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Getting to Know the New Central: Nashville Predators

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As we get ready for the new season, SBNation is preparing some previews. Here’s a look at the Preds.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve dealt with a lack of hockey by refusing to even tempt yourself with the thought of it, you might have missed that the NHL is going for a shortened season with fully in-division play, and that thanks to stricter Canadian safety protocols there’s been a temporary divisional re-alignment to leave the Canadian teams in their own division, while the rest of us brawl it out in the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

As part of SBNation’s 2021 season preview, we’re all introducing ourselves to our new division-mates (with thanks to Taylor of Defending Big D for wrangling this behind the scenes). If you missed it yesterday check out JJ’s fantastic (re)introduction to the Red Wings, and keep an eye out for more:

Without further ado, welcome to our guests and let’s get started with this introduction to the 2021 Nashville Predators.

1) How would you describe your team’s style of play?

Bryan: This was a much easier question to answer last offseason, but that doesn’t mean that we enjoyed answering it. The struggle to exit the neutral zone, the over-reliance on point shots, and a consistently awful power play were all unfortunate side effects of the previous coaching regime. Enter John Hynes, hired right at the beginning of 2020. The new head coach has spoken about being a tougher team to play against mentally and physically, and we’ve seen an increased focus on shot quality as well. However, with last year’s season being halted in March and then a short playoff qualifying run in the summer, it’s likely that the systems we saw in place last season could be completely different as camp kicks off.

But this is still Nashville, so there will always be at least one consistent theme—utilizing the top pair of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis in all phases of the game. Josi’s Norris Trophy-winning season and a long absence due to injury overshadowed the strong season alternate captain Ryan Ellis had in the short time he played. The pair was very effective on both sides of the ice, and the two were no longer part of the same power play unit, allowing four forwards to play with both units.

With so much of the middle of the roster being turned over this offseason, the best we can do is watch and see. The team seems to be ready for a partial reset: keeping a veteran core, but pushing younger players to be ready to play. The identity of this team should develop over the first busy month of the season, so I imagine we’ll learn a lot more by then.

Shaun: To echo what Bryan said previously about toughness since John Hynes took over as head coach, there was a lot of discussion about “mental toughness” during the return-to-play training camp. During the offseason, General Manager David Poile made quite a few acquisitions to the team that seemed to improve the “physical toughness” of the team. As recently as Sunday (January 3rd) during media availability, the bulk of the leadership committee made comments that seemed to reflect the desire for a new team identity: not only a team that outworks the other teams, but also a team that was hard to play against. At this point, the discussions and acquisitions have happened and it’s up the Coach Hynes and the team to put all the pieces together.

2) What players should opposing fans know the name of—and why?

Kate: Filip Forsberg is the closest thing the Predators have to a gamebreaking forward, and he and Roman Josi are the likeliest to try to just take over a game that’s spiraling downhill. One thing I’m pretty happy about this year is that we have not (yet) had the Grit Signing, a forward who’s only here to cause trouble on the ice, but of course that’s no guarantee that there won’t be trouble. That said, I can’t think of many current roster players likely to universally cause problems—you probably already know the name of That Guy Who Just Hates Your Team.

Chicago Blackhawks fans should, of course, also keep an eye out for noted sniper Pekka Rinne.

Sorry, I still love that moment. I doubt Rinne will ever win a Stanley Cup, but at least we’ll always have this.

Shaun: Forsberg, who has always had a rather sneaky edge to his play, commented on Sunday that he was looking forward to the new tougher look of the team. I have a reason to believe he’s going to lean into his hard edge a bit more this season. As a probable member of the first line (perhaps with previous linemates Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson) he wants to focus on setting the tone for the rest of the team. Look for him to be a bit more of a nuisance.

3) Why could your team win the division?

Kate: For several years, the Predators have been accumulating top-six forward talent, or young talent with top-six potential, that’s just stagnated in Nashville. Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund, and now Matt Duchene are the big names, and while Turris was bought out the other three are still around. Granlund almost left in free agency, but doesn’t seem to have been able to sign elsewhere.

“But Kate,” you say, “this is ‘Why could your team win the division?’” Yeah—because if forward after forward keeps fizzling in Nashville, maybe the problem the whole time was something else. The Predators swapped out their head coach last January, and by now John Hynes has had many months to evaluate the players he has and figure out how best to use them, as well as to make some more adjustments to his own staff.

If Hynes can re-unlock the forwards’ potential; and if one or two young forwards (like Philip Tomasino, Egor Afanasyev, or Eeli Tolvanen) jumps in to contribute; and if the defensive core continues to play well, including a better performance from Dante Fabbro that allows Mattias Ekholm to get his groove back; and if Juuse Saros plays like we hope he will...

