The midway point of the Nashville Predators' season has officially passed, as they hold a 24-18-1 record for 49 points in the standings. Just on the surface, it seems like more of the same for them, as they have usually been stuck in the middle and unable to move in a true direction.
However, this year has not quite been the traditional mediocre struggle that the Predators have grown accustomed to. Besides the rollercoaster of the season that it has been, nearly the whole team is different than they were at the start of last year, and that is the true distinction here.
One of those changes has been at the head coaching position, which showed that the Predators were looking to go in a different direction. So far, we have seen Andrew Brunette's approach make a difference in the team's play style and their results.
Brunette's system is a stark, but thrilling contrast from past Preds Teams
One of the bigger complaints about the Predators over the past several years has been their inability to score goals, and play hockey that is not ugly and dull. No matter what your opinion on Brunette is, that assessment could not be farther from the truth under his watch.
You can just see how different the team looks under Brunette, as the puck movement has been night and day better, and it is so much more creative and methodical than the dump-and-chase approach under John Hynes. Even in a Hynes system that was designed to keep pucks out of the net, the Predators would still surrender goals and not be able to score enough to get back in games.
Undre Brunette, it has been a completely different story, as scoring goals has been a huge strength and reason why this team has been able to stay in games. And it is not even been in theory or on occasion, Juuse Saros has been off this year, and so has the overall goaltending.
If that were the case last year, the Predators would have absolutely cratered and probably have finished in last place, given how Saros was bailing them out all year. Despite his underperformance this year, the team has stayed in the thick of things, and that is a testament to the head coach and the system he has instilled.
Less Shuffling of the Lineup Should be a Priority in 2nd Half
If there is one complaint I have so far about Brunette, it is his constant shuffling of the lines. There has been little continuity in the second, third, and fourth forward lines, and the entire defensive corps has been in the blender for most of the season.
But to play devil's advocate for him there, there are a lot of players who are deserving of time on the ice, but just not enough spots, and that is an issue with the roster he inherited. Tyson Barrie is at least one player the Predators are looking to trade, so that should help with that issue.
Second of all, one of the main problems there was around Hynes shuffling the lines was that it would oftentimes prevent deserving and talented youngsters from cracking the lineup. The only player who is really missing time this year is Cody Glass, who has had an especially down season, but by and large, that has not been a major issue.
Thirdly, one thing Brunette has figured out is the top line, and even that was a struggle under John Hynes, and Peter Laviolette in his final days with the team.
The trio of Filip Forsberg, Ryan O'Reilly, and Gus Nyquist has become a staple for this Predators team, and not only is Forsberg having maybe his best season, Nyquist is having a renaissance at age 34. They have been threatening nearly every game, and Nyquist especially has been playing well recently, and increasingly been more effective throughout the season.
I would prefer to see more continuity in the bottom nine, but besides the roster makeup, one thing I have realized over the years is that coaches switch lines a lot during the season. The fact that Brunette has nailed the first line is a great start, and kudos to him for identifying it and helping them to play with such chemistry.
There are some annoying tendencies that this team has displayed this year, and if the Predators were a team that was in win-now mode, I would be quite concerned about them. But a team as young and inexperienced as them is going to go through growing pains, and it is a testament to their learning curve much more than the coaching, so just be patient there.
And what is good about Brunette is that he is not making excuses or giving reasons why the team has off games, he is direct about his thoughts and high expectations for the team. His "tough love" approach should bode well for the team and is more complimentary than anything, because he would not expect a lot out of a team he did not believe in.
It seems to work too, as the Predators, especially in the month of January, have been able to bounce back from off games. What is great about that is that two of them have been on the road against the Dallas Stars, and their most recent win against the New York Islanders is critical for their identity and confidence moving forward.
Of all teams in the league, a young and inexperienced team like the Predators really has to believe in their head coach to be able to rebound from games in the way they have. It is early, but indications are that Brunette has his guys bought in, which is big for a team that has been aiming for a major culture shift under a new regime.
Even if you take out everything I have just written, if you would have told me that a team with a first year general manager, first year head coach, and a roster that consists mostly of very young talent and role players was on a 13-3-0 stretch in November and December, and that they are in the wildcard race, I would have said that it was a great job done by the head coach.
Maybe Brunette has not been perfect, but few coaches are, and he has clearly done more with less than the other way around. If anything, this is a well-coached team, and that is a great sign for the future of the Predators.