The Nashville Predators were the surprise team of the 2014-15 NHL season. In what was Peter Laviolette’s first year behind the bench, the Predators evolved into a high-paced offense heavy team; quite the change from Barry Trotz’s dump-and-chase system seen during the first 15 years of the franchise.
The new-look Predators got off to a quick start last season. At the end of November, Nashville held a record of 16-5-2 and were tied a top the league standings with 34 points. That success continued up until the All-Star break with the Predators sporting a record of 30-10-5 and just two points behind the league leading Anaheim Ducks with two games in hand.
The story for this year’s Predators has followed a distinctly different pattern.
Nashville managed to get off to an impressive start just as they did a year ago going 7-1-2 in the month of October, but then the wheels began to fall off. From November 1 to this year’s All-Star break the Predators managed to go just 17-17-6 giving them a record of 24-18-8 and the No. 14 spot in the NHL standings.
As for what has been different between last year’s team and this year’s, there are two very obvious contributing factors.
Last year’s break came earlier, with the Predators having played 45 games compared to 50 this season. In their opening 45 games a year ago the Predators offense was clicking, with 133 goals to their name and held a goal differential of 32.
Through 45 games this season, the offense was non-existent some nights and the team scored just 114 goals while allowing 122 to the opposition for a -8 goal differential. The Predators have already been shut out five times this season through 50 games while they were held scoreless just four times all of last season.
213:47 without a goal. My goodness. #Preds have lost three straight by shutout (a first in franchise history) by a total of 11-0
— Kristopher Martel (@kmartel_sports) November 24, 2015
While lighting the lamp is something that must happen to win games, so to is keeping the puck out of your own net, which is one of Nashvilles biggest struggles this year.
Last season Pekka Rinne went 41-17-6 on the year while sporting a 0.923 save percentage on his way to a Vezina Trophy Finalist nomination. In his 37 starts prior to the All-Star break, Rinne was phenomenal posting a save percentage of 0.931 and a record of 29-6-2.
This season, that same elite netminder has been nonexistant. The 33-year-old has looked out of his depth for much of the year, with just a 19-15-6 record and the 39th best save percentage in the league at 0.906. He is on pace to allow 179 goals this season. He ended last year with just 140 allowed.
While things could have gone much better for Nashville prior this year’s All-Star break, there are still reasons to be optimistic that this season could just be a flip of last season.
First and for most, Rinne is trending up; he has gone 3-0-0 in his past three starts to go along with a save percentage of 0.962. While all three wins came to non playoff teams (at the time of the game), it is nothing but a positive situation for Rinne, especially since they were on the road.
Then there is Ryan Johansen, the Predators’ recent acquisition and a true first line center. In his 10 games played with the Predators, he has been a point-per-game player with three goals and seven helpers. While he has found a consistent linemate in James Neal, finding that perfect fit on the left-wing is still unresolved but the future looks bright. He and Neal have combined for 16 points in the 10 games played together.
On the other side of the blockbuster deal was the departure of defenseman Seth Jones. The void left by Jones was a bit uncertain as to how big it would be, but Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have formed somewhat of a two-headed monster filling in for Jones in all situations on the ice. Ekholm has already posted career high numbers with six goals and 16 assists in 50 games played.
Defense TOI through 40 minutes:
Ekholm/Ellis: 16:30 each
— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) January 9, 2016
From a special teams perspective, both the power play and penalty kill have improved headed into the break which is something that certainly gives the Predators a chance to breakout in the second half of the season. In the last 10 games Nashville has allowed just four power play goals (89.7%) while scoring seven power play goals of their own on 27 attempts (26.0%).
Finally, the Predators remaining schedule is a favorable one with 18 of their final 32 games taking place in Music City. February will serve as a perfect chance for the Predators to solidify themselves in a playoff position with eight of the 13 games being at home including a four-game home stand to begin the month. Not to mention they are currently riding a four-game winning streak after a perfect Western Canada road trip.
Last year’s Predators stumbled into the playoffs after the All-Star break ultimately losing 23 of their final 37 games, perhaps this year they are finding their stride later, hoping to avoid that same fall down the standings.
All stats via War on Ice.