Yeah, I’ll be honest, I’m not betting the mortgage on it.

Ann: When you look at Nashville’s top forwards’ highlights, they are each impressive in their own right. Arvidsson’s speed, Forsberg’s daring play, Johansen’s pretty dishes, Granlund’s resurgence under Hynes, and even Duchene had a solid season (check out his report card here) despite some fan grumblings to the contrary. Nashville has Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi and a healthy Ryan Ellis, who both are likely to have strong seasons. The young players coming up are on the cusp of making names for themselves, and Poile made some solid trades to shore up a third pairing weak spot. The talent is here. A fresh coaching perspective is ready to steer the ship from the get-go. If the team can truly commit and buy into the mentally and physically tougher style of play that Hynes wants, the components are here for the Predators to compete for the top of the division.

But I’m with Kate. We’ve seen talent wither in Nashville before, so I’m not betting the farm either.

4) Why could your team be the caboose of the division?

Kate: Hynes’s record with the New Jersey Devils wasn’t great or inspiring, and it’s hard to say—as someone whose work schedule prevented me from watching Devils games regardless of my intentions—how much of that was coaching and how much of that was the roster he had to work with. Every player on the Predators is a year older than they were last year. Saros has never been a NHL starter yet, nor has third goalie Connor Ingram, and much as I sincerely hate to say it it seems like Rinne has aged out of being one.

But really, the reason the Preds could be the caboose of the division is the same reason anyone can, especially in a shortened season: injury, illness, bad luck. While I am hoping for good health for everyone, of course the Preds have a few key players whose loss would cut the team’s feet out from under them. In this pandemic time, and in a sport as high-speed and high-impact as hockey, there really are no guarantees.

Ann: Predators fans have been down this road before. As Taylor Swift so aptly put it, “Everything you ever wanted was right here, but you never realized...” Having talent does not always equal wins, and Nashville knows this is painfully true. The first challenge is to get this team all on the same page and executing mostly mistake-free. The second challenge is to create an immediate resilience when the occasional mistakes do happen. The third (and by far more difficult) challenge is to keep everyone healthy. The Predators are one Josi or Forsberg injury away from the bottom of the division.

5) On a scale of baby kitten to Tiger King, what’s the potential of the heated matchup of your team with your new division mates?

Kate: I’ve been saying for years that the Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning have a very under-the-radar rivalry that I don’t completely understand. The fanbases don’t have a big problem with each other; the teams have never met in the playoffs. But for whatever reason, every Preds-Bolts game I’ve ever seen gets very chippy, very fast. I’m not saying this is all the Lightning’s fault, either—the Preds have definitely given as well as gotten.

As for the rest...? Well, there’s a long and acrimonious history with the Blackhawks, undimmed by time and realignment. There’s a much more recent history of disappointment against the Stars, from the 2019 playoffs to the 2020 Winter Classic (and wow, I still can’t believe that was only a year ago). The Red Wings were a bête noire for years until they weren’t, but that’s been years. All of these, however, are going to get a lot more attention. They make sense. There’s a narrative. I think Preds-Bolts is going to shock a lot of people, and maybe we’ll finally get some answers about why these two teams just seem to hate each other.

The matchups with the Panthers, the Blue Jackets, and the Hurricanes are likely to be much closer to the baby-kitten end of the scale. One thing I am looking forward to—and hoping remains the case—is the fan interaction. I’ve had great conversations with fans of just about every NHL team (sorry, That One Exception), but I’ve also had a lot of acrimonious conversations with fans of teams that are out-of-division this year, like the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets, and Minnesota Wild.

Some fans are ride-or-die for one team, and make no exceptions, but by and large there seems to be a lot more sympathy between Preds fans and fans of Eastern sunbelt/new-market teams. Having a couple dozen of this season’s games be between the Predators and the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Panthers, and, yes, even the Lightning...that feels like social media will be a much more pleasant place to hang out during games, as long as the players don’t do anything to make brand-new grudges between fanbases get started.

Bryan: There’s so much potential for a great rivalry with the Carolina Hurricanes. They are Nashville’s second opponent in games 3 and 4 of this season, and the geographic proximity could make future games between the teams very, very fun. Although, if the team struggles this season, renewing bad blood with the Detroit Red Wings could be a nice distraction—especially if the team wears the reverse retro sweaters against them. I’m willing to bet they get worn against Chicago and/or Detroit.

Ann: I think it will be many years before Predators fans can play the Dallas Stars with much civility after the Winter Classic Ellis injury. Sure, you can trade Corey Perry away, but when fans replay that cheap shot in their minds, they picture Perry in Dallas green. [Ed.: We have received a correction from our colleagues: it’s “Victory green”. Hopefully, this season the victories will be the Preds’.]