Entering every NHL season, 32 NHL teams are looking to win the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. Only one team can come out on top. General managers are doing their best to acquire players that suit their roster’s needs, while coaches work on systems and strategies to give their team the best chance to win. However, not all groups come in on the same playing ground. Some clubs are on the long road to building their way back to contention, while others make small tweaks to depth spots to round out the roster.
The Nashville Predators are in an interesting place. They came into the 2021-22 season projected by most outlets and writers (including myself) not to make the postseason. Instead, they barely squeaked in as the second wild card team. They played the Colorado Avalanche, and it ended in a sweep.
The sweep marks the third true first-round exit in the last four years, with the fourth being the play-in exit against the Arizona Coyotes during the Covid-19 bubble. In a year full of firsts for the Predators organization, it was only fair that they ended the season in the first sweep in franchise history.
Fans have been very vocal about their opinions on almost every facet of the franchise. From the general manager to the coach to the roster, the fanbase is not happy with the consistent losing in the early rounds of the playoffs. But, as a whole, what are we looking at with the club, and what kind of things can, or rather, should be done to change things?
Top to Bottom
The General Manager
Let’s start from the top and work our way down. First, David Poile has been acting as general manager of the Predators since the team’s inception. He has been the leader of the organization through all the ups and downs. But, as the years move on and time passes as the Predators’ success continues to be fleeting, it feels as if his days are numbered. The moves he has made as of late also signify that. The most significant point of contention is his trade with the Seattle Kraken. Sending a second-round draft pick for a seventh defenseman is not a good move. Lauzon did prove to be effective in a penalty-killing role, but just because he fits in with the culture and identity of the Predators does not mean he is worth a valuable draft pick. Trading away draft capital like that is not an effective way to help your team get better.
The move to get Luke Kunin from the Minnesota Wild also wasn’t one many were a fan of. It looks even worse now that Kunin had an awful year at $2.3 million. As a reminder, the Predators traded Nick Bonino, the 37th overall pick in the 2020 draft (Marat Khusnutdinov), and the 70th overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft (Eemil Viro) for Kunin and the 101st overall pick in the 2020 draft (Adam Wilsby).
The idea behind the trade was solid. The Predators at the time were one of the oldest teams in the league, and they needed to get younger. They also managed to dump the salary Bonino was owed. However, moving one of the most reliable players on the team AS WELL as the 37th overall pick—which by the looks of it could come to bite them because Khusnutdinov is most likely going to be an excellent player for the Wild—and then signing Kunin to a $2.3 million deal is not going to look great on a resume.
That is not the trade(s) of contention for most, though. There’s a saying that originated in 1948 from Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck that says, “sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.” In Poile’s case, the ones he hasn’t made have cost him prospects and draft capital. Not trading Craig Smith is probably the biggest mistake he’s made in that department recently. He didn’t trade Smith at the deadline, Smith walked, and the Predators got nothing in return. The same could be said about Erik Haula, and while he’s no Smith, he still could have fetched some return, even if it was a low to mid-round draft pick.
There is also the odd trend that has seemed to take place over the last few seasons, with no moves being made until Poile finds a way to send assets over for a seventh defenseman that makes little to no impact on the team. The assets aren’t make or break, obviously. However, making a trade solely to make a trade is not a recipe for success.
At the end of the day, Poile’s moves in the trade market, or rather lack thereof, are the key to opening a gate of vehement criticism from a fanbase that is sick of hearing the same excuses that they have heard at exit press conferences since the 2019 loss to the Dallas Stars in the second round of the postseason. Getting swept in the first round by a team that is leagues ahead does not signify progress to anyone. And as much as I love Mark Borowiecki, he’s not one of the primary reasons to watch the Predators play hockey. The end of season presser was simply not good enough for anyone. The honesty from Poile was extremely important, but it’s not good enough.
At the end of the day, Poile has not won anything with the Predators, and as the early postseason exits continue, it is going to be harder and harder to keep bringing people in. If Filip Forsberg does not end up back in Nashville, people are going to bring out their pitchforks.
The Head Coach
Since John Hynes was hired after the firing of Peter Laviolette, he has had a short leash with the people watching the product on the ice. After being fired from a struggling New Jersey Devils team and then almost immediately picked up by the Predators, it was not a surprise to see the perplexed or angry reactions. And after being exited in the first round through his entire tenure, it’s not hard to see why fans continue to be frustrated.
The Predators fought a lot, and the penalties they took, especially towards the end of the season, became incredibly frustrating. It’s always good to hear and see that the Predators players were willing to stand up for each other. But at some point during the season, taking penalties became a part of the Predators’ team identity, and it cost them games.
