Five burning questions surrounding the Predators at the All-Star break
The Nashville Predators have entered the All-Star break with the best record in the Central Division, 30-10-5 and good for 65 points. It’s time to take a look at five important things to watch for over the second half of the season.
Currently, Nashville has been without the services of Rinne for a little over one week. Carter Hutton has started all three games in his absence, including a relief appearance by Marek Mazanec, going 1-1-1 in that span.
Has Hutton looked great? While collecting his first win against the Capitals last Friday night, he allowed three goals in his first four shots faced against Detroit less than 24 hours later. Against Montreal on Tuesday, Hutton stopped 25 of 27 shots, but fell in overtime thanks to P.K. Subban’s second goal of the night.
Although not defending his 1-4-3 record, the majority of Hutton’s goals allowed have come due to screens, deflections and unlucky bounces. Both of Montreal’s goals against Hutton came on the power play with multiple players in the path of the shot.
One thing to remember is Rinne has four inches, height-wise, on Hutton. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but that extra four inches can be the difference in seeing the puck and being screened out. Introducing a taller goaltender into the mix, a la Mazanec or Magnus Hellberg, won’t guarantee that Nashville will have a permanent solution in place of Rinne if he were to re-injure himself along the way.
Right now, my feeling is Nashville should be fine in regards to their backup goaltending position. Hutton has played well enough to win, but has had his fair share of bad luck. Mazanec is another good netminder in the system who won the NHL’s Rookie of the Month award last November. Hellberg is the AHL’s league leader in goals against average and second best in save percentage.
The Predators have options, that much is true.
As they approach the trade deadline, Nashville has the offensive punch that it’s sorely missed in seasons past.
The Predators have four players on pace to break the 20-goal plateau by the end of the season, something they’ve only accomplished four times in franchise history. They’re the best team in the league at five-on-five play and one of the top 10 teams in the league in goals per game.
Defensively, they’re sound as well. Nashville is tops in the league for goals against per game at 2.24 and have given up only 101 total goals in its 45 games so far.
One concern that could be addressed is depth and special teams, which could easily go hand in hand. Strong third and fourth line players usually find themselves playing some of the more grinding minutes in the defensive and neutral zones along with the penalty kill.
Right now, Nashville’s penalty kill sits among the bottom ten in the league. Shea Weber and Roman Josi, along with Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom, see the majority of shorthanded time on ice for the Predators. If they can find the right players to shore up their bottom six forwards, possibly those that have extensive playoff experience as well, it’s definitely something that needs to be considered.
Another move that Nashville could pull the trigger on is adding a strong veteran defenseman for depth. The Predators seem to be alright for now, but the continued health of Anton Volchenkov and inexperience of Victor Bartley, relative to his peers, could force Nashville’s hand into finding a player capable of possibly pairing up with Seth Jones if the team plans on a long run in the postseason.
Of their current 23-man roster, the Predators will have 10 players heading to free agency with either. Along with those 10, they also have 11 additional players in the organization that will be going down the same path.
Obviously, Nashville’s primary concern needs to be on re-signing players like Mike Ribeiro, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Calle Jarnkrok.
Ribeiro has been one of Nashville’s best free agent signings in the past handful of years. His performance easily guarantees that if the Predators don’t re-sign him by July 1st, he could find a lucrative offer elsewhere.
Yet, with all of the troubles he escaped from to sign in Nashville and his amazing resurgence, I have a strong feeling that the organization will find a way to keep him with the team.
Wilson, Smith and Jarnkrok will be instrumental in the future of the Predators for years to come, as well.
Then there’s the case of Nashville’s remaining six active roster free agents.
Reports are that Mike Fisher has expressed an interest to stay with the Predators if the two sides can come to a deal. Fisher’s net-front presence and his face-off abilities alone are valuable to a team like Nashville.
Additionally, Gabriel Bourque and Taylor Beck both have been useful forwards for the Predators. With multiple players in Milwaukee ready to make the push up to the NHL, however, both Bourque and Beck could find themselves on their way out of Nashville as the offseason approaches.
The same goes for some of the team’s more veteran players. Matt Cullen, Olli Jokinen, and Volchenkov all have expiring contracts this season and I’m not sure they’ve done enough to earn a contract for next season. Cullen and Jokinen together will free up $6 million in cap space at the end of the season.
There is no question that Nashville has plenty on their plate prior to July 1st, but their priorities should be set.
Winning 29 of the 37 games he’s played in, the only thing standing in Rinne’s way of sharing or breaking some of the NHL’s goaltending records is his continued health.
As Rinne will continue to heal for possibly the next two to three weeks, he could miss upwards of 11 or more games in that span. That would leave 26 games throughout the remainder of the regular season for Rinne and his companions to mop up until the beginning of the postseason.
While breaking records isn’t the most important thing a player can accomplish, it would have a lasting effect for years to come. Plus, Rinne is realistically within reach of at least one, as it is.
The legendary Martin Brodeur won 48 games during the 2006-07 regular season. Rinne would need 20 wins over the final two and a half months of the season to break that record.
It’s not a stretch to think Rinne could collect 20 wins leading up to the playoffs. However, breaking a record would always come second to the top prize at the end of the season.
At this point of the season, there’s no reason to suspect that the Predators aren’t a true contender. Of course, they’re going to have to do a bit of work on their special teams through the rest of the regular season and focus on Rinne’s health, but they’re statistically one of the best teams on both ends of the ice.
Per SportsClubStats, Nashville only needs 16 wins in their final 37 games to give them a 100% chance of returning to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. That’s less than half of their games they’ll need to win.
A strong first half of the season gives Nashville the ability to pinpoint and resolve its weakest areas as well as making sure its best players are rested and ready for the taxing grind of the postseason. Teams that are fighting on the bubble for a wild card spot won’t necessarily have that same luxury.
Combine that with a couple depth additions mentioned earlier and Nashville should absolutely be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.