With the 2017-2018 National Hockey League season set to kick off tonight, I have spent the last few days sitting at my computer, preparing knock a blog piece out of the park, and send Preds fans into either ecstasy or fits of anger and depression.) For the first time in four years I am not blogging for Sports and Entertainment Nashville. They were good to me. Paid me to write about a sport I love, and as long as I didn’t interject any of my personal negativity about the team, the way they were playing, the coaching staff and the way they were dictating the way the players were playing. In short, for three years I wrote mostly innocuous fluff pieces that ended with “and they lived happily ever after.”
But I started writing my own blog, and people took me to task for some of my negativity. Fact is, I hated the Johansen trade (still disappointed to an extent,) loved the Weber deal, and was acutely aware of the fact that Viktor Arvidsson was going to be a stud long before 99% of all Preds fans knew who that little bug in the 38 uniform was!
2017-18 season comes off a remarkable playoff run that fell a couple games short of a Stanley Cup victory, falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game 6. New heroes were created. Two with debilitating injuries that would force them to miss key time (Fiala, Johansen) and a third who played through an injury (Ellis) that would require off-season surgery, and an optimistic outlook that has him returning to the ice somewhere in the latter stages of 2017.
Pundits abound, and the Preds are a team that is all over the map. You can find people projecting them to win the division, conference and cup, but you can also see the posts that talk of this team falling behind division rivals like Winnipeg, as well as previous combatants such as Chicago and St. Louis. Will Bruce Boudreau guide the Minnesota Wild to a division championship behind the superlative goaltending of Devyn Dubnyk? Did David Poile do enough to fill the holes in Nashville’s forward landscape to cultivate some new talent to fill a void left by the retirement of Mike Fisher, the expansion draft plucking of James Neal and the trading of long time enigma Colin Wilson? Are Nick Schmaltz, Alex Debrincat, and Gustav Forsling ready to take regular roles in Chicago? And, will injuries to (choose any 5 names from the St. Louis Blues roster) make it difficult for the team to find consistency under head coach Mike Yeo? Then, there are the Winnipeg Jets, who boast one of the most explosive players in the NHL, Patrick Laine, coming off a rookie campaign that was certainly worthy of hardware, save for that Maple Leaf named Matthews!
How is the Central Divison going to shake out? A wise hockey veteran was once quoted, saying predictions are for gypsies (fortune tellers) so I’m not going to give it a whirl. I will make some overtures towards what the Predators can, will, should and possibly won’t do to secure a spot in the post season, so here we go.
TOP 5 REASONS WHY NASHVILLE IS CLEARLY A TEAM READY TO MAKE A STATEMENT IN THE HUNT FOR A POST SEASON RETURN:
1. The experience the young team received in last season’s playoff run has gelled them as a unit, and made them road-tested as a group that will advance in the face of adversity. Guns will be loaded for Kevin Fiala, the newly re-acquired Scott Hartnell, and the traded-for Stanley Cup Champion, Nick Bonino.
2. You really can’t touch the top 4 defensive corps when healthy, and even without Ellis, a chance to show off blue chip prospect Samuel Girard for a short period of time (a return to Juniors is likely, but a few weeks with the team will acclimate him to the NHL lifestyle (travel, practice, etc.) and give him a head start on the starting job he should lock up within a season or two.
3. An embarrassment of riches, meaning the money shelled out by GM David Poile to keep star forwards Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson happy. In tandem with Filip Forsberg, this dynamic trio gelled as a line in the latter half of the regular season, and forged through the post season until Johansen’s injury and should be one of the more potent lines in the NHL this season. Whether together or separated, each guy should be counted on to hit the scoresheet on a nightly basis.
4. The goaltending tandem of Pekka Rinne and young Juuse Saros should continue to be rock solid and provide the team with more than adequate goaltending. Both of these guys are “if I can see it, I can stop it” players, and will rarely give up “bad” goals. Tips, deflections, re-directions and fluke knuckle”pucks” all happen over the course of the season, but the Preds commitment to team defense is generally unparalleled.
