Matt Duchene is not the Predators’ salvation—and that’s not his fault
The Predators have been “just one more forward” away for years.
In the spring of 2017, with Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher, and Kevin Fiala missing due to injury, the Nashville Predators were forced to ice Colton Sissons and Calle Järnkrok as their top two centers in the Stanley Cup Final. The referees’ input ranged from bad (a bad offside call in Game One) to atrocious (#SissonsScored). Pontus Åberg was a first-line winger. Pekka Rinne couldn’t stop a shot in Pittsburgh.
The Predators still came incredibly close to the first Stanley Cup championship in team history.
I don’t usually buy the “one more forward” narrative, but if ever there was a time that one more forward really feels like it would have changed the course of team history, that was the time—right there, under a national spotlight, with a media feud breaking out and the narrative machine cranking up into high gear as the Preds made the Final in their first season after the controversial trade of longtime captain Shea Weber. Everyone in the world who was still watching NHL hockey was watching the Preds play, that June, and everyone in the world who was still watching NHL hockey saw the Preds fall just short—one goal short. One forward short.
Here’s the thing: so many things had to go right along the way for the Predators to make the Cup Final, just as they always do for any team to win three best-of-seven series of a sport as prone to randomness as hockey. The exact same team put in the exact same place at the start of the postseason wouldn’t have had the exact same results. Maybe Rinne allowed that shot he barely saved in Game 3 of the Blackhawks series, and the Preds didn’t get it to overtime, and without the psychological boost of the sweep they didn’t manage to push as far as they did. Maybe the Blues managed to break someone more essential than Fiala. Maybe John Gibson, one of the best goalies in the entire NHL, didn’t implode in the Western Conference Final. Maybe one of the Preds’ opponents lost an earlier series and the winner was a worse matchup for that Predators roster. Maybe...well, there are a lot of maybes. If you got the 2017 roster back to the starting point and added one more forward, there are too many maybes for the Stanley Cup Final to be a guarantee, let alone the Cup itself.
The Predators were one forward short when they sacrificed their self-respect to sign Mike Ribeiro to have a center for rookie Filip Forsberg and new acquisition James Neal, who they hoped would have the raw, showy offensive power that Patric Hörnqvist hadn’t quite. They were still one forward short when that roster lost in six to the Blackhawks that spring.
They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, and they were still one forward short. Former Milwaukee Admiral Viktor Arvidsson had a breakout 2016-17 season, and they were still one forward short. They traded Samuel Girard and Vladislav Kamenev in order to get Kyle Turris, and they were still one forward short. They traded Kevin Fiala, who’d disappointed, for Mikael Granlund, who had a solid history of very good two-way play, and they were still one forward short. They dumped P.K. Subban to get the cap space to sign Matt Duchene...
At what point do they stop being one forward short? They’re on at least half a dozen additions over the past five seasons. At a certain point, you can’t blame the forwards any more.
Two years ago, when the Predators traded for Turris, the initial reaction was of disappointment and confusion—they’d been so close to landing Duchene, who’d gone to the Senators in that three-way trade, at last. Then Turris suited up in gold and replaced Colton Sissons as the center for Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith, and his line took off like someone had lit a fuse under it. Turris had seventeen points in his first seventeen games with the Preds, who went 13-2-2 over that stretch. Smith had 16 points in the same 17 games, and Fiala put together 11 while missing four of those games due to injury. Meanwhile, the top line of Forsberg, Johansen, and Arvidsson feasted similarly: 18 points for Forsberg, 14 for Arvidsson, and 14 for Johansen in 14 games.
The Predators scored fewer than three goals in a game only twice during that honeymoon streak: both were two-goal shutouts as Rinne blanked the Blues and the Flames in their home arenas. Nine of those seventeen games got the fans Frostys: two four-goal games, five five-goal games, a 6-3 stomping of the Capitals, and a 7-1 annihilation of the Canucks.
It was beautiful. It was magnificent.
