Preds Mid-Season Review and Grades
By Greg Moshopoulos @GreekGoalie35
41 games have come and gone, and it is safe to say the Nashville Predators’ season couldn’t have gone any better. Even I didn’t expect this type of success (see my season preview here or listen to our first broadcast.The boys in gold are on top of the league and are the only team to have not lost consecutive games, a remarkable feat at this juncture. So what exactly has caused this meteoric rise in the standings compared to last season?
The simplest answer to the team’s success can be attributed to the phenomenal play of starting goaltender and NHL All-Star Pekka Rinne. Rinne leads the league in wins with 28, and is in the top 3 in sv% (.930) and gaa (1.98). Whether it’s a backwards leg pad save, his 3 shutouts, or his fantastic shootout performances, a healthy Rinne can’t be overstated regarding the team’s push to the top. Many have questioned how long he can put up those kinds of numbers, but if you look at his two seasons before the hip injury, you’ll find that he is very capable of sustaining this performance. As of now, there is little doubt he deserves the Vezina Trophy and worthy of being in the conversation for the Hart Trophy as well. Grade: A+
With Rinne making 36 starts, very little has been put on the shoulders of backup netminder Carter Hutton. In five starts, he’s 0-3-2 with a sv% under .900. Although he’s given up only one third period goal in his appearances, Hutton has also surrendered some very questionable tallies. Grade: D
I suspect the Preds to call up Magnus Hellberg from Milwaukee and perhaps give him a few starts before the season is up if Hutton continues on this track.
The Predators blue line continues to be led by captain Shea Weber. With 29 points thus far, Weber is on pace to have the best offensive output of his career all while accumulating the 2nd most PIM’s on the team with 33. As Matt Cooke found out, Weber is not opposed to pummeling you if the situation arises. The 3-time Norris Trophy finalist is primed for another run at that elusive trophy. Grade: A-
Weber’s tag-team partner Roman Josi may just be the best value defenseman in the NHL. His cap hit is roughly half that of Weber, and Josi is only 2 points behind him for the team lead amongst blue-liners, all while frequently quarterbacking the counter-attack from their own zone. Snubbed for the All-Star game, Josi has blossomed under the wide open style of coach Peter Laviolette. Grade: A
Ryan Ellis has been often scrutinized for getting pushed around as an undersized defenseman. He showed glimpses last season of his offensive prowess, but really seemed to turn the corner this year before a knee injury took him down this past week. He is also on pace to have a career year in point production. Grade: A-
Ellis’ partner Mattias Ekholm has shown enormous growth this season under the new system as well. His frequent pinching in at the blue line has kept offensive chances alive and his goal in OT last month against the Wild was a thing of beauty. He will only continue improving under this system. Grade: B+.
Seth Jones has been almost a sidebar with the success of the top two pairings. He has had a bit of a sophomore slump, but you can argue that’s been more of a result of who he has been paired with. He has looked stronger playing with Ekholm over the last couple games than with Volchenkov and Bartley. Grade: C+.
Volchenkov and Bartley have often been alternating as the healthy scratch of late to try and find the best combo. With Ellis going down, it has forced Laviolette’s hand to playing both of them. They were on the same pairing Saturday in Minnesota and often times it was ugly. We can only hope Ellis isn’t out for long past the All-Star Break. Grade: C-.
Before the season started, our guess was that the defense would have to contribute 200+ points, roughly half of that coming from the top pair. They are right on pace thus far with the defense amassing 104, 56 of them from Weber and Josi.
I don’t think there’s any way to state how important the emergence of Filip Forsberg has been to this squad. The 20-year old leads the team in goals, points, +/-, power-play goals, game-winning goals, and shots on goal. He quickly earned Laviolette’s trust, and only a couple games in, he replaced Gabriel Bourque on the top line. Acquired by what some call the most lop-sided trade of the salary cap era, Forsberg has become a marvel to watch and is on pace for 76 points, which would be second most in team history behind Paul Kariya’s 85 pts back in the 05-06 campaign. He will participate as one of 6 rookies at the All-Star Weekend and is the odds on favorite to win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Grade: A+.
The man who has centered Forsberg for the majority of the season is Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro has been the find of the year in free agency. As I stated in my season preview, his disappointing 47 points last season would’ve been a welcome addition to the Preds and if that was a bad year, what does a good one look like? Well, we’re seeing that right now as he’s averaging nearly a point per game, right on pace with some of his best years in Dallas. Grade: A+.
