After starting the season as the last team in the league to be defeated in regulation at 5-0-3 through 8 games, the Nashville Predators have slumped with a 4-8-1 record in their last 13 games and sit this morning in 13th place in the Western Conference with an overall record of 9-8-4 after losing to the Minnesota Wild on Friday afternoon. To make matters worse, since their 4-3 victory at Tampa Bay on October 24th, the Predators have just a single regulation win (3-0 win on November 18th at Montreal) in their last 13 games and the team has scored the fewest goals in the entire conference (47).
On the bright side, the Predators sit just three points outside of the playoff mix this morning and have 61 games remaining to turn things around. The adage goes that a team cannot make the playoffs at the start of the season, but they can certainly set themselves up to miss. In my opinion, the Predators haven't reached that area yet, however if they do not turn things around soon they might be in that position by the start of the new calendar year.
Change is needed. How much change though is up for debate. After the break, I present to you my plan of action for the Predators moving forward that looks at how injuries have affected the team, calls for a couple of roster changes, a realization of the strengths and weaknesses of our roster, and a renewed commitment to what is known as "Predators Hockey".
While I've seen calls for major changes such as coaching changes and major player trades, I do not believe that is the answer right now. After watching training camp and the start of the year, I believe that the team we saw throughout the majority of October was in fact the team that we are capable of playing like.
There is no doubt that injuries have played a major role in why the team has struggled, but the bottom line is that injuries create opportunities for others to step up and fill roles that otherwise wouldn't be available to them. It is in this regard that I think the Predators have largely failed, which is surprising considering the amount of depth within the organization.
How Injuries Have Affected the Team
To put it in simple terms, the roster this season was built with strength up the middle and a smorgasbord of talent everywhere else. With Pekka Rinne in net, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter leading the defense, and Matthew Lombardi, David Legwand, Marcel Goc, and an unproven, but talented Cal O'Reilly manning the middle the Preds looked poised to put together a solid 2010-11 campaign, but even before the season opener injuries began to eat away at the lineup.
In the preseason finale, Martin Erat left the game late in the third period with back spasms that affected his preparation in the week leading up to the season opener and has since kept him out of a total of 7 games this season. On the final shift of the team's final practice during training camp, Sergei Kostitsyn was in the wrong place at the wrong time and blocked a Cody Franson slap shot with his skate leading to a broken toe that kept him out of the lineup to begin the season and affected his skating and walking strides throughout the month of October. Due to the early season timing of these injuries and team's depth at wing they were overcome with little issue as lines were not set and guys stepped up into the open roles and filled them without a hitch.
In the season opener Pekka Rinne went down with a knee injury after getting caught in a collision between Anaheim forward Troy Bodie (now with Carolina) and Nashville defenseman Francis Bouillon. Rinne going down immediately threw into question the decision to not obtain a veteran backup goaltender and placed a huge burden on rookie goaltender Anders Lindback to fill the void in Rinne's absence with another rookie in Mark Dekanich being recalled to serve as Lindback's backup. Thankfully, Lindback did everything in his power to prove that the right decision was made and went 2-0-1 before Rinne returned on October 18th to face Calgary.
On October 13th in the Predators second game of the season the injuries continued when newly acquired center Matthew Lombardi was lost to a concussion he sustained in a first period collision that propelled him head-first into the boards. Still the Predators didn't really show any signs of slowing down until two games later when late in the second period against Washington, Capitals forward Niklas Backstrom boarded Nashville center Marcel Goc resulting in a separated shoulder for Goc and began a string of three unanswered goals as the Caps came from a 2-0 deficit after 40 minutes to win by a 3-2 final in overtime. That's when the wheels started falling off.
In the two games the Predators had all four of their Opening Night centers (Lombardi, O'Reilly, Legwand, Goc) available to them the team scored an average of 3.5 goals per game (GPG). Obviously that is too small of a sample size to take any conclusions from, but in the 10 games the Predators have had three of their Opening Night centers in the lineup the team has scored an average of 3.1 GPG (which would rank them 6th in the NHL today). Now we notice a very disturbing trend when we look at the numbers when the Preds are without two of their 4 Opening Night centers and see that in the 11 games thus far the Predators have scored a total of 17 goals for an average of 1.55 GPG (which would rank the Preds dead last in the NHL).
Honestly, I don't believe that the Predators would have been able to stay at or above 3.1 GPG over the course of an 82 game season since injuries do occur, guys go into slumps, and the fact of the matter is that we don't have a game-changing offensive talent on the roster. However, I do not believe that the Preds would be ranked 28th in the league at 2.24 GPG today without the key injuries up the middle to Lombardi, Goc, and Legwand.
