Returning with, for all intents and purposes, the same lineup that finished with the fifth-most points in the NHL last season and advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Nashville Predators figured to have a leg up on the competition in a shortened season preceded by only a week of training camp.
So much for conventional wisdom.
On Monday in a 4-0 loss to Phoenix — when 16 of 18 Preds’ skaters had played for the team last season along with their goaltender that night — Nashville was shut out for the second time in three games, representing their third straight loss on the fourth game of what is a seven-game road trip.
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As a result, the Preds find themselves in some unfamiliar territory with their record looking more like a child’s lesson in counting – 1-2-3 – than what it usually looks like. Goalie Pekka Rinne, who led the league in wins last season, has yet to put a notch in the “W” column. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist’s save percentage, often among the best in the league, is below what counts as the Mendoza Line for modern NHL goalies, .899.
Yet defense and goaltending – the Preds’ 2.5 goals-against-per game ranks eighth best in the league — have not stood out as the Predators’ biggest issues in this young season.
No, the problem, as the shutouts would attest, is offense. The Preds’ paltry 1.67 goals-for-per game tied for the worst in the league entering Wednesday’s games. Two-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber has yet to record a point, the same predicament that his defense partner Roman Josi (All-Star Ryan Suter’s replacement) finds himself in.
Four forwards – Colin Wilson, Gabriel Bourque, Craig Smith and Matt Halischuk – have a combined one goal and one assist in 19 total games. Last year that group combined for 51 goals and 67 assists in 256 games.
“Last year we were scoring goals and playing absolutely horrendous defense,” Preds coach Barry Trotz told FOXSportsTennessee.com in comparing this year’s start to last year’s. “Now we’re playing better defense, but we’re not really good on the offensive part. We have to simplify it. We’ve got to do the right things.”
By the right things, Trotz said the Preds need to have more of a “shot mentality.” He said they’re playing too much on the perimeter and not going to the net enough. He guesses that their percentage of shots from inside of 30 feet ranks among the lowest in the league. He said the Preds need to change their habits and “retrain” themselves to do these things, which they have not done for the last six or eight months.
Which brings us to the next issue. The Preds have a player who excels at all of the aspects that Trotz just described. His name is Patric Hornqvist and he has led them in goals for two of the last three seasons.
On Saturday in a 3-2 shootout loss to Anaheim, Hornqvist suffered a knee injury and will miss the next three to four weeks. So his teammates will have to get out of this mess without him.
Trotz didn’t sugarcoat Hornqvist’s importance in this instance.
“That’s a hole,” Trotz said. “He’s one of those guys that does it naturally and, therefore, he’s really effective there.”
Trotz said that Wilson has played well but not produced. He said the team needs more production from some of its skilled forwards, mentioning Sergei Kostitsyn by name. Kostitsyn has no goals and two assists.
“We’re not getting much from our forwards right now,” Trotz said.
Compounding the Preds’ poor start in the short season is the highly competitive nature of the Central Division. Over the past five seasons, the division has produced either the Western Conference champion or its top seed in the playoffs four times and includes two Stanley Cup champions during that span.
Two teams, Chicago and St. Louis, are off to torrid starts, with the Blackhawks at 6-0-1 entering Thursday, and the Blues at 5-1, giving them two of the league’s top five records.
“I don’t know if it creates more urgency,” Trotz said of the Preds’ situation relative to their division rivals. “I think we’re in a position where we need to be urgent right now. We recognize they’re both good teams . . . Let’s look at a very short time frame. Let’s look at the game in front of us. I’ve always been a guy who looks at the short term.”
The game in front of them on Thursday is defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, which is in a similar plight to the Preds’ in that the Kings also have five points.
When Trotz put on his optimistic hat, he noted that if the Preds had won their three shootouts instead of lost them, they’d be 4-2 right now and no one would be fretting.
As a man in his 14th season as head coach of the franchise, he is predictably taking the long view. He wryly said the West Coast has been lovely, but he could better appreciate it if his team could win a game. Nashville has 12 of its first 15 games on the road. Trotz said his team needs to chip away while it’s on the road.
The Preds return home to Bridgestone Arena a week from Thursday against those same Kings.
“If we can get back to .500 on the road,” he said, “I think we’re a pretty good team at home.”
For now, that short-term view will have to suffice.