The official re-start of the 2019-2020 NHL season is upon us, with training camps back underway for the clubs that qualified for the 24-team playoff.
When the Predators play their first game August 2, it will have been more than four and a half months since they last played a meaningful game (or 144 days, to be exact, but who’s counting? — It’s me. I’m counting). That span of time is nearly the length of a normal offseason, and teams and players will be under immense pressure to get back to playoff form immediately.
Perhaps, though, there may be no team with more pressure on them than the Nashville Predators. Sure, eight teams that made the cut would not have done so if this was the regular 16-team Stanley Cup chase. However, those eight teams are already exceeding expectations just by squeaking into this unusual, and hopefully once-in-our-lifetime, postseason hunt. Since the Cup run of 2017, the Predators have been a favorite to get back to the Finals every season, but have fallen short every year. The weight of those expectations is feeling quite heavy these days.
The Predators paused the season in a very precarious position. The team looked as if they’d finally found their footing. They’d won their last three games and looked to be finding success under new head coach John Hynes after a turbulent five months.
Predators General Manager David Poile introduced Hynes in early January to the franchise with a stern warning that can be best described as: Step up or else. By the time the pause went into effect, Nashville was in a playoff spot — but without a solid hold.
The standard recipe for success is for every player to perform at their highest level when called upon, but we all know the burden falls more heavily on some players than others.
Let’s take a look at who the Predators need to have their best games of the season beginning in August.
Roman Josi — We are starting with the Predators captain because it is the most simple: he is already performing at his highest level. In fact, Josi was in the middle of a Norris Trophy-caliber season when everything came to a screeching halt. He has 17 more points (65) than Filip Forsberg (48), who has the second most on the team. All the Predators need from their top defender is for Josi to keep playing the way he played from October to March — this time with help from his teammates.
Pekka Rinne — The beloved Predators goalie was (is? This “pause” is headache-inducing) having his worst season to date. It isn’t even clear if Rinne will get the start over his one-day successor Juuse Saros. The Predators need Rinne to have the kind of playoff performance that carried Nashville through the playoffs in 2017. A .895 save percentage isn’t going to cut it for this tournament.
Matt Duchene — The Predators’ “prized pony” pick up in free agency has severely fallen below expectations. His 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points are a far cry from the 30+ goal scorer GMDP thought he was signing. The Predators and Duchene struggled to find line chemistry, leading to change-ups frequently throughout the season. Duchene needs to find chemistry on a line and score. It’s really as simple as that. The Preds didn’t sign him to be a passer.
Ryan Johansen — Until this season, Johansen had fashioned himself into being “Mr. Reliable” for the team. His scoring numbers haven’t soared the way they once did in Columbus and GMDP had hoped when he made a deal for him, but he was a strong, reliable 1C who created offense for the beloved JoFA line. This season, Johansen hasn’t been able to create much offense anywhere — not even for himself. There has been a lot of line shuffling, but when you get five months into a season with 14 goals and 22 assists you can’t say it’s only outside factors causing the rut that you’re in. Johansen needs to find ways to create scoring chances like he has in previous years if this team is going anywhere this tournament.
Dante Fabbro — The Predators rookie got a taste of playoff hockey in a bottom-pairing role last season. This season, Fabbro is playing in a semi-starring (top four) role for the team. If Fabbro is truly to be the future of the Nashville defense, the coaching staff and front office need to see him step up in a major way. Josi and Ryan Ellis will hopefully be around for quite a while to help out, but the Predators need to know that Fabbro can hold his own on the top line sooner rather than later.