Predators’ bad start has exposed fundamental issues with franchise decision-making

It is not looking good, folks.

Since returning from Prague in the Czech Republic, the Nashville Predators have struggled to win games and, in some games, have even struggled to look competitive. They dropped their first contest back in the United States at home against the Dallas Stars 4-1. Then they lost again to the Stars, this time in Texas, 5-1. Then, they lost in a shootout to the Los Angeles Kings and fell 5-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets and 3-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers.

After being shut out by the Washington Capitals, the Predators headed north of the border to play the Edmonton Oilers, where Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid seemingly did whatever they wanted on the ice and led their team to a 7-4 victory. Evander Kane also scored a hat trick.

It should be pointed out that it's still very early. In a few weeks, this article could mean absolutely nothing. The NHL season is full of ups and downs, but there are some serious fundamental issues with how the team is playing, how the lineups are being chosen, and even how the team is built.

The Roster and Lineup

The easiest thing to pick apart with the 2022-23 Predators is the roster and nightly lineup decisions. Head coach John Hynes continues to make baffling lineup decisions, opting to keep error-prone players like Cole Smith and Michael McCarron in the lineup, with Eeli Tolvanen serving as a healthy scratch and Philip Tomasino getting top minutes in the American Hockey League. Instead of deploying those two young guns with another in Cody Glass, they're not getting NHL playing time.

Hynes switched it up recently, with Glass being the healthy scratch against Edmonton and Tolvanen coming back into the lineup.

As most know, Tolvanen struggled to score throughout 2021-22, but in Prague and even in the first few games he played in North America, he looked to be regaining his confidence on offense. As for Tomasino, Hynes and the coaching staff were correct that he didn't have the strongest camp and preseason. However, the philosophy that one bad preseason (where he wasn't given much of a chance anyway) supersedes an entire season of solid results in a depth role with below-average players is understandably mind-boggling to fans.

If anyone is unfamiliar, Hynes had the same problem with choosing veterans or hard-hitters instead of high-skilled younger players during his tenure with the New Jersey Devils. My colleague Bryan Bastin talked about it with CJ Turturo after the Predators signed Hynes as the new head coach. You can read the full article here, but this excerpt is essential.

Bastin: Taylor Hall said Hynes was the best coach he ever played for, and he seemed to be well liked by his players. Does he have the reputation as a “players’ coach”?

Turtoro: He is very well-liked by veteran players. Run through the interviews after he was dismissed and you’ll see a lot of support from the likes of Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Kyle Palmieri, and especially Taylor Hall. He does team trips every offseason to help the team establish brotherhood and they generally seem to appreciate it.The only disconnect is that he held young, talented players to a higher accountability standard than vets. As an example, Jesper Bratt (leads the Devils in xGAR this season) was scratched in consecutive games this season. I can’t confirm that this was frustrating for these players, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

If Hynes does it with a team like New Jersey, which, at that stage, was not a good team and focused on developing young players in the NHL, he will continue to do it with Nashville.

Probably the biggest thing that the Predators should have seen coming is regression. I gave general manager David Poile credit in an article for his offseason. He did what he needed to do in acquiring Ryan McDonagh and Nino Niederreiter, among other moves. However, there was still a question that needed to be asked throughout the offseason: what happens when everyone regresses?

The Predators squeaked into the playoffs off the backs of career performances from many players, including Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and Mikael Granlund. Now that these players have returned to Earth (primarily Josi), where will the missing scoring come from? Unfortunately, McDonagh is not good enough to make up for the reduction in points, and Niederreiter isn't either. So yes, the Predators filled urgent holes, but the regression issue remained.

Some might argue that Poile and the Predators did all they could. But going back to the lineup choices they’re making, Smith, McCarron, Zach Sanford, and Kiefer Sherwood are not good enough players to help score the points the team is going to lose out on, thanks to statistical inevitabilities. Tolvanen and Tomasino could be.

As much fun as the previous season was, there wasn't as much talk regarding what the Predators were going to do when the players who had incredible seasons last year didn't score at the same clip, and ultimately it's costing them.

If it takes career seasons for multiple players and consistent Vezina-level goaltending to squeak into the wild card spot, the problem would appear more significant than a couple of roster holes. As it's still early in the season, there should be some concern from the higher-ups about the direction this team is headed, because the process doesn't look good. Sloppy turnovers through the neutral zone, losing opposing players deep in the zone, and giving up odd-man rushes, among other things, will not win hockey games.

If things continue to get worse (and they could, considering the upcoming opponents on the current road trip), there are bound to be changes. Many, including myself, have been clamoring for a rebuild, but Poile and his brass have dug their heels in the sand. The team is in a tough spot to do it right now, given where their money is allocated and the moves they made over the offseason, but if anything, that’s another reflection of the puzzling decision-making that the front office makes.

The Predators have not been contenders since their 2018 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, and the apparent refusal to acknowledge that while other teams like the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes, and others get faster and more skilled is a detriment to the franchise's future.

With a heavy heart, I say the longer they hold off from recognizing that reality, the worse it will get. Even if the team does manage to turn it around in the next couple of weeks, the fact remains that they won't get substantially better until they get worse first.

Everything from the Predators’ lousy start this season originates with Hynes continuing to give bad players that can throw the body around more leeway than young and skilled players. The on-ice process and results are not making up for the decisions either. The identity that Hynes is attempting to instill—hard to play against physically with an emphasis on moving the puck through the middle of the ice—doesn't work when teams can avoid the hits, break through the weak defensive systems, and draw penalties because of a “be physical above all else” mindset.

Then, it moves to the refusal by Poile, his staff, and ownership to understand when the window is closed and when a particular style of hockey doesn't work. I will continue to give full props to Poile for making the correct moves this offseason. However, the Predators are also in this situation because of some bad contracts, bad trades, bad coaching decisions, and—worst of all—an organizational failure to recognize that the window was shut and the blinds were closed.

The start of the Predators’ 2022-23 NHL season has been an absolute disaster. Yes, it's only 10 games. However, the picture is much broader than one bad start to one season. Some severe reflection needs to be done on many different levels regarding where this team is headed. If the Predators are still serious about winning, some significant changes need to be made somewhere.