Most of the season previews from outside Nashville have been written straight out of the template set forth in Nashville Predators For Dummies. The team is all defense with no offense. It didn’t make a big free agent splash to land a big-name forward. And even though it retained its best defenseman, it lost its second-best and became a worse team because of it. In short, these previews say, even the shortened season is destined to be a long one for Preds fans.
Let me share a little something with you: I’m not worried a bit about anything written in those previews. The standard narrative they rely on is flawed and, like a sketch drawn at distance by a near-sighted man, bears only a crude resemblance to a detailed study of what’s going on here in Nashville. Get up close and you see how this team is built to compete.
Nashville Predators 2013 Season Preview
The offense that wasn’t there
One of the familiar refrains in the standard narrative about the Nashville Predators is that the team has no offense and relies only on goaltending and defense to win games. Never mind the fact that the Preds finished 8th in the league in offense last season and had the top-ranked power play; this is a team that “just can’t score.” What that really means is that the team doesn’t have an Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin or Steven Stamkos.
It’s said that Nashville scores by committee, but there are different brands of scoring by committee. The St. Louis Blues last season were one of the varieties: the team that is pure shutdown defense (they gave up a league-low 155 goals) and scores just enough to win. With 206 goals for, the Blues were 21st in offense in 2010-11. Nashville, meanwhile, scored 232 goals – tied with Stamkos’ Tampa Bay Lightning and 14 goals ahead of Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals – without any one player topping Patric Hornqvist’s total of 27. Compare that with the much-vaunted Nashville defense, which finished 10th in the league – two notches lower than the offense’s ranking and nine below St. Louis’.
Instead of a big star scoring line, a lesser scoring line, and 3rd and 4th lines of checking scrubs, the Predators have two top lines that produce more like the 2nd or 3rd line on another team, followed by a collection of young players who are energetic and ready to put the puck on net whenever their opponents make a mistake. Nobody outside of Nashville knows much about Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, Craig Smith, Gabriel Bourque, and Colin Wilson because none of them has yet had a flashy breakout season, and that means the 61 goals they combined for last season get ignored. But together they’re worth more than the top goal scorer in the league and more than most teams in the league get from their lower lines.
As far the top lines go, the SK74-Fisher-Erat line showed excellent chemistry last season. Mike Fisher, who had only scored 50 points once before in his 11-year NHL career, notched 51 centering this line. Of those, 24 were goals, including seven game-winners. Erat led the team with 58 points, the best of his 11 years in the league. With that two-thirds of the line at its point-producing peak, the Sergei Kostitsyn third was able to get away with slightly lower totals (17G-26A) than the season before. Hopes are high that Kostitsyn has sharpened his game over in the KHL, where he was producing nearly a point per game, but all he really needs to do is to return to his 50-point pace from 2010-11. If Erat and Fisher, who have both used the lockout to rest up and work out, can find that same chemistry they had with Kostitsyn last season, things will look good for Nashville’s top line.
The Preds’ second line was almost as effective as the first. Patric Hornqvist put up 27 goals and 14 assists on the right wing, while David Legwand enjoyed the second-best season of his career with 53 points. The left wing saw a rotating cast of players step in as the roster morphed throughout the season, which makes one think that any kind of stability there could only open up the chance of the second line developing the same.
So far as the other narrative-driven contention about Nashville’s offense – that the loss of Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn should be of some kind of worry: when prorated, the 7 goals they contributed in 28 games were roughly equal to the production that 3rd- and 4th-liner Matt Halischuk provided, although he scored his in decidedly less flashy fashion.
And the defense that wasn’t, either
The final narrative contention I haven’t mentioned yet is the loss of Ryan Suter. In the most negative potential outcomes to this season, prognosticators are turning it into an albatross around the team’s neck. Never mind that they held on to Shea Weber, who famously declared that he wanted to play for a winner. Suter is the One That Got Away, and the team is nothing but worse off for it.