Is—is this what watching a team with two top-six centers is like /all the time/?— Kate 🧷 (@statswithkate) November 15, 2017
Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
Kyle Turris had come to Nashville as a creative offensive player who gave up a lot but made good, clever, dangerous passes (hat tip to Corey Sznajder, whose hand-tracking of games was a big help in helping spot the obvious strength that Turris brought to the Preds). At the IIHF World Championships in 2019, Turris spoke about the difference between his recent disappointment in Nashville and his very strong play internationally:
“I’m making plays and not second-guessing anything and just playing the game I’ve played my whole life. [...] Obviously, I’m healthy now, but ultimately just having the confidence to play the way I know I can play. Not worrying about anything, not second-guessing anything. Just playing hockey the way I’ve always played hockey.”
[“Whether Kyle Turris stays or goes, his play at Worlds only benefits the Predators,” Adam Vingan for The Athletic]
Peter Laviolette has a reputation as a great offensive coach—Danny Brière says that Laviolette was the first coach he ever had who specifically coached offense—but that reputation seems to be a little overblown.
The Predators have struggled getting to the slot, which is not supposed to be lava, for the duration of his tenure. Hiring Dan Lambert injected some motion into a static and struggling power play—a power play that Laviolette claimed his entire staff and the whole roster couldn’t see any obvious problem with—but they’re sliding back towards old, stagnant habits.
Micah Blake McCurdy’s coaching isolates support the idea that something is rotten in the state of Tennessee:
That’s, um, a lot of offense not happening in the most dangerous areas of the ice. A lot.
The way to keep from getting kept to the outside—as keeps happening to the Predators—is to play with skill and creativity, to make clever passes, to draw the defenders out of position, to work yourself into position. Almost all of that is coachable. Laviolette’s system relies on offense by volume; he seems to value keeping the puck in the offensive zone over getting the puck to dangerous areas of the offensive zone. As a defensive strategy, it’s great, and I do admire the fact that he recognizes that. As an offensive strategy, it’s flawed.
And this is what we come back to. A lot of the time, a team that can’t get to the middle of the ice—can’t make those great defense-breaking plays—is a team that needs another highly-skilled offensive player.
Just one more, you think, because the Predators have a lot of good ones already. They’re so close, you think, because you can see the individual skill on display when Forsberg passes to himself between his legs, or Johansen saucers a pass through four opponents right onto the tape of one of his wingers, or Roman Josi goes coast to coast and finishes with a goal that makes you believe—just briefly—in happiness again.
But the Predators keep getting that one more skill player.
Matt Duchene had three points in his first game with the Predators, five points in his first two games, six points in his first three and eight in his first four. It wasn’t until his sixth game in gold that he was held without a point. A franchise record was tied. Wayne Gretzky was brought up in the conversation, I think. He was on fire, and the team was soaring with him.
Gonna wait until Duchene has had a couple of months to be settled into Laviolette's system before I start scouting parade routes.— Kate 🧷 (@statswithkate) October 4, 2019
The Predators have now lost seven of their last eight games, dating back to October 31—the same game where Duchene slipped under a point per game in the young 2019-20 season. None of that is his fault. He’s been one of the Preds’ best players both defensively and offensively. He’s made some excellent plays.
He’s not going to save this team on his own, any more than Mikael Granlund did. Or Kyle Turris. Or Kevin Fiala, or Viktor Arvidsson. Or Ryan Johansen. Or...
Sometimes, it’s not that you don’t have the right pieces. It’s that the piece of the puzzle you’re trying to fit into the sky is actually part of the ocean, and the piece that you thought belonged to the ocean is a beach umbrella. If their goaltending steadies out, the Predators can win with the roster they have right now. There’s nothing wrong with the players—it’s just a question of whether those players are being used to the best of their abilities.
Numerical statistics, including team records, are from hockey-reference.com. Many thanks as well to Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz for background, as well as for the embedded dataviz.