No one really knows what to expect when the NHL season returns to action with teams having to go immediately into playoff mode. Which teams will benefit?
The sudden stoppage in the NHL regular season is going to negatively impact some teams more than others as we prepare for a 24-team format to crown a Stanley Cup champion, which the Nashville Predators will be included in.
In my mind, the teams that were already cruising through with no issues face the toughest challenge of trying to pick up where they left off.
Teams that just weren’t living up to expectations or ones that were dealing with weaknesses they couldn’t overcome might actually benefit from coming back with essentially a clean slate.
I’m throwing the Nashville Predators in that category of maybe benefiting from the pause. They were playing better in a sense before the stoppage, but were still wildly inconsistent and full of some major weaknesses that were holding them back.
Now that they know they’re in the field so to speak, perhaps they can treat this like a whole new season and come in playing like the team we originally expected to see back before 2019-20 started.
Not everyone is on board
It remains uncertain on when this actual 24-team playoff format will actually start. What we do know is it’s officially approved and even the fringe teams who were barely out of the playoff picture will get another chance:
As for the Predators, they had already snagged a wildcard spot just before the pause by getting a two-game sweep over the Dallas Stars and then defeating the Montreal Canadiens. That was good enough to get them the final playoff spot in the Western Conference under the normal playoff seeding.
Some players have already voiced their displeasure with allowing so many teams into the field, and that it should be the normal 16-team playoff field. Jordan Martinook of the Carolina Hurricanes is one of those players, per SI.com:
"” Nobody’s ever seen this before, but at the end of the day, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are 16 teams, seven games a series.”"
As of now, it appears that the initial games will be play-in games to get into the main field. It’s trying to make up for skipping over the final regular season games and not giving those fringe teams a chance to earn their way in.
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Also, one of the things that makes the NHL playoffs so special is the grind. It’s truly regarded as one of the most difficult trophies in all of sports to win because of the brutality of four rounds or seven-game series on your path to the Stanley Cup.
I can definitely understand it from the players’ perspective when it comes to not being on board with all of this. You don’t want to taint the Stanley Cup in any way by letting too many teams in that seemingly had no chance, while also coming up with too many gimmicks.
Teams who were having extraordinary regular seasons that earned them top spots in their divisions are getting rewarded with byes in this format, so it wasn’t all for nothing.
A clean slate
The Predators have this chance to be the team everyone expects them to be. They have all the talent necessary to be at least one of the top four teams in the conference, and now they’ve had plenty of time to push reset and figure out what was holding them back.
Whereas teams that were playing their very best and winning regularly, like Boston or Vegas, will now face the challenge of picking up where they left off.
Assuming the players get an adequate training period, there’s no reason to dismiss the notion that the Predators can correct the issues that were plaguing them and make a run at this.
Their first opponent looks like it may be the Arizona Coyotes if nothing is changed. A team the Predators beat once in December, and lost badly to in October.
This is a favorable matchup for the Predators to open up with. Out of all the possible opponents, Chicago is the only other team I’d give the Predators a better chance against.
This is how the bracket looks as of now, but that’s only if the NHLPA and the NHL don’t negotiate more changes, which is highly possible:
If this does indeed end up being the bracket, then I can see the Predators taking down Arizona in a single play-in game as I think they’re the better team. Problem is anyone is capable of beating anyone if it’s just one game.
However, that next opponent against the Vegas Golden Knights isn’t one I’d have the Predators as favorites in. In fact, I’d have them as significant underdogs.
But again, this pause and restart has made nothing a certainty. And that’s why this can likely benefit a team like the Predators. A team with plenty of talent, but one that was inconsistent and often times beating themselves.
A big factor for the Predators is Juuse Saros. He was finally starting to catch fire, and now you can’t help but wonder if he’s going to stumble out of the gate again.
With time to refresh their minds and reflect on what was holding them back, they can definitely make things interesting in a format like this. They have the top-six scorers to hang with anyone, and Saros was playing outstanding up until pause.
Another reason to have confidence in a team like the Predators in this format is their veteran experience in situations like this. They have no shortage of playoff experience with players like Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, Craig Smith and Nick Bonino.
This isn’t a group that’s going to fold or be nervous about being in playoff hockey right at the start. They were basically already playing in that mode since January.
The biggest question is their special teams weaknesses and their lack of quality depth defensively. Are those things that maybe can get corrected in time to make a deep run at it in a 24-team field?
Then again, no one really knows for sure how each team is going to react to this situation. Talent usually overrides everything, but in this situation it’s harder than ever to predict.