Veteran playoff experience is paramount now more than ever as the Nashville Predators restart the engines and prepare for a Stanley Cup run.
There’s no question that the Nashville Predators have some weaknesses to address during their training camp period that continues to move along, but they have a very important strength working in their favor as well.
I’ve been stressing ever since the NHL officially announced the plan to return to play with 24 teams that those with heavy veteran leadership would fair the best in the return to action.
The Predators have a core nucleus of veteran players who are no strangers to postseason hockey, and many have built this valuable playoff experience together as teammates and linemates.
With that past experience comes past failure and disappointment. That has to build a fire in these players who came so close to hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2017, and for those who have come up way short the past two postseasons with losses to the Winnipeg Jets (2018) and the Dallas Stars (2019).
Aside from Dante Fabbro (age 21), no core player on the Predators is younger than 25. That might change if one of the prospects lands a starting role, but for now, the team is mainly 26 and older.
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This isn’t a team that’s going to be shell-shocked by postseason pressure, and may even handle it better by not having to deal with crowd noise and just fully focus on the game itself.
Reigniting the chemistry
The list goes on and on when it comes to players that are playoff battle-tested on the Predators roster. Veterans like Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. Basically the entire starting roster, aside from a few players.
Duchene stands out in that list for me because despite a pretty successful and long career, he has just 18 playoff games under his belt. You better believe he’s hungry to go deep in the playoffs with the Predators.
Head coach John Hynes is reuniting this trio during training camp to instantly build that chemistry that will be critical in the qualifying round against the Arizona Coyotes.
This isn’t a team that’s going to have a hard time finding that chemistry again. Aside from the Mikael Granlund addition during the midseason of 2019, the Predators have mainly remained the same core group of players.
Hynes is playing it smart by putting familiar lines together so that the players can instantly pick up where they left off. There’s no reason to try to reinvent the wheel right now with time being of the essence.
It’s not just the top line that Hynes is getting together right out of the gate. He’s going back to what already worked consistently throughout the season by getting Nick Bonino, Rocco Grimaldi and Craig Smith.
This isn’t complicated stuff necessarily to go with what already worked, but sometimes coaches outsmart themselves by getting too complicated with line combinations. Hynes appears to be simply going with what has already worked.
I’m fully aware that the Predators were an erratic team that has made it hard to trust them to live up to their veteran talent. They came up short and were no-shows many times during the regular season, but the reset button has been pushed and this team looks completely refreshed and locked in during training camp.
Two classy goaltenders
Then you have the big decision to make on who to start in goal for Game 1. If we’re going off of playoff experience and playoff success, then the easy answer has to be refreshed Pekka Rinne.
This might be Rinne’s last run at a Stanley Cup as starter for the Nashville Predators. Maybe the team puts together another strong run with Juuse Saros as the starter next season, but I’m leaning towards this being Rinne’s last chance as the starter between the pipes.
Saros should absolutely be the starter to start the regular season for 2020-21. As for the upcoming qualifying round, I’ve changed my thoughts on this day by day as it’s such a tough decision to make.
In the end, I’ve settled on going with Rinne as the starter. He’s earned that right to come back energized and ready to come out like the goaltender he was to open the regular season, which was winning eight of his first ten starts and not suffering a regulation loss until over a month into the season.
It fell apart after that for Rinne, but it wasn’t all on him. Terrible defensive play in front of him to go along with a horrendous penalty kill definitely didn’t help matters. Now you have to wonder if those issues are being addressed in training camp.
After originally thinking Saros was the right move, I’ve shifted to Rinne as the veteran I want in net to carry the enormous pressure that’s going to be out there.
This isn’t to say Saros can’t handle it well, but I like Rinne’s chances more after this long layoff to get rejuvenated.
The Predators have a focused roster full of hungry veterans who know that the clock is running out on this core group being together. Some key players are due to become free agents (Smith and Granlund) in the next offseason, and the one after that as well.
This veteran group has to take advantage of this unique opportunity with this complete roster they have now.
Other young and up-and-coming teams are rising up the ranks and will soon pass the aging teams unless those aging teams make smart draft picks and play their cards right in free agency. That’s not a given, so the Predators have to take advantage now while they still can.
After this season, and possibly the next season, the Predators are going to be forced to make some tough roster decisions and start leaning more so on younger more inexperienced players.
With all of this being put out there, we’re about to see a Predators team that’s laser focused and ready to lean on team chemistry that’s been built for several seasons now. Not all teams have that luxury.