This year's team was assembled to play "Predators Hockey" where they win by utilizing defense, depth, and determination. At the start of the year we saw a team that was able to roll four two-way lines at even-strength that tested the opponent shift by shift for a full 60 minutes and capitalized when the opponent let their guard down. Even when injury took out Lombardi, the team kept rolling with three two-way lines and a shutdown unit. The issue has now become that down two centers we are seeing a scoring line (O'Reilly), a two-way line (Goc), and then a mess in the bottom six due to the centers available (Smithson, Spaling, Wilson) not matching with the wings. The O'Reilly line is the target of the opposition's shutdown line and until another line steps up to create any type of offensive threat the top-six is essentially shutdown.
Trotz said it best the other day when he essentially boiled it down to the fact that "our scorers must score". But in order to do that in this system, I believe that a couple of personnel changes must first take place.
The fact that Colin Wilson was moved to wing last season and was kept there this summer and primarily throughout this season leads me to believe that the Predators do not envision him as a center in the short-term. With the existing strength up the middle of the ice, I don't necessarily disagree with that assessment, but the fact of the matter is that if there was one player most affected by the injuries this year without even being injured himself it's Wilson.
In the span of four periods Wilson lost both of his Opening Night line mates and essentially found himself stuck on an island as other lines moved up the depth chart and Wilson slid down it looking for a new place to fit in. Wilson has been moved back and forth from wing to center and back again as injuries have necessitated change. In some games Wilson has been used as a 10th forward and even bounced from position to position from shift to shift. With 1 assist and a -4 rating in his last 10 games change is clearly needed to jump start Wilson's development and put him in a position to succeed again.
To that extent I propose that the Predators recall Jamie Lundmark from Milwaukee (AHL) and send Colin Wilson down to the Admirals where he can play significant minutes in a scoring line role and build confidence so that he is able to rejoin the team later this season ready to contribute again and able to be placed in a scoring line role upon his return. This is not a knock on Colin Wilson, nor is it a knock on Barry Trotz, or anyone else. I simply believe that due to the pressure to win at the NHL level and where the injuries have occurred this season that Wilson has not been given an appropriate role to continue his development as the season has progressed.
Furthermore, in the vein of allowing our young players to continue developing so that they can be better ready to contribute later in the year, I propose that the Predators also send down Nick Spaling and recall Steve Begin.
Again, this is not a knock on Spaling. However after being very critical of Spaling's puck skills (stickhandling, passing, shooting) last season, I noticed a significant improvement throughout the summer and the Predators recognized that and had him centering a scoring line with Linus Klasen and Andreas Thuresson on his wings to start the year in Milwaukee to continue developing his offensive game. Spaling has been very good in a 4th line center role the past two years, but he is in his final year of waiver exempt status and I would hate to see his offensive development stifled again to pigeon hole him in as a 4th line penalty-killing center at the age of 22.
This is about asset management and while not likely to contribute much on their own, I believe that Lundmark and Begin could change up the Predators roster just enough to affect a positive change.
Long ago Jamie Lundmark was a first round pick of the New York Rangers as a hard working two-way center with good offensive skills. Since then he's carved out a career as a hard-working utility player with enough offensive talent to play anywhere in the lineup. Throughout training camp, Lundmark reminded me of former Predator Vernon Fiddler with his complimentary skill set and solid work ethic that allowed him to succeed pretty much everyday of camp until he suffered a groin strain that kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month and necessitated his demotion to Milwaukee.
Like Wilson, Lundmark can play both center and wing and can also play on the power play. Unlike Wilson though, Lundmark has made a career of moving around the lineup and his development will not be stifled having to play bottom-six minutes some nights and getting shuffled from position to position throughout the course of the season. The team has missed that Fiddler like presence in the lineup for a couple of seasons and if Lundmark can fill that role, I believe he could be very valuable to the Predators moving forward this season.
As for swapping Spaling for Begin, the way I see it, Steve Begin is heading towards the end of his career at the age of 32, but has developed a reputation for being a solid 4th line agitating forward that excels on the penalty kill throughout his NHL career. Begin currently occupies Spaling's former role in Milwaukee centering Klasen and Thuresson, but is a mainstay on their penalty killing unit and is getting time on the power play for the Admirals that would be better suited for a prospect like Spaling.