It would be crazy to deny that he loss of Ryan Suter, on its own, was a definite setback for the Nashville Predators roster. There’s a reason that he and Weber were considered the single best defensive pairing in the league. But the fact remains that they were a pairing of two excellent defenders, not a pairing defined by one guy named Ryan Suter. Both of them make the other players around them better, and that’s what I expect Shea Weber will do with Roman Josi this season.
The 22-year-old Josi has shown a lot of promise, as so many defensemen drafted and developed by the Nashville Predators organization have over the years. He didn’t show any serious signs of not being ready for primetime in his rookie season, so there’s no reason to believe he’s going to wither in the spotlight. That isn’t to say he won’t make mistakes, but his new partner is widely considered to be the best defenseman in the league. If you put Josi on a top pair with, say, Zdeno Chara, I think the predominant narrative would be that Josi is ready to step up to the task. I don’t see why that should change because he’s in Nashville alongside Weber.
As for the rest of the defense, I think it’s actually improved from last season. At the beginning of the season the team had no true second pairing relying instead on a collection of four defensemen whose true, natural roles lay somewhere between the second and third pairs. By the end of the season the team had improved thanks to the addition of Hal Gill on the third pair. A lot of people will laugh at that statement and make some sort of pylon reference, but Gill immediately gave the team two things it didn’t have before: a veteran defenseman to help protect Roman Josi on the third pair, and a huge boost on the penalty kill, where his 300-foot wingspan makes it impossible to pass the puck to anything but his stick. After having lost six of 10 games before his arrival, the team finished the year winning 13 of 21.
This year the team has retained Gill to play a similar role in protecting Ryan Ellis on the third pair, which will allow Ellis to be in the lineup to get some time on the power play. But far more importantly, they now have a true second pair thanks to the acquisition of Scott Hannan to play alongside Kevin Klein. Klein got a big vote of confidence from the defense-savvy Nashville Predators front office over the off-season, a new five-year, $14.5 million contract. He plays an old-school, stay-at-home game and logged just four penalty minutes last year. Hannan plays a more physical game that will complement Klein’s much better than the rotating cast he was paired with throughout last season, and his veteran presence, like Gill’s on the third pair, ought to be just the final ingredient that Klein needs to incorporate to round out his game as he enters his prime.
This year, Nashville’s defense will have more well-defined roles than it did last year. That’s going to be a benefit to the team as a whole as it tries to replace Ryan Suter’s contributions rather than trying to actually replace him.
Pekka Rinne. Enough said.
Ladies and gentlemen, the comeback kids
As my final exhibit, I present this video:
This team doesn’t give up. That’s precisely the kind of determination that has Predators fans convinced this team is going to outdo a lot of naysayers’ predictions. And it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t show up on score sheets or stat columns, except for contributing to the overall effect of a team being a hell of a lot better than most people give it credit for. I think that’s a product of leadership, which is something this team has in spades in spades with both Coach Barry Trotz and captain Shea Weber. And now that Weber has the contact he wanted, he’s ready to set his sights on winning the Stanley Cup. I have no doubt at all that’s he’s ready to prove that he’s worth the money.
I’ve predicted that the Nashville Predators will finish second in the Central Division. I’m also on the record as saying that all the Central powers will be within a few points of each other. They could all go to the playoffs. Or, if they all beat up on each other, one of them could end up missing out on the playoffs. But the chance of this team missing out on the playoffs are not a factor of some supposed weakness of the Nashville roster; it’s a factor of the lockout-shortened Frankenschedule that’s being used to determine this year’s Stanley Cup Playoff participants.
There’s not only less room for error for the Predators; there’s less room for error for everyone. Being in a strong division and playing a large fraction of the total schedule within that division can end up being a huge detriment to an otherwise strong team. That’s just something the team will have to deal with, which is why it’s something Preds fans can’t worry about. I’ll take the chance of missing the playoffs because of stiff competition over never having a chance at all any time. The fact is that this Nashville Predators team is on a long-term upward trajectory. That’s as good a reason to expect strength in this unique NHL season as any.