Not only did the penalties continue to happen, but Hynes instituted the line blender towards the end of the season as well. Instead of sticking with what worked, it felt like pure chaos. Kunin and Nick Cousins ended up on the first line with Ryan Johansen for a while before he brought up Yakov Trenin and moved Kunin with Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund. Let’s not even get started on the myriad of line combinations that faced Eeli Tolvanen and Philip Tomasino.
The line blender is something that Devils fans warned the Predators fanbase about, and this year, there were plenty of times where it made itself known.
Of course, it would be unfair of me not to mention that Hynes managed to get career years out of lots of players on the roster. The problem lies with that happening and the team still ending up as the second wild card with no wins in the first round—especially considering that in the last few months of the season, the Predators looked burned out, and their record was a reflection of it. All of those career seasons and nothing to show for it certainly indicates a bigger, and most likely, systematic issue.
Forsberg and Duchene had the first 40-goal seasons in Predators history. Granlund had a career high in assists (53). Johansen tied his second-best goalscoring number at 26. Tanner Jeannot led all rookies in goals with 24. Juuse Saros is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Finally, Roman Josi had one of the best offensive seasons from an NHL defenseman in almost 30 years.
There was a lot to like about the top players and their performances this season. However, with the good came the bad. Kunin was awful. Tolvanen was underwhelming in the scoring department despite being one of the better defensive players on the team. New acquisition Philippe Myers was entirely underwhelming. Ben Harpur saw the ice too much as well.
The roster is at an interesting spot at this junction. The top players played extremely well, while lots of the complementary pieces did not, or they did not play well enough to have a true impact on the outcome of the season. Another problem that has risen is the fact that lots of these star players most likely won’t be able to put up these kind of numbers again. A 90-100 point season consistently for Josi is not sustainable. Jeannot shooting at around 20 percent is most likely not sustainable. Duchene, Granlund and Johansen are 31, 30, and 29 years old respectively. So, not only did the Predators squeak into the playoffs with said career seasons, but these players are not at the point where it can be considered something that will happen consistently.
The Predators’ roster is not just one or two pieces away. They may be one or two pieces away from winning a couple games against the Avalanche, but in terms of contending, it’s a long shot given the teams they would have to play against.
So, where are we?
If there was one word I would use to describe the Predators, it would be “mediocre.” They are not even close to good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup, given the quality of their competition and the fact that those teams seem to get better year after year. However, they clearly have no interest in bottoming out and starting from scratch. It’s an intriguing dichotomy, and one that has to be solved if the Predators want any sort of success.
Probably the most common argument from those that don’t want to bottom out is that there is absolutely zero guarantee that the Predators get a superstar player like a Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov, or even Adam Fantilli among other up and coming players in different drafts. It’s a completely valid take on the situation. However, that kind of gamble is the one that teams have to make if they are attempting to contend. Gamebreaking players rarely come on the open market, and teams that are in the Predators’ current predicament rarely have the ability to sign them.
The biggest problem with the rebuild train is also the fact that it takes more than just getting high picks in the draft to build a contender. Of course, a little bit of luck is necessary, but the scouting department and draft teams for the franchises need to be strong as well. Lots of players on Stanley Cup contenders were pickups in the later rounds. Whether they fell because of size, skating ability, shooting talent, or other issues, the teams that selected them took advantage of others’ mistakes.
The Predators’ drafting as of late has been relatively strong. I’m no draft expert, but adding up what I know about prospects as well as my faith in other, more knowledgable people (like OTF’s own Eric Dunay), I have been pretty pleased. At this point, my faith in the Predators, if they were to draft early, is higher than it would have been just a few seasons ago.
The biggest thing it appears more and more fans are taking notice of is that the Predators don’t appear to have any sort of plan. They say they want to contend for the Stanley Cup, but acquiring low-tier defensemen at the trade deadline does nothing to aid that endeavor. They also don’t have enough cap room to go after guys that could truly make a difference as well as re-signing Forsberg.
The one “game breaking” talent that the Predators have is Roman Josi on the back end. However, it has been proven that if teams want to contend for the cup, they’re going to need more than just one game-breaking defenseman, especially one that is entering his 32-year-old season.
No matter where you stand on the route that the Predators should take, I think everyone can say that they are sick and tired of the first round exits. The definition of insanity, as a popular anonymous saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. And as of now, that feels like what the Predators are doing. They are missing the game-breaking talent that separates them from the contenders, and in the opinion of most, they are missing the head coaching ability as well. One person is responsible for that, and it’s the guy in the general manager seat.
What the Predators decide to do with Poile in the twilight of his managerial career is certainly something to be looking out for as time moves forward. What Poile decides to do with the roster over the offseason is as important as ever. The only thing we can do now is watch it all unfold.
So, where are we? To quote from the band Stealers Wheel, “Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”