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The Predators Have an Identity Crisis

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As their struggles persist, the Predators continue to lose the traits that defined the franchise for decades.

Dallas Stars v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

This past Saturday, we all watched a team that finally reminded us of the old Predators.

Long-time fans know exactly what I mean by “the old Predators”: that scrappy team with the “us against the world” chip-on-their-shoulder mentality. They’d make it impossible to score. They’d finish their checks, out-muscle their opponent’s best players to win a loose puck, and frustrate star players to the point of uncharacteristic meltdowns.

They didn’t have lines chock-full of all-stars, but you knew whoever was on the ice, you were going to get their best effort. You could watch the Preds’ sixth defender skate on the ice with two minutes left in a tie game, and have the same level of confidence as you would in Kimmo Timonen, Shea Weber, or Roman Josi.

They were often out-matched, but rarely out-worked. They could take a beating, but still win the game. They played every game like they had something to prove, because in reality, most guys on the team did.

After months of wanting to see a performance like that at Bridgestone Arena, we finally got our wish Saturday. We got to see a team with the same heart, hustle, and intensity that made the Nashville Predators a truly special team to watch.

That team? The Dallas Stars.

Yes, the same Dallas Stars who unceremoniously bounced the Predators from the playoffs eight months ago waltzed into Bridgestone Arena — on the second night of a back-to-back, no less — and embarrassed Nashville again, handing them a 4-1 loss that arguably amounted to the Preds’ worst effort of the season.

“‘Frustrating?’ Yes. ‘Embarrassing’ is another one that could cover that,” Austin Watson admitted while describing the loss. “It just hasn’t been good enough.”

It’s not the string of rough games themselves that has fans riled up; it’s HOW they’re losing them. The Predators threw 38 shots on goal, but still couldn’t solve Anton Khudobin. They controlled the puck for most of the night (70.18% CF%), but before they could build any sort of meaningful momentum, Dallas would counter with a well-timed goal.

The last goal may have been the epitome of the entire game. Ryan Ellis has the puck by himself. Andrew Cogliano skates over in the open ice, shoves Ellis off the puck, skates in on Rinne, collects his own rebound, and slips one past Rinne for the backbreaking goal.

Kind of sounds like the way the Predators used to win games, doesn’t it?

And that carries this conversation over the current Predators. The more we watch this team this season, and the more you listen to the players after these losses, the more stark our realization is...

This team doesn’t have an identity right now.

The Predators have landed somewhere between the team they used to be and the team they want to be. Since 2016, the Predators have invested $221.75 million dollars (and three defenders who are currently on their new teams’ top pairings) in top-six forwards. None of them are among the league’s top 100 scorers.

This is where our first conversation surrounding coaching comes into play. Peter Laviolette’s style is pretty straightforward: throw whatever you can on net and hope for rebounds, deflections, or general mistakes in front of the net. That’s true to form this year, with most of the Predators’ chances coming from the points or around the circles.

That strategy was actually brilliant for the team Laviolette inherited in 2014, when Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro were your two best centers. It was even fine for a 2017 group trying to make a Stanley Cup run while dealing with a myriad of injuries to key forwards.

But in 2019, when you have the likes of Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, and Mikael Granlund on your team, you have to wonder if that strategy is still in the team’s best interest.

The problem with consistent scoring, as we know, isn’t exclusive to this season. But in years past, this would be when that trademark defense and goaltending would step up, keeping the Preds in games they had no business being in.

That hasn’t been the case this year. Pekka Rinne, for maybe the first time in his career, is starting to show his age. You can see it in this breakdown from the past four seasons.

Pekka Rinne Season-by-Season Stats

Season Save % Expected GAA Actual GAA High-Danger SV%
Season Save % Expected GAA Actual GAA High-Danger SV%
2016-2017 0.918 2.21 2.44 0.781
2017-2018 0.927 2.47 2.31 0.846
2018-2019 0.918 2.43 2.42 0.851
2019-2020 0.893 2.13 2.99 0.809
Data Courtesy: Natural Stat Trick

Rinne is playing behind maybe the best team defense he’s had in several seasons. The Predators’ 2.24 xGA/60 is second-best in the NHL, and that number’s even higher with Pekka in net. But the performance just hasn’t been there. He’s allowing several goals he, statistically speaking, SHOULD be easily saving, and those highlight-reel robberies from high-danger areas just aren’t happening at the same rate as they were in prior years.

As the Predators enter a new week, second to last in the division and four places out of a playoff spot, they ponder an obvious crossroads. A change is needed, and a significant one at that. But before that can happen, the team... I’m talking coaches, players, front office, everyone... needs to have the brutally honest discussion:

“Who are we as a team?”

These Predators can’t be the gritty underdogs who outlast their way to 2-1 wins. They have a Presidents’ Trophy and a Western Conference Championship on their mantel. They have arguably the best collection of talent on their roster in franchise history, and have quickly gone from the guys with chips on their shoulder to the big dogs the rest of the teams are trying to unseat.

The Predators simply aren’t built to be the team they used to be, and that’s perfectly fine. But it’s time to look towards the future and evolve.

Because if that evolution doesn’t happen soon, the Preds’ future might include the draft lottery.