As a kid, I used to beg and plead to stay up late to watch TV - now as an adult I struggle to not sleepwalk through a 9 pm puck drop. Thankfully for Nashville Predators fans, that sleepwalking (thankfully) doesn’t extend to the team’s effort. The team leaves Canada tomorrow after a successful west coast roadtrip, and the team will turn their attention to hockey tire fire Chicago. But first things first - let’s talk about Nashville’s 3-2 victory against the Canucks.
Playing With Fire
It’s too early to tell if Nashville’s tendency to rack up penalties is about discipline or an increased focus on penalties by the league, but the Predators continue to surprise with above-average special teams play.
Nashville currently sits at 7th in the league in penalties taken per 60 minutes and 9th in total penalty minutes. Perhaps thinking of the five-goal penalty kill effort against Vancouver a couple years back, the revitalized special teams unit under coach Dan Lambert stepped up in a big way, going 5 for 5 on the penalty kill against the Canucks. However no team in the NHL can succeed at a high level when they ask their PK unit to shut out opponents that are given seemingly-endless chances with the man advantage.
Fan favorite and local legend Tanner Jeannot has distinguished himself with his ability to score, but he also leads the team in penalties taken per 60 minutes with 3.12. Among the top ten for Nashville are fellow rookies Alexandre Carrier, Yakov Trenin, and Philip Tomasino, and while the youth movement has been mostly positive so far, the kids will have to develop the discipline necessary to play at a high level.
Anyone with eyes knows that the success of the penalty kill is anchored by the play of Juuse Saros - which brings us to the next subject:
The Post-Rinne Era and the evolution of Juuse Saros
As I mentioned above, a large share of the credit for the improved special teams goes to goaltender Juuse Saros. The Predators have asked a lot of the young netminder - Nashville just isn’t the type of team to provide much in the way of goal support, so the margin of error for the Finn is tiny.
Despite the faith shown by both the organization and the fans, a hallmark of Saros’s young career has been his slow starts. It’s unclear if his previous role as backup gave him little opportunity to develop a routine, but last season’s top-ten performance also began with a rocky beginning.
This season, Saros has rounded into midseason form much quicker. And a key part of that turnaround is his performance on the penalty kill. Last season Saros was among the best in the entire league (if not THE best) at 5 on 5, but one of the worst goaltenders shorthanded. This season the Predators have unintentionally challenged Saros to improve by giving him plenty of practice in that area, and Saros’s excellent play had a direct hand in Nashville’s stellar special teams effort against Vancouver.
There’s a lot of hockey left to play, but to the outside observer, seeing the longtime backup step into a full-time starting role and succeed inspires confidence - in both his play this season and beyond, as well as mitigating the need to rush prospects Connor Ingram and Iaroslav Askarov into regular NHL duty before they’re ready.
A Glimpse Into a Forsberg-less Future
With Filip Forsberg in the middle of his final contract year, fans are having to come to terms with the fact that number 9 may not see another season in gold. General Manager David Poile has often spoken about the “competitive” rebuild and we’re seeing that transition already with the large injection of young players into the nightly lineup. Add that to the trades of longtime Predators Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis, as well as the exposure of Calle Jarnkrok (now with the Seattle Kraken), and it’s not a stretch to say that Forsberg may be leaving Music City sooner or later.
But until that moment happens, we’re left to imagine what that sad, mustache-less future might look like - and tonight was one such opportunity. This being Nashville, goaltending (see above) and the defensive corps will always be the foundation of this team, but there do seem to be encouraging signs elsewhere that a future without Filip Forsberg might not be as bleak as we expect.
Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene entered this season (and honestly, every season) with the label of “underperforming and overpaid” - but the early efforts of Duchene (5 goals, 10 points) and Johansen (4 goals, 8 points) are encouraging and makes the $8 million price tag for both a little easier to swallow. I’ve long touted Duchene’s ability in transition - only phenom Roman Josi is better on this team - but it appears that the proverbial monkey is off his back and he’s shooting like the player we saw with Colorado. Johansen has a similar story - the passing specialist and playmaker is finally listening to the fans that scream “SHOOT” every time he touches the puck and it’s paying off so far this season.
The other factor is the driving force behind the rebuild - the play of the rookies. Tanner Jeannot and Alexandre Carrier have played beyond expectation and have earned permenant spots in the lineup night in and night out. Eeli Tolvanen and Philip Tomasino seem to be rounding into the top-six forwards they were drafted to be, and role players like Yakov Trenin have anchored the Nashville bottom six and provided stability. The likelihood of all those players turning into consistent NHL starters is low, but they are exceeding expectations so far.
Last night’s contest provided one such example - the power-play goal by Philip Tomasino. A mixture of stellar cross-ice passing and a willingness to drive to the net have set the stage for a youth movement to take hold with players like Tomasino as the centerpiece. I don’t think that we can confidently expect any of these players to perform at a Forsberg-like level (especially on both ends of the ice), but the young players getting ice time so far this season don’t look scared of being the future of the team as a whole.