinne making an impact coming? Ok, maybe he doesn’t belong in this list like the others do, but since I started covering this team, I’m not sure I’ve seen him string together a better month of hockey. Of course you expect him to make an impact if he’s healthy. But like this? He’s got eight wins and an overtime loss in just 11 starts. Yes, the group in front of him is playing well. But poll any member of that same group and ask them to identify the difference; they’ll point to Rinne. He’s simply won games for his club. Seven times this year he’s had a save percentage of .920 or better. For me, the surprise comes in this way. He missed 51 games last year due to a complicated and potentially career-ending injury; given his competitive nature you’re confident he can bounce-back, but wasn’t he supposed to spend some time finding his form again? Guess not.
Here’s to a strong start.
In the summer of 1991, I’m negotiating my new deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and then-GM Bob Pulford stares across the table and counters by saying, “Stu, I can’t pay you $300,000 a year; I don’t think there’s going to be fighting next year.” Nice try Pully.
But is anyone surprised that we’re still having the debate 23 years later?
Will the NHL ever outlaw fighting and the enforcer?
Maybe; maybe not. But more and more prominent hockey folks are adding their voices to the anti-fighting lobby and there seems to be an increasing appetite within the game to take that step. I am for leaving things as they are but let me make one point before I explain why I take that position.
If you’re going to make a change and ban fighting, do it for the right reasons.
For starters, don’t do it to save the enforcers from themselves. These guys realize the risks associated with what they do, and they accept that risk willingly. I understand the concern for player safety but save it for the reckless, deliberate blows to the heads of unsuspecting, vulnerable players. That’s where the serious injuries occur.
First off, fighting on ice has evolved, it occurs with far less frequency, and it’s become far more tactical if you look back through the 60s, the 70s and even the 80s. During the course of the regular season, you might go two or three games without seeing a player on your favorite team get into a scrap. At the NHL level, most fighting occurs because a player is protecting a teammate or a player is trying to motivate his team because his club is trailing in a game. See Paul Gaustad versus Vern Fiddler in a recent game against the Stars.
Furthermore, when I broke in, every team had a heavyweight – sometimes two. Today, my own informal survey of the league demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of NHL managers believe they can get by without the services of an enforcer. My point is: Why should the league ban fighting when the role and the act itself are becoming more and more marginalized as time goes on?
Second, and this is more an observation than a reason to leave the game as is, attempting to define “staged-fighting” and outlaw that is a fool’s errand. You can’t pick and choose which type of fighting you want to eliminate. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. There would be no end to the complaints if one day the refs were responsible for deciding that one type of fracas is okay but the participants in a different fight should be ejected for the entire game.
Finally, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition is far less likely to take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And think of it this way: If the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, the threat of a fight is one tool in a small basket of tools the NHL has at its disposal to curb that sort of behavior. The enforcer, just like a ref on the ice, acts as a deterrent. If a player knows he has to answer to a Brian McGrattan or Rich Clune when he acts up, he’s far more likely to keep his elbows tucked in.
Having said that, I am the first to admit that the justification for fighting is less compelling today than it was when I played.
The game has evolved; I don’t recall the last time I saw one team come out on top simply because it brutalized its opponent. There was a day when the tougher team was most often the team that prevailed. Today, that seems to be the exception… not the rule.
If you want to ban fighting, do it for that reason. Ban fighting because the game has outgrown it.
But I’m not convinced it has.
So summer 2014 has come and gone and David Poile has done his level best to bolster his Predators and put them back on a path to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ve written fairly extensively on the changes made on the ice and behind the bench.
But for a broader perspective, let’s shift the focus to the Western Conference and the Central Division to evaluate the club’s prospects for a top-eight finish.
Of all the NHL divisions to occupy, the pesky Preds had to pick the newly formed Central. The only division in the NHL to send five – count ‘em – five teams to the playoffs last season. And what’s more, nearly every Central Division team improved during the offseason.
Chicago adds Brad Richards; St. Louis signs Paul Stastny; Minnesota grabs Thomas Vanek; last season’s remarkable surprise, Colorado, adds key experience in Danny Briere and Jarome Iginla; and perhaps the greatest concern to Smashvillians, Dallas ropes in Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Adding another formidable layer of offense to what was already a strong and improving line up. See Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
If you gulped as these transactions were made, you’ve got a pretty good feel for the way things stack up in the West.
Here’s the task for the Preds as I see it. The West is comprised of three tiers of teams: the elite tier, the struggling/rebuilding group and the middle tier. Take the second category first. The Predators, given their current make up, should finish above Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. However, that’s by no means a given. There may be a Colorado-like surprise to come out of that group… but not likely.
At the same time, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Preds break into the elite group either. The Kings, Ducks, Blues, Blackhawks and Sharks are very likely to make up some combination of the top five. And it’s just as likely that one member of the Western elite will go on to hoist the Cup by the time it’s all over.
So that shifts the focus squarely to the middle tier. The challenge for your 2014-15 Predators is to knock the Coyotes, the Wild or the Avalanche out of the Nos. 6-8 seeds. Looking over those three, it would seem to me that the Avs are the most apt to re-appear in the postseason. That puts Arizona and Minnesota squarely in the Predators crosshairs. Season matchups versus the Wild – and there are five – should be just that… Wild. “Suuuuterrrrrr!!!!”
I’ve made this point before, but realignment makes for more interesting, more meaningful matchups earlier in the regular season. That couldn’t be more true for the 2014-15 Predators and the road ahead. Strap in and enjoy the ride… should be fun!!