Predators Season Recap
By Greg Moshopoulos @GreekGoalie35
It’s Monday, and Preds fans are still healing from the wounds that Chelsea Dagger has inflicted on our ears. A disappointing end to what was a promising season has engulfed all of PredNation. But before we look ahead to the off-season and what changes will inevitably take place, let’s first review what was supposed to be a transitional year under a new regime.
I’ve mentioned many times that most of the NHL media types gave the Preds virtually no shot at making the playoffs, with the majority of them placing Nashville 6th or last in the ultra-competitive Central. This speaks volumes of what they thought of the roster compiled by GM David Poile because history showed that Coach Peter Laviolette transforms even the worst teams into playoff and Cup contenders. The division didn’t disappoint as all 7 teams managed to finish with at least 90 points, only 19 points separating division winner St. Louis and last-place Colorado. The team over-achieved even my expectations and eventually finished third in the conference.
A big reason for the team’s early surge to the top was the play of rookie Filip Forsberg. When the Preds first acquired him at the trade deadline two years ago, most thought Nashville got a steal with the then-18 year old Swede. After limited action last season under Coach Barry Trotz, “Prince Filip” came into his own on the top line with new teammates Mike Ribeiro and James Neal. Through the first half of the season, the trio was the most productive line in the entire league. The emergence of restricted free agents Colin Wilson and Craig Smith added some secondary scoring that the team has lacked for nearly their entire existence. When Fisher finally got into the lineup, he added strength and size up the middle that helped open things up for his line-mates as well as improving the woeful penalty kill.
Something that can’t be understated is the play of Roman Josi. Very few had known about Josi outside of Nashville, but the rest of the league was put on notice that he’s not just Weber’s sidekick. He finished the season with 55 points and was in the top 5 in the NHL in minutes played and blocked shots. He epitomizes what an all-around d-man should be, despite what those fancy stats figures may show. Overall, the entire blue line of the Preds performed extraordinarily well. They led the league in points by d-men with 193 (Weber and Josi contributing 100) which is right around the number we predicted they would accumulate under Lavy’s aggressive system. Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones have all blossomed this year and none of them have peaked yet, so the back end will only get better.
All too often the season feels like a blur and we forget the team underwent lots of mixing and matching with line combos and roster players. Does anybody remember Gabriel Bourque opening the season as a top-line winger? Within a week he was a healthy scratch. Derek Roy was supposed to be the number 2 center while Fisher was recovering from his Achilles surgery. He soon plummeted down the totem pole and eventually was traded for Mark Arcobello. Olli Jokinen was…. Well…. We know how that went. We also saw the debuts of youngsters Viktor Arvidsson, Miikka Salomaki, Anthony Bitetto and Kevin Fiala. These are just a few names to keep in mind for the future of this team.
I know many people have complained about the trade that brought in Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson. Very few had issue with it when it first went down because the Preds gave up no roster players (Jokinen was a consistent healthy scratch by that point). The expectations were a bit high for both as Franson was having a fine season for an awful Toronto team, but he was on the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf and as we saw, he’s not a top pair guy. His minutes declined drastically and was even benched on a number of occasions. Santorelli also didn’t work out as Laviolette tried to plug him into every line combination to find his offensive game, but it just never came around.
Finally, as the team appeared to coast heading into the post-season, we got there with a healthy roster against the perennial Stanley Cup favorite Chicago Blackhawks. As the series approached, it looked as though Nashville had the edge as Patrick Kane was still expected to be out for a couple more weeks. But playoff time has the tendency to heal wounds and Kane was inserted into the lineup for game 1. The Preds came out flying and asserted themselves with physical play on the smaller Chicago D, even forcing Corey Crawford to take a seat on the bench. Unfortunately, Fisher went down to injury after just 20 seconds of the second period and his absence was noticeable. Nashville got into penalty problems and the PK suffered without Fisher, allowing Chicago to climb all the way back. As we all know, Scott Darling made some unbelievable saves to steal game 1 from a short-handed Preds team. Desperation (and Corey Crawford back in the lineup) took over for game 2 with Nashville winning 6-2. That victory came with the ultimate price as Shea Weber went down midway through the 2nd period and would not play the rest of the series.
Game 3 saw the Preds quickly respond to goals by Chicago on two different occasions, but eventually lost 4-2. Game 4 was one they had to have, and again, despite playing without their best all-around center and captain, they pushed the Blackhawks to triple OT, but lost another heartbreaker. As they did after game 1, the Preds responded to adversity when most thought they couldn’t recover mentally from such brutal losses. Fisher got back in the lineup and the rest of the Preds finally got to Scott Darling. With a renewed confidence, Forsberg netted the first playoff hat trick in team history to complete a perfect night at Bridgestone. Game 6 saw Nashville get out to the early lead, forcing Joel Quenneville to yank Darling in favor of their $6M man, Corey Crawford. Unfortunately, the Preds rarely tested the shaky Crawford and Chicago again mounted a comeback, eventually scoring the game-winner with less than 4 minutes left.
So yes, the boys in gold were removed from the playoffs by Chicago like they were back in 2010 in six games. Similar to that series 5 years ago, we’re left with a couple what if’s and really feel like Nashville should’ve moved on. Chicago won two games without ever leading during regulation and only led for the final 3+ minutes of the series-clinching game six. Nashville also played half the series without Fisher, and Weber playing only 7 of the 23 periods. If we look at the glass half-full, we saw the Preds gave the Hawks everything they could handle while missing two of their best players, forcing a goalie change in 2 of the games, all while having 8 players make their playoff debuts. The glass half-empty however would show us that Nashville blew a 3-goal lead AT HOME and 2 two-goal leads in the elimination game. Again, they had their chances to put Chicago away, but weren’t able to overcome the experienced Hawks.
No doubt there will be change to the roster as the off-season for Nashville soon commences, but this team is ahead of schedule on their road to being a Cup contender under Laviolette. There’s a great mix of young talent that will make the team next season. Add to that the stability and leadership of Fisher (likely to re-sign), Weber and Neal, and this team’s future has never looked brighter.