Predators still have work to do to reverse downward trend
It was only a few years ago that the Nashville Predators were at the top of the NHL world.
They followed their 2016-17 Stanley Cup Final appearance by coming back the next season and winning the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points.
Given the makeup of their defense, their goalie duo, and a deep collection of forwards all on mostly team-and cap-friendly contracts there was every reason to believe they were going to remain championship contenders for the foreseeable future.
But starting with a Second Round loss that year to the Winnipeg Jets, things have steadily regressed in Music City.
They dropped 17 points in the standings during the 2018-19 season and were eliminated in the First Round by the Dallas Stars.
Then the bottom started to fall out this past season. At the time of the season pause the Predators were on pace for just 92 points and what would have been one of their worst records in more than a decade. In two years they had lost 25 points in the standings, and when the season resumed they were knocked out in the Qualifying Round by the Arizona Coyotes.
Not much has happened this offseason to offer much confidence that this downward slide is going to stop.
Their problems a year ago were clear. They had awful special teams (bottom-six in power play and penalty kill), received sub-par goaltending overall, and were only a middle-of-the-pack team offensively.
What have they done to fix those issues?
• The area where they made the most progress is probably on the penalty kill, where the free agency additions of Brad Richardson and Mark Borowiecki could make an impact. Richardson is one of the league’s better penalty killing forwards (and a real threat to score shorthanded) and is definitely an upgrade. But are those two going enough to take that unit from 29th in the league to something more respectable? Goaltending will play a pretty big role in that as well. Speaking of...
• They are sticking with the same Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saros goaltending duo they have used for the past few years.
Saros has remained consistent in his production and looks ready to take over the bulk of the playing time. But last year was the first time Rinne showed significant signs of slowing down, posting the worst numbers of his career.
Coming back in his age 38 season it is a big question as to whether or not he can bounce back.
If he does not, that creates a major problem, even if he is the 1B option in their goalie rotation.
• The offense and the power play in general is where things start to get really concerning.
The power play unit has been lousy for two years now, and what makes this offseason so concerning is that as of this moment the Predators have lost three of their top-four goal scorers from a year ago with the departures of Nick Bonino (trade), Craig Smith (signed in Boston), and Mikael Granlund (still unsigned in unrestricted free agency). Add in the buyout of Kyle Turris and that is 62 goals from last year’s team going away.
While Luke Kunin (Bonino trade), Nick Cousins and Richardson can definitely help in some areas, they are not going to replace that offense.
They are also not going to do anything for a power play unit that has converted on just 15% of its chances (31st in the NHL) over the past two seasons. You do not want to be a team that relies entirely on the power play for your offense, but you still need to get something from it.
What are the possible solutions offensively?
Let’s start with improvement from within.
If the Predators are going to bounce back they need big seasons from Matt Duchene and Viktor Arvidsson.
Duchene was their big free agent signing a year ago and he simply did not make the immediate impact they had hoped for. Or anything even close to it, really. He had one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, including his worst season from a goal-scoring perspective. I am willing to chalk some of that up to bad luck. If you look at his underlying numbers you can make an argument that he could be due for a rebound season. His shooting percentage was at an all-time low while he did post very strong possession numbers. That points more to an “unlucky” season than a “bad” season.
There should also be plenty of confidence in Arvidsson’s chances to bounce back following a down year that was disrupted by injury.
But they still need more.
As of now the Predators still have more than $12M in salary cap space to work with and only Kunin unsigned as a restricted free agent. They missed out on all of the top free agents, but there are still some intriguing options on the market.
Mike Hoffman figures to be an option, and while he will not do much to help the team defensively you know you can pencil him in for close to 30 goals.
Anthony Duclair could also add some offensive punch to the lineup.
No matter what direction they go, the roster still needs some significant upgrades. Without any, they face the possibility of continuing this two-year slide that has taken then from the threshold of a championship to the playoff bubble.