The other area where Begin can help address in Nashville is team toughness. Like former Predator Scott Nichol, Begin is not opposed to dropping the gloves to spark his team or defend his teammates from time to time throughout the season. Over the course of the past week, I've been particularly disgusted as Columbus on Monday and then Minnesota yesterday afternoon took great pride in finishing every check and especially targeted our skill players. Jordin Tootoo did eventually fight yesterday, but that's far too little too late. Adding Begin to a team with Shea Weber, Shane O`Brien, Francis Bouillon, and Tootoo in the lineup on a regular basis should give the team plenty of guys ready and willing to stick up for their teammates when challenged. Unfortunately, Wade Belak has become a nuclear option for the team. Rarely used, but there if needed, the team has to become tougher as a unit without relying on a true enforcer in the lineup.
A Realization of the Team's Strengths and Weaknesses
The Nashville Predators will rarely ever be in the upper echelon of power play percentage. It's simply not what the Predators are built for. Overall, the Predators are among the bottom of the league in terms of pure offensive talent on their roster. The coaching staff and players have and continue to work diligently to improve the power play, but even though they understand each other and the concepts presented, they struggle to execute when given the opportunity to do so in games.
Bringing in a new coach, or firing any of the coaches, will not have a significant impact on the man advantage simply because of the talent pool assembled. That's very blunt, but it's the truth. Having watched virtually all of training camp and having attended multiple practices this season I can tell you that there has been a steady improvement in the effectiveness of the power play, but it is frustratingly maddening when we fail to see results in games.
Thankfully, if there was one bright spot to take away from yesterday's game in Minnesota it was that the power play scored twice. While the goals themselves might have been meaningless in the context of that game, you have to hope that the way they were scored showed the team that the basics of getting traffic to the net, getting shots through to the net, and looking to outnumber the opposition to win battles for loose pucks is the way to go moving forward.
I do not see the Predators power play drastically improving their efficiency rating this season, they currently sit at 27th in the league with an 11.5% rating and I can't see them rising above 20th in the league at any point this season unless they went on an unbelievable run. What is needed though more than anything right now is timely goals from the power play.
The Predators are built to win at even-strength, but in order to improve moving forward we must see more games where the Predators win the special teams battle (PP + SH goals for > PP + SH goals against) especially with injuries still plaguing our offense at the center position.
I believe we are already seeing the return of Ryan Suter to the lineup have a positive impact on the power play, but also the move of Cal O`Reilly back to the point of the second unit, and getting Marcel Goc into the mix has had an positive effect as well. J.P. Dumont has shown good hands in front of the net in practice and with his added bulk this season is better prepared to stand in there and battle for space in the slot to provide another Patric Hornqvist like presence for the second unit.
To continue their improvement, the Predators have to take their improved zone time/presence on the power play and begin to attack the net with more vigor. Perimeter passing does not turn into goals until the puck is put on the net and NHL goalies will stop most shots that they can see, which means that we must have a constant presence at the net.
After the Toronto debacle the penalty-killing units have shown that they are up to the task, now it's time for the power play units to do their job.
A Renewed Commitment to "Predators Hockey"
Through the last 13 games the Predators have gotten away from many of the things that made them successful at the start of the year. Many of these issues developed due to injuries, but that is not an acceptable excuse. This team was built with tremendous depth throughout the lineup and the fact of the matter is that when given an opportunity to fill a role opened by injury/poor play, very few members of the team have stepped up.
Yesterday, I thought it was clear from watching the team skate that an ultimatum was given in the locker room during the first intermission and the team responded with an effort that can only be described as a team that was working hard to avoid a bag skate or worse. Suter committed a bad giveaway trying to do too much and Bouillon inexplicably lost position on Martin Havlat allowing the Wild two more goals, but for the most part the Predators were the better team the final 40 minutes of play.
Tonight, the team comes home to face the New York Rangers at Bridgestone Arena with a major chip on their shoulders. Tonight has to be a statement game by the team to avoid change. The team cannot continue to struggle to adapt to injuries. They cannot fall apart as soon as they allow a goal against. They must play a full 60 minutes and outwork their opponent from start to finish. The must play a relentless brand of team defense from one end of the rink to the other and they must get solid goaltending from whichever netminder is between the pipes.
If the Predators do not respond with this last chance to prove that this lineup can get the job done, then a change must be made. Team meetings have been tried and have had an impact, but at some point they lose their effectiveness and a message needs to be sent. The team cannot rely on David Legwand returning to the lineup for Tuesday or Wednesday night as the onus for change, it must come from somewhere else. Whether it's a bag skate, or a lineup change, or a trade I believe we are far enough into the season to know that this team has the potential to do something special, but that opportunity will be lost without some type of jolt to move things in the right direction.