5. Home Ice Advantage. The Predators fans, henceforth known as “The 7th Man” are a factor. The volume level at Bridgestone Arena is often staggering to the players, both home and opposition, and the fans. The fans can occasionally will the team out of the doldrums and back into a hockey game. Some of that will be needed over the course of 41 regular season home games.
But then again…
TOP 5 REASONS WHY NASHVILLE WILL STRUGGLE TO TAKE THEIR SEASON PAST GAME #82:
1. Some questionable roster moves sent post-season hero Freddie Gaudreau and slick young gun Vladislav Kamenev down to the American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. Granted, neither player had to clear waivers, and Poile enjoys his assets, but Milk Carton “favorite” Craig Smith, and tough guy Cody McLeod are not the future of this team. We may need the future more sooner than later, but for now, we suffer the inconsistencies, as well as the ineptitude when puck meets stick.
2. Who in their right mind was planning on doling out 16 million dollars for four years of Nick Bonino… OK, OTHER THAN NASHVILLE’S David Poile? Answer: (/crickets)
3. Something’s got to give with the Nashville Power Play. In the pre-season it was inept at best, and laughable more times than not. Sure, this team will get its share of goals when you have Josi, Subban and (eventually) Ellis bombing the opposing goaltender from the points, but the carry the puck into the neutral zone and send a drop pass back to the lone defender, having HIM try to worm his way into the offensive zone is painful time after time. Like a drinking game, count the number of times Preds PA guy, Paul McCann is bellowing “YOUR NASHVILLE PREDATORS ARE … ON … ” and the team is scurrying back into their own zone to regroup because of a lost faceoff win or an advantageous clear by the opposition. It’s a scary number. Scary numbers need improvement.
4. Fans bemoan the loss of Neal, and I don’t share in that sentiment, but there does have to be questions surrounding where the secondary goal scoring is going to come from. Most seem to hate on Jarnkrok and Sissons as viable 2C options, but I think once you understand the potential overvaluing of the aforementioned Bonino (he joins Smith as the from now forward to be known as “The Milk Carton Kids”) there is going to be a need to rely on Salomaki, Fiala, and Aberg, and as much as I am a big fan of all three, if they spend the first quarter of the season watching Bonino, McLeod, Smith and company eat up critical minutes they should have had from the get go, it’s setting up to be a winter of bewilderment and discontent for all concerned.
5. Face it. I haven’t even MENTIONED the Dallas Stars, and there are a TON of prognosticators thinking the additions of Bishop, Methot and Radulov make them a healthy contender for the Central crown. Throw in the logjam in the Pacific Division and you have a lot of teams fighting for a select few spots. The Preds need to start strong, and get stronger.
I like the Nashville Predators as they head into the 2017-18 season, but like a tightrope walker during a windstorm, there are variables that could send this group tumbling to Earth in a nanosecond. It’s easy to remember the post-season run when the juggernaut Preds annihilated Chicago, St. Louis, and Anaheim, and it’s easy to say that if Fiala and Johansen had remained healthy, two more wins were easily within reach. But, the season has been re-set, and the Good Place could become the Bad Place and This Is Us, might be This Was Us, and fans in Winnipeg, or Dallas may have the last laugh, as we did last spring.
Parity is why we live in a salary cap era. Parity is why on any given night a Golden Knights might just best a seemingly mightier Ducks team, or why the Av Nots may truly become the Avs and show the Preds why having a Matt Duchene can be a game breaker. Yes, predictions are for the gypsies, and over 50 years of watching this sport I’ve been wrong far too many times to go out on a limb and make the statement that the team to beat in 2017-18 will be… … but, I can safely say that IF you stay healthy, IF you score clutch goals, IF your special teams don’t falter, and IF your 35-year-old goalie plays like he’s found the fountain of youth, you’re gonna win a good number of hockey games, and probably enough to make the post season, and, what we learned from last year, you just have to get in and make a statement. Here’s to another statement. Go Preds, 2017-18!