Early Returns on Surprising Preds
By Greg Moshopoulos @GreekGoalie35
When the season began a month ago, the majority of experts picked the Preds to finish near the bottom of the Central Division, and few could blame them for their prognostication. Not only do they have to contend with perennial powerhouses Chicago and St Louis, but the division produced 5 playoff teams a year ago.
The team began the season with 3 forwards on IR, a revamped roster and a new coaching staff with a completely different philosophy. Most of us had expected them to struggle early on while they developed chemistry and improve as the season progressed. Instead,Nashville stormed out of the gates to the tune of a 5-0-2 record, becoming the last NHL team to lose a regulation game. Since then, they’ve gone just 2-3, so one has to ask… Who are the real Nashville Predators?
Through a dozen games, the Preds have yet to score more than 4 goals in a game, but have also only given up 4 goals just once. Didn’t we just get rid of the coach whose teams weren’t scoring enough and playing defensive hockey? Don’t let those stats fool you. Although those are very Trotz-ian numbers, this team has taken on the aggressive, puck-possession philosophy of new coach Peter Laviolette. For starters, 5 of their 7 wins this season occurred when the opposition scored first. Over the last couple seasons, I can’t remember any five games in which the Preds fell behind and ended up winning. Now don’t get me wrong…they can’t afford to continuously chase teams to win games over the long haul, but it’s good to know they have the capability of doing so.
As a whole, the team has exceeded everyone’s expectations, but that’s not to say there are areas where significant improvement is needed, namely special teams. Generally speaking, a successful club wants their penalty killing % and power play % to add up to 100%. The Preds pk% is a woeful 70%, while their pp is connecting at a very meager 11%. I believe this is where the coaching and personnel changes have taken the longest time to click. The Preds are a top 5 team in the league when both teams are at full strength, but it’s fair to say their special teams have cost them points in the standings. In 4 of their 5 losses, they gave up at least one PP goal. The 5th game…. they gave up a short-handed goal in OT in the defeat at Chicago. We all know that the majority of games are played at even strength, so the Preds have that part of the equation down pat. Ultimately, the special teams can’t be much worse, and they are still finding ways to win the majority of their games. The chemistry will get better so I have no doubt that these numbers will improve, further pushing the Preds up in the standings.
It’s often said that your best players have to perform like your best players in order to succeed. After a couple of games of mixing and matching, the top line of Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Filip Forsberg are carrying the load, scoring 14 of the 29 Preds goals thus far. Forsberg has arguably been the most impressive of the 3, leading the team in points (12), +/- (+14), and came in 3rd in Rookie of the Month for October. By comparison, Forsberg had 5 points and was a -8 in 13 games last season. The second line has shown flashes, but hasn’t been consistently putting the puck in the net with the exception of Craig Smith, who is tied for 2nd on the team in goals.
Individually, there have also been some failures early on. Gabriel Bourque, who started the season on the top line, found himself a healthy scratch within a week. Although he’s still in the lineup, he has yet to register a point and is last on the team with a -3 rating in 10 games. Viktor Stalberg has done so poorly, he has been relegated to a ‘conditioning stint’ in Milwaukee. To be fair, Stalberg missed a large portion of training camp due to injury, so that may be contributing to his failures, being held without a point in 5 games. The open, aggressive style of Laviolette was thought to have loosened the reigns off Stalberg, but time will tell whether he can salvage his season. Some would argue that Olli Jokinen has been a disappointment. Granted he has no points in 12 games, but Jokinen has taken on the role of shutdown center and penalty killer and has done so admirably. Calle Jarnkrok was also playing a more defensive role this season while he was with the big club, but the depth up front made it an easy decision to send him to Milwaukee once Cullen came off IR. Rest assured Jarnkrok would likely be one of the first players called up if the injury bug hits the Preds, but his 9 points in 12 games last season seem like a distant memory.
Captain Shea Weber continues to anchor a talented blue line that’s averaging two points per game as a group. The annual Norris Trophy finalist is second in the league in minutes played per game, and tied for 2nd in goals by a defenseman with 4. His partner Roman Josi is proving worthy of his long-term contract and is 3rd in the league in minutes played. Though the depth at defense isn’t as prevalent as it is up front, Laviolette has never had this solid a group to play his wide open style in any of his previous coaching jobs.
I said before the season that the Preds will only go as far as Pekka Rinne carries them. If the first month is any indication, spring-time hockey is on the horizon in Nashville. In ten games, he’s 7-2-1, giving up just 19 goals, only 10 of which at even strength. In limited action, Carter Hutton has played very well in 2 games, basically stealing a point in Chicago and hasn’t given up an even strength goal since the first shot he faced this season.
A month into a very long season, the Preds are light years ahead of where they were just 12 months ago. Combine that with the struggles of Dallas and Colorado, and Preds fans have plenty to be cheering about. This team is built to sustain its success, which will likely save David Poile’s job in the process, and give Nashvillians a pro team the city can truly support.