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Nashville Predators establishing themselves as a threat in the West

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20 games into the season, the Nashville Predators are looking more and more like a team to beat.

USA TODAY Sports

When the final horn sounded on Nashville's near couch-flipping episode against the Florida Panthers, it signaled the end of the 20th game of the season. This has become the unofficial quarter mark of the NHL campaign, and is a good time to evaluate where a team stands. Long enough to evaluate trends and chemistry that may (or may not) have developed, yet there's still plenty of time to look ahead to what could be changed, if anything.

The Predators don't have a whole lot they need to change.

Let's face it, they've surprised everyone so far, even us in and around Nashville. The most optimistic of us pegged them to compete for a Wild Card spot. Few of us thought they would be on a first-place teeter totter with the St. Louis Blues at the end of November. So what has gone right, what needs to improve and will they be able to keep it up?

Offense

Until recently, James Neal, Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro have carried most of the offense. Of the 55 total goals Nashville has scored on the season, those three have been responsible for 23 of them. That's about 42% of the team's total offensive production. There's never been a line like this before, especially when you factor in how much pure, young skill is on each wing.

Two trade acquisitions and a redemption story a clicking together like no one imagined. David Poile deserves so much credit for making each of those moves happen.

Nashville is scoring 2.75 goals a game, good for 12th in the NHL. Granted, that is a little skewed because of their throttling of the Maple Leafs, but over the past couple of weeks they've been getting more contribution from around the lineup. The almost non-existent secondary scoring is starting to come to life.

Two reasons for that? Matt Cullen is one. Since his return to the lineup (12 games) Cullen has benefitted from the Lavy Effect more than any other forward, and notched three goals and four assists already. His first game back he carried a line with Craig Smith and Derek Roy to a win against the Edmonton Oilers. Smith had three two goals.

Another was the genius idea of putting Smith, Colin Wilson, and Calle Jarnkrok together. It has done nothing but pay off on the ice. Wilson has been lights out all season (and is now getting rewarded for it) and Jarnkrok was possibly looking at some time down in Milwaukee. Hard to imagine him going anywhere now.

Even the fourth line has been an asset this year, exploding for goals like Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom did in the first few games, or Taylor Beck did against the leafs. It's taken a few changes and some patience, but the lines look solid.

Roy and Olli Jokinen may be the biggest point of contention now that Viktor Stalberg isn't around. Though Roy is third on the team in assists, and Jokinen still hasn't looked bad on the ice. Now that both of them have broken their goalless streak on the season, and are skating around with Old No. 7, (and may be rearranged when Mike Fisher returns) the third line may start picking up the slack it left at the beginning of the year.

Peter Laviolette has done a fantastic job, not only being patient in finding the lines that work, but getting his players to buy in to what he's selling. His team is 10th in the league in score adjusted Fenwick, and not a single player looks like a passenger when he's on the ice. Some of that may be a boost from the coaching change in general, but it's pretty evident this team has changed. Laviolette is a huge part of that.

Defense

It's kind of amazing that for all the talk of changing the defensive culture in Nashville... the defense has actually gotten better. I guess that's what happens when you have stars to put the puck in the net.

Shea Weber and Roman Josi have picked up where they left off last season, eating tons of ice time and squaring off against the toughest competition the opponent has to offer. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have made the most of their favorable zone starts, and are helping their teammates throw tons of shots at the other goalie. The two rank first and second in CF%, respectively.

Then there's the duo of Seth Jones and Anton Volchenkov. The pair was originally tasked with tons of heavy defensive zone starts to begin the season. Now, they've evened out and are making the most of the opportunities they've been given. Jones' numbers may not be as high as some would like, but with the Russian tank next to him, he's become so much more reliable in his own end than we saw last year. A20 the most underrated signing of the offseason? Most likely.

As a team, only the Blues allow less goals per game than the Predators do. Just as impressive? Nashville is only allowing 26.8 5v5 shots per 60 minutes, 7th in the league. Suppressing shots as well as spending most of the game in the other end goes a long way in keeping puck out of your own net.

It also helps when you get a ton of help from one of the best goalie in the league...

Goaltending

Goaltending has been Nashville's biggest strength this year.

Pekka Rinne is inhuman. Seriously. The Finnish netminder is playing the best hockey he's played in recent memory, and is already a front-runner for the Vezina trophy. We've already mentioned how his .944 5v5 SV% is insanely high, but even when that comes down to semi-reality it's hard to argue that he still won't be the team's possible MVP. Having him back to form has done wonders to lift this team out of the malaise it found itself in over the past few years.

On the other end of the spectrum, Carter Hutton isn't playing bad even though he's winless in only three starts. The goals he gives up, however, always seem to be absolute stinkers. His stellar play has so far been undone by one or two mistakes that the team can't bail him out from. (Let's not blame the second period in Ottawa on him, that was a team effort.)

Rinne is on pace to play about 70 games this year, and there are probably few people truly opposed to that if he can do it. Wins will eventually come for Hutton, and it's hard to judge him on just three games. Given how he played 40 last year, and got better as his workflow increased, let's say he's adjusting back to modeling the baseball cap, and put that on the watch list for the next 20 games.

Special Teams

So many pixels have been used to lament the almost worthless output of the special teams units, that we won't spend much time on it here. While the power play has slowly been trending up, (we're 24th!) the Special Teams Index is still below 90%, which is just abysmal. Conventional wisdom says you want your PP and PK percentages to add up to 100, but Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has recently gone on record saying it should be closer to 105.

Either way, Nashville needs to right their ship. Think of how far even an average set would go to making this team a powerhouse...

The Bad

*Points up to most recent paragraph.*

There's also the whole unsustainable shooting percentage of the first line, alone with the unsustainable play of the goaltender. There are a few things working against this team that could hurt it down the road. Some of those (like secondary scoring) are starting to pick up, which will even the team out when when the other aspects fall down.

Really, though, the few bad things shouldn't have you terribly worried. I mean, you should still be a little worried, but the Preds have plenty in their favor.

The Good

Remember that bit above about being a top-10 score adjusted Fenwick team? And the bit about suppressing shots in a really effective way? Both of those are huge when it comes to the future success of the team.

Like has been mentioned before, even though the Predators are benefiting from some favorable percentages, they are also playing the game the right way. They aren't being outshot a ton, and they are usually dictating the flow of the game. If they were winning without doing those things, that would be very, very bad. See, Avalanche, comma, Colorado.

Since none of that is happening, signs are favorable that they can survive whatever rough patch(es) they go through this season. All teams go through one, and the good teams survive. Nashville is a good team.

Conclusion

Given what we've seen so far this season, the Predators not only have a good chance of continuing this success, they could legitimately challenge for the Central division title. (Personally, I'd still put my money on the Blues)

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, there's still so much hockey left to be played, and plenty still has to go right. Mainly, they have to keep playing how they've been playing. But it's hard not to get excited when the eye test matches with (most) of the stats to give us a team that's not only talented, but fun to watch.

Over the next 20 games, the season does nothing but get harder. The schedules in December and January are some of the hardest match ups of the team will face all year, but they players have a buzz of confidence they haven't in some time.