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The 2019-2020 Nashville Predators: a Postmortem

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There have been a lot of annoying teams in the history of this franchise, but I’d argue this year’s iteration was the most infuriating yet.

Nashville Predators v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

The Nashville Predators have almost always been a successful team by many conventional senses. They rarely miss the playoffs, their teams win more than they lose, and the franchise has enjoyed remarkable stability in the front office for its entire history. I can’t remember a time when the Preds played anything resembling truly awful hockey. Many fans of this team don’t even recall what that looks like.

This season was frequently a refresher.

I’m not often the guy screaming “blow it all up” when there’s a core in place. If you have a few postseasons of failure, that’s fine! Just retool and reload for the next run at the Cup. But there comes a time where you have to look at a roster, coaching staff, and front office and ask the question: “what are we trying to do here?”

The Predators have always won a decent amount of games; however, until recently, the standard we as fans had for the franchise was relatively low. After tasting what true success was like, fans have wanted more. The current squad failed to deliver, and I can’t fully fault them alone because the general manager failed to adequately build a team.

Let me sum up my feelings on this team, the way it was built, and the way it played in full: it sucked. It was genuinely unpleasant to watch the Predators compared to almost any NHL team not named the Detroit Red Wings. Despite adding a big-name forward for the third season in a row, despite promises of a dynamic offense and a “new way of thinking,” we saw little change from the failures of last year. This team, in a word, is stagnant. Let me break down why I feel that is.

The Players

I would be blind to ignore the fault the players have in this, so I’ll go ahead and break down why I think this group ultimately failed.

A team cannot have a single consistently threatening forward and expect to compete for a title. Matt Duchene started strong and rapidly faded, becoming almost a non-factor by the eyes in too many games this season. Mikael Granlund had an uneven year and lost his momentum from before the pause in the postseason. Ryan Johansen looked like he was absolutely cooked until the playoffs, which raises questions about effort and how his game will age over the duration of his contract. Kyle Turris was better than most people believe and still didn’t come close to living up to his cap hit. When you’re relying on Filip Forsberg and your third line to carry the scoring load, there’s a fundamental issue with your team.

On defense, the problems were more to do with roster construction, so we’ll get to that later. As for the goalies, I can’t really fault Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros for much. Pekka is aging, and while you could be critical of Saros for his start to the year, the way he absolutely carried the team after Hynes stepped behind the bench is admirable. Viktor Arvidsson had an injury-riddled season, so I’ll refrain from commenting on his difficulties.

We saw some bright spots; Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis remained brilliant, Saros took a big step in net, and Nick Bonino had a career year centering Craig Smith and Rocco Grimaldi. Colin Blackwell looks like a nice find for the fourth line going forward. Dante Fabbro flashed moments of incredible promise in a rookie year mired with inconsistency. But I have to say, the good is overshadowed by the bad.

The thing that makes me the most upset with the players is their inability to play a full 60 minutes of excellent hockey at any point in the year. That’s the hallmark of a mediocre to bad hockey team, and it became clear this season that Nashville was incapable of winning games in a complete effort.

The same could be said in this playoff series; you’d see incredible offensive surges, the team clicking on all cylinders, all four lines rolling, and then bam, everyone forgets how to play the game for five minutes and Arizona scores three goals. It was hard to watch, honestly, and I’m not sure how much longer I can handle hearing Roman Josi say “everything is fine!” before my head pops off.

All in all, this was a bunch that underachieved. While I personally feel that it had a lot to do with the system and coaching, it’s undeniable that guys like Granlund, Duchene, and Johansen just didn’t play as well as they were capable of. This roster showed flashes of dominance and was otherwise painfully middling, and I think that’s ultimately the on-ice legacy of this year’s team.

The Coaches

I’ll mostly focus on John Hynes, but I feel it’s important to not gloss over what a huge role Peter Laviolette played in this year. It was clear in the previous postseason that he was getting stale, and keeping him around did the players no favors. But the team’s failure to fire him until the middle of the season in the middle of a massive slump speaks to how complacent a supposedly contending roster had gotten, and that’s a message I want to repeat throughout this article: this team got too comfortable.

Laviolette’s system was largely ineffective from the get-go, but some of the minor tweaks helped get some chemistry going between Granlund, Forsberg and Duchene. The power play looked marginally better, and the team was scoring a lot. Then, when the Preds lost three games in a row for the first time, they scrapped the entire system and reverted to the 2018-19 scheme. The echoes of that style of hockey reverberated through the rest of the year.

Dump-heavy, uncreative, low-to-high offense plagued this year’s forwards, and it crushed whatever productivity Duchene and Granlund had manifested. That’s what got Laviolette the boot, and everyone hoped we’d bring in a new, exciting head coach at the end of the season. Instead, we got a lackluster midseason hire of a coach with almost all of Laviolette’s issues.

