Hot Or Not?: Ups and downs from the Predators’ first three weeks

2021 has delivered some hot starts, while others, like Andre 3000, are cooler than being cool.

The Nashville Predators are now eight games into the 2021 NHL season, and their record is a clean 50/50 split: four wins and four losses.

That 50/50 split also applies to the Preds’ overall play. There are plenty of aspects in which the Predators have played well. Likewise, there are other aspects that fans watch before loudly exclaiming “MY GOD, WHAT IS THIS PENALTY KILL? PLEASE, BURN THIS ALL WITH FIRE.”

Now, as a reminder, we’re three weeks into the season (did you hear that, Twitter? Just. Three. Weeks.) and there’s a lot of hockey left to play. Fortunes in the NHL can change on a dime.

That being said, let’s take a look at the Predators who are starting “hot,” and the ice cold ones who are simply “not.”

Hot: Juuse Saros

We suspected 2021 might be Juuse Saros’s audition for role of “Predators’ franchise goaltender.” If that’s the case, the 25-year-old Finn is certainly nailing it so far. After two subpar games against Dallas, Saros rebounded with perhaps his best game since the pandemic stoppage, stopping 29 of Chicago’s 30 shots in regulation and overtime, then stonewalling all three of the Blackhawks’ shootout attempts. A lot of Juuse’s saves this seasons haven’t been “gimmes” either; he’s had to fight to get a stick, glove, or blocker on several deflections and redirections. These are the types of game-stealing saves we wanted to see out of Saros this season. So far, he’s delivered.

Hot: Mikael Granlund

The whole “Mikael Granlund seemed to play better under John Hynes” narrative apparently has some legs to it. Granlund, who re-signed with Nashville on a one-year deal just a week before training camp, has arguably been the Predators’ best forward since making his return to the lineup. He’s already third on the team in points (2 G, 2 A) despite missing the Preds’ first three games, and leads all forwards in ice time with 20:09 per game. It’s clear Hynes trusts Granlund in a variety of different situations. If Granlund keeps rewarding that trust with a level of play like this, the Preds may have found their much-needed scoring depth.

Hot: Deep South Hockey!

Is Biloxi, Mississippi the newest hockey hotbed? If you answered “yes”’re probably wrong. But hey! It’s still cool to see some good ol’ southern boys in the NHL! The Preds’ Mathieu Olivier scored his first career goal Saturday against Tampa Bay, becoming the first Mississippi-born player to light the lamp in the league. Meanwhile, Mississippi’s beloved Eastern neighbor, Alabama, is getting some NHL love as well. Huntsville native Nic Dowd has enjoyed a bigger role with the Washington Capitals due to the team’s COVID-related absences, adding two goals and an assist in the team’s recent stretch.

Not: Special Teams

I thought things were supposed to be better in 2021 WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?!? *ahem*

You don’t need a long intro about the Predators’ special teams woes. They’ve been well-documented for the past three seasons. This year, the Predators are killing just 63.6% of their penalties, dead last in the NHL. Over on the power play, the story’s not much different. The Preds rank 25th in the league at 12.1%. As Adam Vingan pointed out this past week, Nashville is worst in the NHL on the power play since the start of the 2018-19 season (around 14%).

What’s concerning is the lack of innovation to fix this issue. The Predators have had the same power play formation/strategy for the past couple of seasons, and other than a few personnel swaps, we haven’t seen a lot of tweaks. That would be one thing if we were a few weeks into the season and the Predators were getting decent chances, just not converting. But that’s not the case. Opponents know exactly what the Preds are trying to do on the power play, they’re prepared for it, and they’re stopping it. A change is needed.

Not: Rocco Grimaldi

Last season was by far Rocco Grimaldi’s best in the NHL, posting a career-best 31 points as part of (arguably) the Predators’ best line. But without Nick Bonino and Craig Smith, the pint-sized dynamo has struggled to even find ice time. Grimaldi has been a healthy scratch in four of the Predators’ last five games. He’s yet to find the same type of well-rounded chemistry he enjoyed on the third line last year, which in a vacuum, isn’t a glaring issue just three weeks into the season. But with Olivier and Yakov Trenin playing extremely well, and with Calle Järnkrok’s return looming, ice time may continue to be hard to come by.

Not: Snakebite Antivenin

Seriously, what type of Indiana Jones ancient deity did the Nashville Predators tick off? The lineup is rife with players who are (mostly) doing all the right things, they’re just not getting credit for it on the scoresheet.

Apart from a shooutout winner, Matt Duchene has yet to hit the back of the net this season, despite several high-danger chances directly in front of the net. Ryan Johansen’s in the same boat. He has just three assists, but has consistently made beautiful plays to set up chances that either ring off the post, miss the net, or are stifled by a highlight reel save. Viktor Arvidsson, one player who actually DOES have success on the scoresheet (his six points—2 G, 4 A—are tied for the team lead), should probably have more goals to his credit, but he too has watched several “easy scores” miss the net.

There’s obviously an upside to all of this. These players are performing well. But at the end of the day, you need to put pucks in the net in order to win games. If the Preds get into a slow stretch, these “they’re doing everything right except scoring” arguments are going to lose weight.