If you’re an outside observer who doesn’t follow the Nashville Predators very closely, you probably thought that the major sell off at the trade deadline and a sudden switch in general managers meant this team was throwing in the towel on 2022-23.
No one would blame you if that’s the case, and there were plenty of fans within the fanbase of the Nashville Predators who felt and still feel the same way. And yet somehow the Predators remain at least relevant in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is hitting crunch time for a select few teams.
In fact, in the Western Conference, it really comes down to just the Nashville Predators and two other teams; The Winnipeg Jets and the Calgary Flames.
The Nashville Predators Refuse to Leave the Party…
The Nashville Predators have become the person who keeps saying they’re about to leave the party, but two hours later they’re fixing themselves another drink and telling an old story from high school that seems to never end.
Seriously, the Predators have evolved into a tremendous underdog story that the rest of the NHL should be following more closely.
If you’re of the most casual segment of the fanbase, which there’s no shame in that, then you’re probably wondering what the hell happened to Mattias Ekholm (your favorite Swedish defenseman) and who is this guy named Kiefer Sherwood who is banking pucks of goalies’ backs for highlight reel goals?
I can really point to two major reasons that the Predators are just four points out with games in hand and 17 games left to play. The first, and most encouraging, is the inexperienced youth of this roster have rose to the occasion. And it’s not just the guys with all of the fanfare like Philip Tomasino and Cody Glass.
I mentioned Sherwood earlier, and despite having a low ceiling, he has served his role in the bottom six and as being a tone setter. He skates hard, brings the intensity, and has a sneaky knack for putting pucks on the net.
Sherwood has registered 25 shots on net in 15 games and has scored a goal in back-to-back games. He also has points in four of his last six games.
Tommy Novak was well-known going into the season and it was puzzling at to why he didn’t return to the starting lineup right out of the gate and instead started with the Milwaukee Admirals. Be that as it may, when Novak finally came back to the lineup in mid-December, he instantly started making a vital impact to the team.
Novak is the most consistent offensive player on this team as of late. This guy missed over two months to open the season, and has surged to sixth on the team in points with 28. He has a strong chance of finishing third on the team in points when the season ends unless Filip Forsberg returns.
I don’t want to overlook Glass or Tomasino, who also have been important to keeping the changing Predators relevant and not fading into the dark depths of being a rebuild team.
Luke Evangelista stepping into the NHL way sooner than anyone expected and not being a major liability has been uplifting for the organization’s future outlook. He’s getting crucial minutes including time on the power play.
Then there’s Juuso Parssinen. He has been out of the lineup due to injury since February 23. Leading up to that he was among the NHL’s leaders among rookies in points. The team has missed him since he’s been gone, but others have stepped up in his place.
I’m even going to throw love to Jeremy Lauzon on the defensive side of things. Again, he’s not flashy, but he packs a punch and has stepped up his game to a level that’s commendable after going through all of the changes, most notably losing Ekholm in the top-four.
The second most significant reason I can point to the Predators remaining relevant in the quest for the playoffs is goaltending. If the Predators don’t have both Juuse Saros and Kevin Lankinen, collectively, then they’re too far back in the standings by now. They would’ve taken at least another four or five regulation losses by now, which would’ve been more than enough to eliminate them here in mid-March.
We know how great Saros is, but Lankinen has been a godsend to this team and the front office. An addition that was odd at the time because everyone thought it was Connor Ingram‘s backup role to take after the failed experiment with David Rittich, but in comes Lankinen.
At the time I was modestly encouraged that Lankinen could at the very least be a mild upgrade to Rittich, but I’d be a bold faced liar if I said I saw Lankinen being just as good, and sometimes better, than even Saros has been.
The dip has been minimal at best between Saros to Lankinen, and having a quality backup goaltender backing up a Vezina Trophy caliber goalie is such a secret weapon most teams have to envy.
Preds Keeping Playing with a Chip on their Shoulder as the Underdogs
Going 4-1-1 on the recent road trip was a season saver for sure. Yes, three of those four wins against non-playoff teams, but still not an easy feat for this squad that has gone through so many changes, including decimating injuries.
Now, the devil’s advocate in me says that the Predators have taken advantage of a soft portion of their schedule and things are about to come back down the reality over the final 17 games:
The Predators have a win over the Red Wings since then, but their record against current playoff teams remains very mediocre and doesn’t instill confidence that they can get past the first round, if they do indeed sneak in.
None of that should matter, however. Watching this team has been a treat, even with all of the turbulence and heartbreaks along the way. After the debut of Egor Afanasyev, the team has played 37 skaters, the third-most in a season dating back to 2010-2011.
And yes, some of you aren’t going to like this, but credit is also owed to Head Coach John Hynes for keeping the team rallied and hungry to win. If there was ever an excuse for a head coach’s team to take numerous losses and plummet out of playoff contention, it was for Hynes heading into March and past the trade deadline.
Does that mean Hynes is the long-term answer for this franchise? No, not necessarily and that is for new General Manager Barry Trotz to decide this upcoming offseason.
But for now, with 17 games left, the Nashville Predators are a fun underdog story that more people around the NHL and the sports world should be buzzing about even if their playoff pursuit comes up short in the end.