It's enough to drive many Nashville Predators fans crazy:
"Getting Pekka back and seeing how we've played just before the Olympic break and in the last two games, even though we lost one, I feel as encouraged as I have all year."
-- David Poile, to John Glennon of the Tennessean
With these words, the team's' general manager appears to be setting fans up for a non-eventful Trade Deadline on Wednesday, which could frustrate both those who want to see the team land a proven scoring threat, those who want under-performing players shipped out of town, or those who would rather see David Legwand traded for some kind of asset (prospect or draft pick) instead of leaving as a free agent this summer.
More from Poile in Glennon's piece, with my emphasis:
"So there's a lot of factors that look to me like David is going to be here. The most overriding one is that we're only four points out of the playoffs, we're getting Pekka Rinne back and I believe we're playing the best we have all year. So it feels right now that David is going to be here."
The fear, obviously, is that Poile will hold on to Legwand for fear of downgrading his current team's chances of making the playoffs, even though those chances are located squarely between Slim & None. If Leggy then takes his game elsewhere in July as a free agent, the Predators will have lost an asset with nothing in return. We're already being set up for the management bromide that "Pekka is our big Trade Deadline pickup".
You know what, though? When Poile say the Preds are playing their best hockey of the season, he may be right.
Check out the following chart, detailing the balance of non-blocked shot attempts in 5-on-5 close-game action over the course of Nashville's season from Extra Skater. Bars above the line show games where Nashville out-shot the opposition, bars below the line are the opposite:
Game-by-game 5v5 close FF%
For the first time since October, the Preds have strung together a series of games in which they have consistently out-shot the opposition, riding a 7-game streak dating back to January 28th at Winnipeg. Is it really possible that the Predators are playing better as a team than they have over the rest of the season?
Change Does a Team Good
Well, we do know that two significant changes to the lineup were made in January. First, Matt Hendricks was sent to Edmonton in exchange for Devan Dubnyk. While Dubnyk hasn't made an impact on the team and was placed on waivers earlier today, Hendricks was an absolute boat anchor in the Shots For & Against battle, and getting anyone else to take his place on the roster (Simon Moser especially in the last five games) provides an automatic improvement. Sticking with the close-game Fenwick numbers from the chart above, you dropped a 45.9% guy in Hendricks, while inserting a 65.1% player in Moser (it remains to be seen how well Moser can continue to perform, as these are still early days for him).
Secondly, you had the Kevin Klein-for-Michael Del Zotto deal, which has had an even bigger impact due to the greater ice time of the players involved. Klein had the worst possession numbers on the Nashville defense (46.8%), while Del Zotto has stepped in and kept the team on the attack more often than not (58.3%).
Hendricks and Klein are examples of guys who get lots of credit for being tough, hardworking hockey players who will work their butts off in the defensive zone, sacrificing their bodies for the sake of the team.
To paraphrase Patton, however, I'd rather have the players who keep the puck in the offensive end and let the guys on the other team earn those bruises & accolades.
Change to believe in
The bottom line here is that when teams aren't performing well, hanging around and waiting for better times is usually an exercise in baseless hope. Change is usually required, and the two trades we saw in January may well have made a tangible difference in Nashville's two-way game. Toss in Pekka Rinne's return, which should shore up the sub-par goaltending we've seen for months, and you could actually have good reason to say that the Predators are better positioned to compete right now than they have been all season.
Will that be enough to earn a playoff spot? Almost certainly not, but I won't blame those who want to enjoy Rinne's return Tuesday night against Pittsburgh with a side helping of optimism about the Preds' chances.