Folks, we have made it. The journey that through the desert that is the NHL offseason was hot, dry, and miserable. You can insert your own joke there. Nashville Predators hockey is back for the 2018-19 season, and it may be better than ever. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but this could be the year. I won’t say which year, but I’ll let you do that math. Let’s dive into the best (looking) team in the league.
Here’s a quick recap of things from last season to refresh your memory.
2017-18 record: 53-18-11
GF/G – 3.26 (7th)
GA/G – 2.57 (2nd)
PP – 21.17% (13th)
PK – 81.94% (6th)
Key additions: D Dan Hamuis
Key losses: D Alexei Emelin
Goals – Viktor Arvidsson (29)
Assists – P.K. Subban (43)
Points – Filip Forsberg (64)
GAA – Pekka Rinne (2.31)
Sv% – Pekka Rinne (.927)
Once this team added Kyle Turris in November of last season, the offense took off. I don’t exactly see that changing this year. The top line of Ryan Johansen between Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg is one of my favorite things on this planet. Scratch that. It is my favorite thing on this planet. At this point, those three know where each other will be before they get there. The type of chemistry on this line would make Bill Nye blush. I can feel it in my bones that Forsberg and Joey have huge years. I’m talking like around a point per game season for Fil, and *at least* 65 points from the Mullet Man himself. I have no notes for Arvi. He is and always will be perfect. This line remains one of the best in the NHL — they play against top competition every night and still get results.
Here is what I want you to do with your memory of the performance of the second line in the playoffs: throw it in the garbage. Use a memory wiper thing from Men In Black and fugeddaboudit. What is more indicative of this line’s play? The 65 games it got with Kyle Turris in the regular season or the 13 in which they had scoring chances aplenty but couldn’t finish? Craig Smith had a great bounce back season, and Kevin Fiala took a step forward in his development. You have to give a ton of credit to Turris there. Granted, I would love to see Turris find the back of the net more. If Turris could climb into the 20-goal club with the other two, that would be perfect. Because the JoFA line does what it does, this line gets to go up against lesser competition and feasts.
Because Ryan Hartman still has a little recovering to do from shoulder surgery and Austin Watson is suspended, the third line may look a little different than it will in a few weeks. For the time being, I’d have to assume that it will be Nick Bonino in between Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons. That’s a solid third line. All three of those players can give you some offense while being very responsible in the defensive end. That said, I would like to see more offense out of this line. Relying on two lines for scoring makes me a little nervous. However, this defensively responsible line will get a lot of defensive zone starts, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to generating offense. Once Hartman gets back, there is a chance he joins this line and Sissons gets bumped down.
This fourth line will be a mess for a while. It looks like the Peter Laviolette will start the season with Freddie Gaudreau between Miikka Salomaki and Zac Rinaldo (sigh). I actually like Goalsdreau. I’m excited to see what he does with a chance in the NHL to start the season. Unfortunately, he’ll be straddled with Rinaldo on his line to start the season, so that could hinder his performance. I like Salomaki too. I was saying he needed more playing time last season, so we’ll find out if I was right. But I have no idea why the Preds don’t just use someone like Rocco Grimaldi on this fourth line instead of Rinaldo. Actually, the list of people I’d rather have on this line as opposed to Rinaldo includes literally anyone else.
I will confess that the lack of depth up front does make me a little nervous. If someone in the top six goes down for an extended period of time, that is a big hit to the offense. Especially without Hartman, there is no one who can really drive offense for extended periods of time in the bottom six. You may think that’s nitpicking, but take a look at other Cup contenders like Tampa or Pittsburgh or Toronto. They have players that can get some serious offensive zone time up and down the lineup. Still, there is plenty of time for this Predators team to find a solution, and they won’t exactly hurt for scoring in the meantime. Hopefully, they have a homegrown solution in Tolavanen, who could work his way up from Milwaukee. If not, David Poile has plenty of cap space to work with if he feels he needs to make a trade.
The opening night lineup will likely look like this:
Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson
Smith – Turris – Fiala
Jarnkrok – Bonino – Sissons
Salomaki – Gaudreau – Rinaldo
Unlike last season, this group will start with the top four in tact. The best top four in the NHL is back again to, in the words of Dale Doback, “fuck shit up.” Again, those are Doback’s words. Not mine. As much as I lamented the lack of offensive depth above, that is helped by the fact that Nashville’s defense loves to score just as much as the offense does. P.K. Subban was third on the team in points last season, and Roman Josi was fifth. Mattias Ekholm had a career high in points with 34, and Ryan Ellis had 32 points despite only playing for half the season. That will ease any offensive woes the Preds have up front.