I have not been impressed with John Hynes’s brief tenure in Nashville. His system is almost identical to the previous one, with a few changes to play in the offensive zone, and continues to be a poor fit for the skillsets of his players. He’s made poor lineup decisions and at times in this series failed to adjust to Rick Tocchet’s scheme and the weaknesses in Arizona’s game. It’s telling that he made almost no lineup changes coming off of a 4-1 loss headed into a do-or-die game 4. It’s telling that he never adjusted the offense to produce more puck movement and exploit the one way that Darcy Kuemper could be scored on.

It’s telling that Hynes kept Jarred Tinordi on the active roster the entire time he was here, despite him clearly not being an NHL caliber defender. It’s telling that he scratched Yakov Trenin and Colin Blackwell for Austin Watson and Colton Sissons (although, to Watson’s credit, he had a good postseason in contrast to his awful regular season). It’s extremely telling that he never put Pekka Rinne into the lineup to give Saros a rest.

I don’t have faith that Hynes is the man to take this roster and provide the jolt everyone needs to return the team to contender status. He’s shown no evidence of being able to get the most out of his forwards, the very group he was supposed to inject life into, even after having the equivalent of an entire offseason and training camp to institute a new system. Simply put, this coaching staff is uninspiring and crummy until proven otherwise.

The GM

David Poile needs to wake the hell up. After spending tons of assets and cap space to add expensive forwards, the entire offense collectively stunk yet again. The goalies weren't good for the first part of the year and Pekka Rinne might be falling apart (I hope he isn’t), the defense was a mess outside of the top pair, and the coaches look lost as to how this all happened. Meanwhile, Jeremy Davies, Eeli Tolvanen, Frederic Allard and Rem Pitlick all toil off the roster, unable to make an impact or give this team any kind of spark.

The 2019-20 Predators wanted to make a playoff run, that much is clear; otherwise, Nick Bonino, Mikael Granlund, and Craig Smith would have all been dealt for assets. That being the case, Poile absolutely botched their chances at doing so at the trade deadline with his singular “addition” being a swap of Matt Irwin for Korbinian #$%&ing Holzer. It’s as if he didn’t see any issue with Dante Fabbro’s repeated struggles in a second-pairing role, or Mattias Ekholm’s total lack of chemistry with the rookie; that would all just sort itself out by the playoffs.

As Poile said on a radio show after the deadline, he didn’t feel that a defense icing Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, Jarred Tinordi, or Korbinian Holzer on the bottom pairing needed any shoring up, because of the strong play of Tinordi. I’m sorry to any of you out there who share his sentiment, but what games were you watching? Because I’ve not seen Jared Tinordi look like an adequate NHL player for more than a minute the entire time he’s played here. He singlehandedly accounted for losses with boneheaded turnovers (see the Phil Kessel goal in the 4-1 loss) and his abysmal skating ability. How can a GM look at a lineup with him in it and say, “yeah, this looks like a team ready to make a deep playoff run” with any ounce of sincerity?

Dante Fabbro was the tipping point for this team’s success this year; if he was good in his role as the 4D, they would be okay, but if he wasn’t there was no clear suitable backup plan for the team without a trade. So when Fabbro mostly flopped and made Mattias Ekholm a “just fine” second pairing defender, why didn’t GMDP swing a move for a partner at the deadline? The failure to make the basic moves needed to compete (such as Winnipeg adding Dylan DeMelo for a third-round pick) is what concerns and frustrates me the most about how this season went.

I think that in all honesty, a lot of this team’s failure came at the fundamental level from how it was built. You can say that the players didn’t want it badly enough, that the coaches sucked; all of that is fair and pretty apt. But when you only have three defenders that aren’t actively terrible in their roles and hire a coach midseason who has tactics similar to the guy who just left because his system got stale, and sign him for several years before he’s coached a single game with the team? A lot of the blame has to fall on the GM.

Conclusion

This team was a failure from all fronts, and I’m extraordinarily pissed off because it’s a perfect example of squandered potential. You could make the argument that this is the most talented group of forwards that Nashville has ever had, yet the team ranked 17th in goal scoring. You had the best year of Roman Josi’s career and an incredible (but abbreviated) season from Ryan Ellis, yet you were only 15th in goals allowed. The powerplay and penalty kill were absolutely pathetic, the team looked slow and static, and the wins came in uneven spurts. The undeniable truth is that the 2019-20 Predators were painfully average and on a downward trajectory, one that I can only hope they pull out of in the offseason.

It’s been rough to watch a team I love so much fall apart slowly like this, but this is my honest opinion; it’s time for the franchise to make some big changes. It’s been 20+ years of attempting to win a championship the same way, to no avail. Let’s give another method a shot for once. I want this roster to be shaken up, I want the front office to be shaken up, and I’d be happy to see the coaches shaken up too. The bottom line is, I don’t want to see another disappointing, lackluster year from this franchise rewarded with total stability and security. Something needs to change. Preds fans deserve better.