Everyone’s darling. It’s always so much fun when the Canadian media “discovers” that hockey can be enjoyed somewhere else other than some main artery in Toronto or that one strip of bars in Calgary where everyone wears a jersey because they don’t actually own anything else. Of course, this also happened in 2012 when the Canucks played the Predators in the 2nd round and they were shocked to discover the Nashville fans had better and more fun traditions than, “two college kids ripping off a game from It’s Always Sunny,” and “waving a towel.”
Whatever, the Nashville Predators made the most noise they ever have in the playoffs last year, and outplayed the Penguins for a good stretch of the Final. But in the same vein as, “didn’t, lawyer fucked me,” they went the, “if only Pekka Rinne was actually as good as we keep telling people he is” route for defeat excuse. Here’s the thing though: Pekka Rinne is still here. And he’s a year older.
’16-’17 Record: 41-29-12 94 points (4th in Central, lost Final to PIT)
Team Stats 5v5: 51.3 CF% (5th) 51.3 SF% (7th) 50.7 SCF% (14th) 7.8 SH% (13th) .926 SV% (9th)
Special Teams: 18.9 PP% (16th) 80.9 PK% (15th)
Goalies: Right, so we can get right to the rub of the thing. Rinne will turn 35 this year. That’s a concern. The last goalie to take a team to the Final past 35 was Martin Brodeur, and the Kings turned him into pretzel bits. Tim Thomas did it the year before, and we know he was possessed by some kind of demon. Certainly no goalie that age has taken a team to the Final twice in a row.
Rinne was ok last year during the season. A .918 overall SV% and .928 SV% at evens are like the very definition of “ok.” Rinne has always been ok at evens, the one outlier being his .902 three years ago. His .916 two years ago would be considered below-average, and now he’s a year older. If he were to split his last two years at even-strength down the middle it would be .922, which is just below the cutoff line of acceptable. Rinne isn’t likely to completely fall apart, but if the Predators are counting on anything looking like “excellence,” they’re headed for disappointment and yearning, which is where we live.
The insurance policy is Juuse Saros, who played 21 games last year. His overall .923 SV% looks pretty good until you look a little deeper and see he had a .920 on the penalty kill, which is simply not sustainable (Carey Price’s career SV% shorthanded is .875). Saaros is awfully small, listed at 5-11 and goalies that size have a rough-go of it in today’s NHL where screens and scrambles are by-minute occurrence. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s just far from a sure thing. This is hardly a settled position for the Preds.
Defense: It was the strength of the team until something went TWANG! on Ryan Ellis, who is out until January. Suddenly Alexei Emelin is going to have to skate top four minutes for the Preds for half of a season, and Alexei Emelin is a moon-faced dolt. You can still do a lot with Roman Josi, PK Subban, and Mattias Ekholm, however. Anthony Bitetto isn’t nearly as bad as I want him to be, either. The Preds season transformed when Peter Laviolette stopped trying to jam Subban and Josi together (not an unpleasant image for some) and split them up. If he resists the temptation to do so again with Ellis out, this is still a team that’s has get-up-and-go on every pairing, and that’s without Ellis. We know Lavvy only knows one way, so the Preds are going to just play at a pace few can match. The problem is that might kill Emelin, if his play doesn’t kill Predators fans watching him first.
Forwards: I mean, there can’t be too many complaints here. Even if you don’t believe Viktor Arvidsson is going to shoot 13% again, his combo with Johansen and Filip Forsberg is pretty lethal, if only through their speed. No, the Preds didn’t have anyone score over 61 points last year, and if they’re going to manage their first division title in franchise history (seriously, they’ve never finished first) that’s going to have to change. Given the ages of the top three though you’d figure this is the year.
The second line gets a huge boost in Nick Bonino, which is a trade-up from Mike Fisher, at least offensively. However, Bonino won’t get the cushion of cleaning up against whatever rabble was left after Malkin and Crosby as he did in Pittsburgh. The x-factor for the Preds is Kevin Fiala. He’s just 21, though we’ve heard about him for a while. If he busts out, the Preds have a top-six to rival anyone else’s combined with that defense.
There is a dropoff between the top and bottom six, though. Scott Hartnell is a traffic cone with hair at this point and can’t keep up with what it is the Predators are going to want to do. You can have Colton Sissons. Really the only useful forward in the bottom six is Calle Jarnkrok, who might displace Sissons at center anyway. There are some depth issues, though there are a host of kids in Milwaukee who could slot in. Still, it’s not like there are teams in the West crawling with depth either. The Hawks are a tad short (at the moment), we know about the Blues, Stars, Wild, etc. It’s a problem that can be managed until the deadline if it has to be.
Outlook: It’s not as automatic for the Predators as some would like to believe. The goalies could be an issue. Ellis being out is a problem. Also hanging over everything is that teams tend to burn out on Laviolette at some point, and if the start is rocky they could too. Still, given the defense and the speed they can play with, there’s no reason to think the Predators won’t be dancing at the top of the Central. If Rinne doesn’t turn into powder, they could go real far again.
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