Offense isn’t the only thing those four can do. They also play great defense. Then again, the best defense is a great offense. So, technically they are always playing defense. While Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis didn’t have the greatest postseason, that doesn’t shake my faith in them. They have been too good for too long for me to worry about them. Subban and Ekholm are one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL. Even great offensive players struggle to enter the offensive zone cleanly against those two. In fact, teams have all but stopped trying to go to Subban’s side. He is among the defensemen with the fewest zone entries attempted against him. The top two defensive pairings are still absolute UNITS.
The third pairing was a bit of a liability last season, but it should be upgraded significantly with Alexei Emelin in the KHL and Dan Hamhuis back in Smashville. Hamhuis is older, but he still played well in a decent amount of minutes in Dallas last year. He also doesn’t skate like he has sandbags tied to his legs. Hamhuis won’t be asked to play such a large role here, and that will be good for him and his health. Personally, I think he should be paired with Yannick Weber. That’s my preference of the three options the team currently has to play with him. Matt Irwin, I think, is the least reliable option with Tony Bitetto somewhere in the middle of Weber and Irwin. Either way, this depth pairing will be much better in 2018-19.
The Predators have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net. You may have heard of him. His name is Pekka Rinne, and he’s the greatest goaltender in the history of Finland. That’s a whole country. Rinne was able to defy age and turn in an exceptional season last year. Obviously, that didn’t translate to the playoffs. That’s no secret. However, this is the final season of Rinne’s contract with the Preds, and I fully expect him to give everything he’s got for a shot at a Cup in Nashville with his future being up in the air. He may not play at the same level he did last year, but Rinne showed last year that he has great hockey left in him. Much to his benefit, he shouldn’t be asked to shoulder such a big workload in the 2018-19 season.
That is because his mini-me, Juuse Saros, is almost ready to take over in the crease. After signing a three-year deal in the offseason, Saros will be this team’s future in goal. In the work that he’s gotten so far, he has played extremely well. Thanks to him, the Predators have arguably the league’s best one-two punch in net. As far as the split goes, I’d like to see Rinne get 55 games this season with Saros getting the remaining 27. I’m excited to watch this father-son duo stonewall the rest of the NHL all season long.
Probably the most glaring flaw of this Predators team is that the power play goes through long stretches wherein it struggles. The team had the 13th best power play overall last year, but it was incredibly hot and cold. Having great defensemen is a bit of a curse with the man advantage because the team falls in love with just letting them blast away from the point. Those shots aren’t exactly of the high-danger variety. If there is one change I’d like to see from this unit, it’s having a distributor like Ryan Johansen behind the net to quarterback this power play. There has been a little research on this subject, but basically it boils down to the fact that passes from behind the net lead to a lot of goals. Running point on the power play from behind the goal line causes some confusion. The goalie can’t correctly identify the puck, defensemen can’t totally look away from the puck carrier, but they also can’t focus on the puck carrier for fear of a defenseman or forward getting loose in front of the net behind them. I doubt that’s the direction the Preds will go, but I’d love to see them try it. I think Joey would be great at it, and the defensemen could stay involved.
As for the penalty kill, I don’t have many notes. That unit was great all season last year from start to finish. Just do more of that, really. They were the right combination of aggressive and smart. Austin Watson was the team’s best penalty killer last year as he scored what feels like a dozen short-handed goals. But even with him suspended, guys like Arvidsson still find ways to score while a man down. If they just keep the same strategy as a year ago, the Preds will excel on the penalty kill again.
This team is still really damn good. Early playoff exit last year aside, they just need to stay the course with this talented roster. Hell, look at the Washington Capitals. It took God knows how many tries for them to break through. While I don’t want to wait nearly a decade, I do think this team will win it all in the near future. In fact, I think it will be in 2018-19.
The team had a quiet offseason. This team is basically the same one that won a President’s Trophy last year. The talent is there. The chemistry is there. The experience is there. The Western Conference is loaded with great teams, but there is no reason the Predators can’t compete with all of them. I don’t know that this team will win the division again, but I do think we’ll be in for a deep playoff run next spring.
Final Central Division Prediction
2018-19 Playoff Predictions
WCF: Predators over Sharks
ECF: Lightning over Capitals
SCF: Predators over Lightning
Plan the parade!