The Nashville Predators have finished up the first third of their 2013 season, which means it’s time for an intermission to see how the team has stacked up so far this season. It’s been a pretty rough season in a lot of ways in the early going: the team has lost more shootouts than most other teams have played, which has contributed to them losing more games than they’ve won. But the overtime points have them squarely in contention for a playoff spot one-third of the way through the regular season.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS 2013 SEASON:
FIRST INTERMISSION REPORT CARD
Weber bought himself megastar status and all its concomitant expectations last summer with his $110-million contract. He hasn’t really lived up to it in the first third of the season, which started off with nine consecutive pointless games. In the seven games since then he has two goals and three assists, making him look a little better. He’s still one of the game’s best defenders, which has prevented more than a few opposition goals in the early going. He almost never looks bad in his own end, partially offsetting his lack of production compared to past seasons (however silently).
Rinne has been playing some of the best hockey of his life. He leads the league with a 1.58 GAA and his .938 save percentage trails only Craig Anderson (OTT, .948) and Ben Scrivens (TOR, .939). His 2-4 record in shootouts has been the one mark on an otherwise flawless performance in the first third of this season, and it’s easy to argue that if the team wouldn’t have to rely on him to win games one-on-one if they would just score some goals.
There hasn’t been a Nashville Predators offense this weak in franchise history. They’ve been shut out three times, once on home ice. Their 2.06 goals per game and 23.7 shots per game are down from 2.83 and 27.6 a season ago, which puts more pressure on the defense to perform. A three-week injury to Patric Hornqvist, who has 78 goals over the last three season, didn’t help matters much, but he’s only one player (however important).
There’s been reason for hope in recent days, though. In the big picture, the shots-per-game number is trending upward right now and the team has scored ten goals in its last three games. So far as individuals go, Colin Wilson is playing the best hockey of his young career and leads the team with 12 points. Shea Weber has woken up. The offense might just take off if Roman Josi and Craig Smith- both expected before the season to make contributions yet pointless at the moment – were to begin producing at even a low rate.
Team defense was one of the biggest question marks coming into the 2013 NHL season, but the Nashville Predators have been one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals. Before Game 16 at Colorado, where they allowed six goals in 33 minutes and two within 13 seconds, they were actually the league leaders in this category. Given that the team’s defensive corps is currently a 50-50 mix of veterans and first- or second-year players, none of them remotely as high-profile as Shea Weber, that’s much better than what many people expected of them. It’s a testament to Coach Barry Trotz that the Preds’ defense remains among the league’s best even after the loss of key personnel.
The Special Teams
Nashville’s special teams situation is a two-headed beast. Its penalty kill has been improving all season and is currently stopping the opposition 84.5 percent of the time, good for sixth in the NHL and fourth in the Western Conference. The power play, however, has been a failure at a conversion rate of just 15.1 percent (tied for 22nd in the NHL). Hornqvist’s absence from the ice directly in front of opposing goalies is part of the reason for the poor performance on the power play, but even with his return there’s no question the team has a lot of room for improvement in the post-Suter era.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
With serious question marks on both ends of the ice following Ryan Suter’s departure, it was to be expected that the Nashville Predators would struggle to some degree as they adapted to life without him. They certainly have done that, losing to two of the worst teams in the Western Conference, being shut out three times in the first dozen contests, and sometimes registering as few as 12 shots in a game.
However, they haven’t played themselves out of a playoff spot. They finished a brutal seven-game road trip with a winning record. They have shown recent signs that the team’s offense is awakening after a long slumber. It often feels like they’re just a few converted power play opportunities away from being a much better team. But until they actually begin converting them they’re just an average, bottom-tier playoff contender – with one of the world’s best goalies.