Where do you even begin to write the complicated story of the Nashville Predators’ 2021-22 season?
It was a year filled with some tremendous highs. We had a Norris-nominated defender put up numbers that haven’t been seen in 30 years. We had a Vezina-nominated goaltender cement his status as one of the league’s best. We had two 40-goal scorers, as one of only three teams who could say that this season. We saw team records fall at a dystopian pace, revival seasons from stars who’d made a habit of underperforming, and — finally — a glimpse at what this Nashville Predators could look like when all of the their “big guns” were firing at once.
Which may be why this year’s playoff exit, the first time the Preds have ever been swept in a playoff series, feels especially deflating.
It’s not necessarily the fact that Colorado Avalanche manhandled the Preds. The Avs are a phenomenal team, and they showed every bit of why they deserved to be a Stanley Cup favorite. It’s the fact that Predators seemed to have left so much on the table in the process.
Flash back to January 13th of this year. The Nashville Predators sat atop the Western Conference standings. They were coming off a 12-1-1 stretch that included several convincing wins against some of the league’s best teams, including the very Avalanche team that just sent the Preds home. Yes, there were some caveats to that; the Predators had played more games than some other teams at that point, COVID-19 had led to some zany scheduling, etc. But the Predators were playing fantastic hockey. This wasn’t a situation like years past where the Preds were mounting wild, last-period comebacks to eke out a win or relying on hot goaltending to steal games they had no business being in. They were winning games with consistent puck possession, stifling defense that limited opponents’ high-danger chances, and efficient special teams that made opponents pay for their mistakes.
But as the season went on, little cracks started to form in the Preds’ armor. A few more “off games” started to pop up. The rough stretches started expanding a game or two longer. Even the wins became a little less convincing; the Preds were eking out wins against the likes of Arizona or Ottawa that made you go “whew, okay, we escaped that one, but maybe this will be the wake-up call they need to get their heads on straight for the stretch run.”
As many wake-up calls as the Preds got, however, they never seemed to pull themselves out of bed. By the time the regular season ended, the Predators looked like a shell of the team we saw earlier in the season, highlighted by multiple blowouts, embarrassing collapses, and the same set of undisciplined mistakes that cost the team multiple games down the stretch.
Even when Juuse Saros went down with injury, there was still a sliver of hope that the Predators could find some “old-school Preds” magic. The franchise is full of history of scrappy, underdog teams taking Cup contenders to the very brink, giving them an unexpected fight. Surely this team — one built on the identity of “doing whatever it takes to find a way to win” — could snap themselves out of their slump and, at the very least, knock the Avs down a few pegs and make this series that was “going to be a murder” a close, entertaining contest.
Instead, the Predators put out perhaps their worst postseason effort in years. Apart from the final stretch of Game 4, they rarely looked like they belonged on the same ice as the Avs. Even Game 2 was an absolute mismatch masked by Connor Ingram’s heroic effort. And as a result, they exited the playoffs amidst more fan vitriol than any prior season up to this point.
The talk is that the Nashville Predators simply aren’t good enough; that even in their best games, they can’t get close to competing with the league’s “big guns.” But the reality is even more frustrating. This was a team that absolutely COULD compete with anyone in the league. They proved it on multiple occasions. Their early run of success can’t be dismissed as a fluke, because they were winning games the way GOOD teams win games. No, the frustrating part is that the Predators’ collapse was, in many ways, self-inflicted.
As for blame, there’s plenty of that to go around. The players certainly deserve their fair share. Superstars like Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg, who carried the team for large stretches of the regular season, played some of their worst hockey of the season. Others like Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Johansen, and Mikael Granlund were overshadowed by their Avs counterparts. Other players simply couldn’t get out of their own way with constant penalties, positioning mistakes, or over-aggressive play that routinely proved to be a difference in games.
Then there’s John Hynes, a coach who — admittedly — deserves a lot of credit for even getting Nashville into the playoffs. But his work down the stretch will rightfully go under the microscope. Hynes’s lack of hesitancy to pull players like Phil Tomasino or Eeli Tolvanen out of the lineup for “reset” reasons while leaving Luke Kunin in the lineup didn’t make sense, and his inability to find creative ways to elevate Tomasino or Cody Glass’s presence represent a missed opportunity to freshen up the lineup. Hynes also bears some responsible for not coaching his team to play to their physical, aggressive identity without crossing the line into recklessness.
And finally, there’s David Poile, the only GM the Nashville Predators have ever had. Poile seems caught in purgatory between the ghosts of Preds teams past and the uncomfortable reality that is this team’s future. He’s preached trust in the current group, but has balked at the chance to bring in help to maximize this team’s current ceiling. Likewise, he’s talked about the idea of a “competitive rebuild” while making a number of “now”-oriented moves that seemingly are only delaying the inevitable.
The 2021-22 Nashville Predators had the potential to do some damage this season. Instead, they end the year with a lot of “what ifs” on the table. As the organization ponders this future, those “what ifs” might have been their last chance to make an impact in a Predators uniform.