Colin Wilson…. Aaaaah….. there you are… the man we’ve been waiting to see over the last few years has arrived. Wilson began the season slow with only 4 points in 15 games, but followed that up with 22 points in his last 25 games. His production has led to him moving up in the lineup and getting some power play time. Grade: A.
Did I forget about James Neal? Well despite the fact Neal has missed 6 games due to injury, he’s still 2nd on the team in goals and 3rd in shots on goal. Neal is largely responsible for the Preds only victory in four meetings with Chicago by tallying his first hat trick with the team. His goals have come in bunches (at one point going 7 games without a point) so I’d like to see more consistency out of him going forward. When he gets healthy, I expect him to reach 30 goals for the second time in his career. Grade: B-
Craig Smith is another forward we expected to see great things from in this open style. Smith has had a nice season and is on pace to match his goal total from last year, even moving past James Neal to get on the top line. He’s also been a little snake-bitten of late, but more pucks are bound to go in for him. Grade: B+.
One man that we didn’t anticipate contributing as much going into the season was Mike Fisher. Fisher recovered from his torn Achilles and has come in rejuvenated when most had him pegged to be getting closer to retirement than a contract extension. As of right now, Fisher’s return has keyed the improvement of the special teams. 14 points in 20 games far exceeds any expectations for Mr. Underwood. Grade: A
Calle Jarnkrok struggled mightily to start the season and was in danger of being sent down to Milwaukee if his game didn’t improve. He has answered the bell after going pointless in his first 12 games, with 11 points in the last 25 while not getting a lot of favorable ice time and killing penalties. Grade: B
Matt Cullen has had some injury issues this season that have slowed him down, scoring 9 points in 26 games, only 2 in his last 14. He is 38 and likely going to hang up the skates after the season ends. Grade: C-
Paul Gaustad is not ever going to live up to his contract, but he’s doing what he’s supposed to for the most part. He’s winning defensive zone draws and getting it out of the zone, working tough minutes as a penalty killer. Every team needs these types of specialty guys that know what role they bring to the table. Grade: C+
Eric Nystrom is almost always alongside Gaustad in defensive zone faceoffs and on the PK. He naturally doesn’t see a lot of minutes, but you can’t measure the work these type of guys do to shut down the other team’s top scorers. Grade: B-
The biggest surprise out of camp was that Taylor Beck not only made the roster, but was signed to a one-way contract. Beck went through a hot stretch earlier in the season, even seeing some power play time as the “Hornqvist” role of standing in front of the net, but the injury bug has bitten him of late and slowed his progress. Grade: B
The Predators’ first free agent signing this past summer was that of the well-traveled Olli Jokinen. He went 19 games before generating a point on the scoresheet, but his role has been reduced, seeing more ice time as a penalty killer, but getting more quality minutes out of him. Grade: C+
Remember when Gabriel Bourque was playing on the first line to start the season? Yes I know I just mentioned that earlier, but he fell a long way after that. He went from first line winger to healthy scratch until injuries started hitting the club. Bourque looks hungry when he’s out there, but as of now, remains to be on the fringe between playing and being a scratch. Grade: C-
I mentioned in my season preview that Laviolette’s system can possibly reinvigorate Viktor Stalberg. Unfortunately for him, he missed camp and played sparingly before being sent down for a conditioning assignment, which led to his latest injury. He started showing some nice signs on the recent trip to California, but with only 3 points in 10 games, the jury is still out on him under this system. Grade: D
Mark Arcobello was acquired after Derek Roy had failed to fulfill some of his Sabres glory days. Roy was put on waivers, and once he wasn’t claimed, GM David Poile managed to trade him for an asset in Arcobello. He’s only played 4 games since the trade due to injuries through the roster. Grade: Incomplete
The biggest difference between this season and last, has been the influx of Peter Laviolette’s playing style. If it wasn’t obvious to fans before the season that this would be a new team under Laviolette, the first half of the season has proven it. The scoring and special teams started out slowly while the players got adjusted to the new system, but that has changed lately. The PP and PK have come around and the Preds have climbed to 7th in scoring across the league thanks to a 13-game stretch of scoring 3 or more goals. The rest of the league has taken notice and Laviolette will be coaching one of the teams in Columbus for the All-Star Game.
Needless to say, the Preds have exceeded everyone’s expectations and even most analytics junkies can agree that their success is sustainable. At the midway point of this historic season, many franchise records have been set. The question now remains whether that will translate to the deepest playoff run fans at Bridgestone Arena have ever experienced.