Predators’ collapse a long time coming

A look back at the game that first showed cracks in the Predators’ foundation.

After Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Predators sit at seventh place in the Central Division, only leading Detroit. In terms of points percentage, they are the fifth-worst team in the NHL. They have a bottom-ten power play and the worst penalty kill in the league. Lines are scrambled each night as Head Coach John Hynes endlessly throws ideas against the wall hoping something sticks, but he hasn’t found any solutions. Despite keeping the core of their Stanley Cup Final run of the 2016-17 season still relatively intact, the Nashville Predators look completely lost.

How did we get here?

Let’s be honest—this transformation of the Predators from contender to a cellar dweller did not occur overnight. Since the Stanley Cup Final run of the 2016-17 season, the Predators have only won a single playoff series: the following year against the Colorado Avalanche. Furthermore, the Predators have the worst power play in the NHL across the last three seasons, only scoring on 14.9% of their chances. For a team that’s supposed to have the level of talent that the front office, fans, and media claim the Predators have, that’s unacceptable.

There are plenty of reasons for the collapse. First, we’ve seen youth play a massive role in a team’s success in the modern NHL. The Predators were a young team back when they made the Cup run; now they’re the fourth-oldest team in the league, with a team average age of 27.44 years. Second, there’s the atrocious special teams. Third, one can look at coaching failures to make meaningful change; and fourth, there’s the mental frailty of the team as a whole. The list goes on and on. This iteration of the Predators is simply broken.

When did this collapse start? Was the window still open before the Predators lost to the Arizona Coyotes, failing to technically make the playoffs last year? Or maybe the turning point was when the Predators lost to the Dallas Stars in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs?

No. The cracks in the foundation first revealed themselves was in a regular-season game against the Winnipeg Jets on October 11, 2018. Nobody focused on them at the time, and many people didn’t even notice, because they were masked by a 3-0 win.

It’s a truth in sports that a team can win despite playing worse than an opponent, and that a team can lose despite playing better. That’s what makes sports entertaining—that unknown outcome. It is also why even wins should be scrutinized with a critical eye, lest you miss the flaws presented by the winners.

In a game filled with penalties, largely due to the intensity of their seven-game playoff series the previous year still lingering, the Predators emerged 3-0 victors despite having an even number of high-danger scoring chances. However, the Predators had eight power play opportunities, two of which were 5-on-3. They failed to score on a single opportunity.

Think about what those numbers really mean. The Winnipeg Jets had a whole period’s worth of additional time in the penalty box compared to the Predators. They were icing a completely exhausted team that still held the Predators’ power play in check the entire game. And, despite being shorthanded eight different times, the Jets still managed to play level in high-danger chances to the Nashville Predators.

It was a completely unacceptable performance by the Predators, and they escaped with two points and their tail between their legs. If the Predators couldn’t score a single goal in a whole period’s worth of extra penalties to the Jets, how were they supposed to capitalize in the playoffs with the stakes even higher for their opponents? For the Predators to give up as many high danger chances as they did given all their extra time with the extra skater, it also meant they were still relying on an aging Pekka Rinne to bail them out because they shirked defensive responsibilities and allowed far too many odd-man rushes.

Fast-forward to today, and those issues have only grown ever more apparent. The failure for the power play to accomplish anything is well-documented by this point in time. The umbrella system just does not work for the Predators any more, but both John Hynes and former head coach Peter Laviolette insisted on using it despite its lack of success.

Power Outage: Predators’ power play solutions start with helping players

The team still relies on goaltending to bail them out of games, but Pekka Rinne, despite having a fine season so far, isn’t able to make that jaw-dropping “impossible save” that solely keeps the Predators in games. Juuse Saros, while again being fine, also has yet to show that he can singlehandedly steal a game, let alone a playoff series. But the Predators shouldn’t have to rely on their goaltending to bail them out as often as they do, because they shouldn’t be giving up as many quality chances as they allow. Across all situations since 2018, the Predators are in the bottom half of the NHL when looking at their share of high-danger chances at 5-on-5 (49.44%, according to Natural Stat Trick). Contenders play better hockey than that.

I’m a firm believer that, just as one can find things that were executed well in a loss, one can find underlying problems in a win. The problem for the Nashville Predators is that they either failed to find those underlying problems, or did not think they were a big deal. Neither offense is excusable.

The Predators are now a team scrambling for a band-aid fix for a wound that needs stitches. General Manager David Poile hasn’t found a solution as, in addition to swapping Laviolette for Hynes, he has tinkered with the lineup to no avail. Head Coach John Hynes doesn’t have the answers either, but what good is there in replacing him now? There’s no indication that this team could become great overnight. The best course of action may actually be riding out the season with him and tanking for a better draft pick. That’s a terrible spot to be in for a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations entering last season.

Responsibility also falls on the players, as every time the Predators give up a tough goal or have a bad call against them, they look visibly defeated. It looks as if they think the game is already lost, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Roman Josi looks like the only Predator night in and night out who believes in himself, and that’s not good enough.

The Nashville Predators are a broken team, and have been for longer than many would like to admit. The special teams issues are nothing new, both old and new coaches have failed to find answers, and all the current problems have long plagued the team before growing into the unsolvable issues they are. If the team started recognizing these issues when they first arose, perhaps they wouldn’t be the long-term problems they are. Unfortunately for fans, all that can be done now is to sit, wait, and hope that change magically comes.

When do you think the Predators first showed that they were no longer elite Stanley Cup contenders?

2018 series against Winnipeg142
October 11, 2018 game against Winnipeg17
2019 series against Dallas181
2020 series against Arizona10