This afternoon is a game day for the Nashville Predators — the first game day in four and a half months. It may only be an exhibition game, but it’s been a long wait for players and fans.
As we head into the final days before the Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin, those long four and a half months can be a blessing for some teams. For the fans, time can ease the memory of a disappointing season thus far. For teams, the pause had the potential to be a reset — not just for their game, but for their headspace as well.
The Predators are one of the teams that could benefit from the length of the pause. By the time things came to a halt across the NHL, Nashville was in a wild card spot — but not securely. It was a tumultuous season for the Preds, one the team is looking to put behind them once the tournament begins.
Let’s take a look at the Predators’ season in review:
Inconsistency was the name of the game for Nashville for the first three months of the season. They didn’t win a Saturday game until the last Saturday in October. November didn’t bring better luck for the Predators. In fact, the team lost nine games. However, of the four games they did win, one was against their former Western Conference nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings. Until that point, Detroit had won 10 of the previous 11 games against Nashville. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
By January, the Predators had played in and lost their first franchise Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl to their current rival, the Dallas Stars. Things were not great in Nashville, but General Manager David Poile still waited six days before firing head coach Peter Laviolette and associate coach Kevin McCarthy.
Though the season up to this point was disappointing, Poile was not known for abrupt firings. Laviolette was only the second coach in franchise history, and the only coach to get the Predators to the Stanley Cup Finals. Previous — and first-ever head coach — Barry Trotz, spent 16 years with the team. By the next day, the Predators announced they’d hired former New Jersey Devils head coach John Hynes as Laviolette’s replacement.
The Predators only had just over two months under their new head coach, but the change behind the bench was enough to push the team into a Wild Card spot. Under Hynes, the team had a 16-12 record and won their last three games heading into the pause.
The Predators’ problems can’t be pinned down to one specific issue. To put it simply, nothing was working. Line chemistry was spotty, the defense as a whole was inconsistent, the team couldn’t find the back of the net, and highly-touted free agent signing Matt Duchene was struggling. Outside of team captain Roman Josi (65 points, 16 goals, 49 assists) — whose on-ice work was exemplary enough this season to earn him a Norris Trophy nomination — most of the team was putting up record-low numbers. The player with the second-most points was Filip Forsberg, who only recorded 48 points with 21 goals before the pause.
This wasn’t the first year the Predators struggled to score, but this year, they didn’t have the saving grace that compensated the team in past seasons. Pekka Rinne, who up until this season was the team’s most consistently reliable player, had the worst season of his career. He only recorded 18 wins this season to go with his .895 save percentage. When the Predators made their way into the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017, Rinne was the brick wall they leaned on during their Cinderella Story playoff experience. This season, that ice-in-his-veins net presence was gone and no matter how many starts or how much rest he got, he never seemed to be able to recapture it.
That doesn’t mean the Predators haven’t had their bright spots. One of the biggest was the emergence of Juuse Saros. The 25-year-old started slow as well, but found his footing over the past month and a half of the season. At season’s end, Saros finished with a career-best four shutouts, 17 wins (which also tied a career-high), and a .914 save percentage. The return of a healthy Ryan Ellis — Josi’s primary partner — has also been a key boost to the Predators’ blue-line.
The season hasn’t been stellar by any means, but time away from the ice and a second chance to finish the season strong could be exactly what the team needs moving forward.
The Predators take on the Dallas Stars this afternoon in an exhibition game at 3 p.m. Central. Their first game against the Arizona Coyotes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers is Sunday at 1 p.m.