Although still very early in the Andrew Brunette era, the Nashville Predators have at the very least shown so far that they haven't taken a dramatic collapse towards the bottom of the NHL. Very different than a true rebulding team, like the San Jose Sharks or Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Predators were blazing past expectations in the first half the season, including a run of winning 13 of 16 games and beating some top tier Stanley Cup contenders in the process. Since then, Brunette has had to juggle his starting lineup, lean on some inexperience and even at times question his team's bad habit of taking chunks of the game off.
So what's to make of all of this? Do you feel better or worse about the hiring of Brunette than you did when the hire was first announced last summer?
Here are my thoughts, which are subject to change based on how the Predators come out of the All-Star break with their first game this Saturday against the Arizona Coyotes. Another critically important game between two wildcard hopeful teams.
Early Returns for Brunette Remain Cautiously Optimistic
This isn't an easy job Brunette took over coming into a franchise which has had questionable decision-making from the front office in recent years while also having to balance the use of his proven veterans with his younger talent.
The most unforeseen issue that the Predators had this season is hard to pin on Brunette, and that's Juuse Saros having currently his worst season in the NHL with a .904 save percentage and a 2.94 GAA.
Saros led the NHL in Goals Saved Above Expected last season, so he covered up a lot of issues the Predators had by making ridiculous saves in clutch moments to secure the two points. And yet the Predators still missed the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.
The Predators aren't getting that safety net from Saros this season, and yet they are still in the similar spot in the standings that they were in at this time last year.
If Saros was even performing close to the Vezina Trophy worthy level he played at last year, the Predators would be much closer to competing for top three spot in the division and not on the wildcard bubble.
How much of Saros' struggles due to defensive breakdowns and poor structure? That's definitely part of the equation and it's a product of Brunette's much faster offensive philosophy. It's going to lead to counter attacks when passing is off or when a player takes a bad angle and gets beat up the ice.
The reason I remain optimistic that Brunette will fix these issues is the team continues to get offensive chances of their own, and just aren't finishing. Some of that is they just don't have the elite offensive talent do so, and some of it is just poor luck, quite frankly.
Only the San Jose Sharks have suffered a worse total in Goals Scored Above Expected. The Sharks sit at a putrid -22.9 Goals Scored Above Expected. No surprise there, but then you have the Predators next up at -17.24.
To put this more into perspective, if the Predators were just finishing on half of those expected scoring chances, they'd be closer to being a top-10 scoring team in the NHL. But woulda, coulda, shoulda's don't win games and isn't a good enough excuse.
Look at a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who are also performing near the bottom with the Sharks and Predators in this category. They've been able to overcome this deficiency because they generate so much offense that they get their fair share of goals regardless, ranking 4th in the NHL in goals per game.
Two Areas that Can Improve Brunette's Stock After All-Star Break
To put a stamp on this, this is the area that has a massive spotlight on it for the Predators to improve in after the All-Star break, and it's been that way for most of the season. Brunette's offense is working, but it's not producing the goals right now.
This is the key area that has to improve greatly after the All-Star break for me to gain more optimism in Brunette's future and where he's ultimately going to take the team. If they show steady improvement on this but still miss the playoffs, I'll leave with much higher confidence and satisfaction in Year 1 for Brunette.
Two very realistic things need to happen for the Predators in the second half and suddenly the early season excitement surrounding Brunette will return; Saros needs a bump up in performance at least closer to his career averages, and the Predators need to at least cut into that negative margin in their Goals Score Above Expected.
The biggest knock on Brunette that I directly tie to him is the power play, which only ranks 20th in the NHL. It's supposed to be his wheelhouse, but it's been very underwhelming and only looked like a strength in spurts. Not nearly enough consistency, and he will be judge harshly in this area if it doesn't improve over the last 31 games.
It doesn't matter who is behind the bench, you're not winning many hockey games when you're failing to score more than three goals on a regular basis. Not in today's NHL. I still have faith that Brunette will rally the troops to finish out 2023-24 on a strong note and give us reason for a lot of confidence for Year 2 and beyond.
If I have to give a grade to Brunette in his first 51 games as Head Coach of the Nashville Predators, I'll go with a very modest B-. No one expected this team to be anything more than what it is right now, and there remains potential to return to the postseason which would be very impressive for Brunette to pull off for this team that's supposed to be "retooling".