Here we are at the halfway point of the season, and I’m handing out some grades that will disappoint some of the faithful fan base, but let’s take an overall look at what this team is to this point.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS (19-16-7) 45 points/5th place Central Division/clinging to last wild card position in Western Conference.
Colorado has a record of 21-19-3, also for 45 points, but have played one more game than the Preds. A loss tonight in Chicago, and an Avalanche victory at home vs. Tampa could spell some serious trouble in Smashville. A loss in Chicago and a home victory in Colorado seems to make some sense, too.
PEKKA RINNE (C+) – The problem is, that the expectations for the Finnish netminder are always off the charts. Preds fans (and the NHL) have seen Rinne singlehandedly carry the offensively challenged team on his back for long periods of time, and this season it just hasn’t happened. At 16-13-5, with a 2.48 GAA and a .906 Save Pctg., we are seeing some of the least attractive numbers the goaltender has put up since he came into the league as a starter in 2008-09. Granted, it’s the goalie that gets hot in April that helps a team move through the post season, and Pekka hasn’t had his “hot streak” yet, but the loss of Jones means a slightly more porous defense, and the PK has been horrible, so, who knows if this team even gives him the chance to get hot beyond game 82.
CARTER HUTTON (B-) – It’s not Hutton’s fault that the coaching staff has given him just six games this season, and that his numbers are not particularly impressive (3-2-1, 2.97, .895.) Fact is, Hutton hasn’t been as bad as those numbers would indicate, and he’s been left hung out to dry more than a few times in his limited playing time. There was a snafu at the beginning of a road trip earlier in the first half, when Coach Laviolette rode Rinne during a back to back situation that may have warranted Hutton, but right now, the guy is in the final year of his contract, and he’s doing all he can to show he merits an NHL job.
SHEA WEBER (C+) – As with Rinne, you expect a little more than you are getting from the captain. Weber shines bright on the offensive side of the puck, and is probably the most feared shot from the point in the entire NHL. His eight power play goals rank second in the NHL among defensemen (Carolina’s Justin Faulk has twelve!!) and he’s done that on just 29 shots (Faulk has taken 53.) My problem with Weber is that he is not a fierce hitter on the defensive side of the puck. While he plays angles reasonably well, he still does not often separate the puck from the opposing forward, and Rinne faces more chances because of that (See Doughty/Quick to understand how it can be done effectively.) Weber is a large man, and he may still be a bit fearful of re-injuring the knee that caused him to miss the team’s post season in 2015, but all talk of Norris Trophy nominations should be put at bay until he proves he can make it much tougher on the opposition in the Predators end.
ROMAN JOSI (A) – Weber’s defensive partner is having yet another impressive campaign. Granted, since New Year’s Eve, he has gone from a zero rating to a minus 5, the team has not played very good hockey over the last few weeks, and everyone has suffered. The 25 year old Swiss rearguard has arguably been the team’s MVP through the first half, and his selection (with Weber and Rinne) to the upcoming All Star Game is well deserved. Josi’s 9 goals and 22 assists leads the team in scoring, and he also heads the list in time-on-ice. He’s tied for the team lead with a couple of game winning goals, and there isn’t a team in the NHL that wouldn’t have him as a top pairing defender.
RYAN ELLIS (B) – You know what’s really funny? Two years ago, Predators fans would have ridden this kid out of town on a rail. Despite being a solid first round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, 11th overall, you constantly heard fans chirp, “He’s too small,” “He can’t handle the pressure,” “He’s a turnover machine,” … and yet, here he is in 2016 and no one complained when GM David Poile bestowed a long term contract on him, and no one is complaining as he helps anchor the second power play unit, and along with partner Mattias Ekholm, forms a tremendous second pairing for the Preds, rarely having off nights, and always giving a consistent effort showing toughness beyond his size. Playing just a few ticks shy of twenty minutes a game, Ellis has been a “plus” player all season long and is on pace to surpass career season-high totals in goals and assists.
MATTIAS EKHOLM (B-) – Also getting locked up to a long term deal this season, third year Swede, Ekholm is closing in on his point totals of last year, with 5 goals, 11 assists in 42 games (he had 7-11 in 80 games last year.) Gaining more confidence as he gains more experience, Ekholm is averaging about eighteen minutes a game, and with the trade of Seth Jones, will see that number go up before year’s end. Also, he has contributed points on both the power play and the penalty kill, areas where, again, based on the absence of Jones, he will see his ice time increase. Of the top four defensemen in Preds gold, he may be the most vulnerable, but his limited NHL experience (187 regular season games) only serves to further impress as he solidifies himself on the Predators blueline.
SETH JONES (C+) (traded to Columbus) – Yes, we are grading Seth, and shipping him to the Blue Jackets to fulfill the promise he exhibits at just 21 years old, in the middle of his third full season in the National Hockey League. I admit it, I’m a fan, and I personally think his play is deserving of a better grade than C+, but I’m being fair to the fans that truly believe in their heart of hearts that this man is an F from top to bottom. Seth Jones is a stud. He will flourish in the NHL. This trade can’t be graded properly until both guys sign new contracts (hopefully with their respective current clubs) and a reasonable amount of time has passed to make an accurate assessment. I marvel at Jones’ skill set, and I know he has been prone to making the obvious bad pass, or while flat footed, coughing up the puck because he can’t see a good option to make a better hockey play. I like what Jones did for Nashville, and I think Poile had better look towards improving his bottom pair, because I can’t give grades to Bitetto, Granberg, or Bartley this season (all: INCOMPLETE) – though I’m partial to Granberg because of his upside, and seeming mobility.
BARRET JACKMAN (C) – Top to bottom, prior to the Jones trade, I believe the Predators had the best top six defensive corps in the NHL. So, why all the C’s? Well, fact is they have all been pretty average, save for Josi this season. Stingy at times, and offensively overpowering at others, but unfortunately, coupled with completely ineffective forwards, the team has been stymied and finds themselves losing more than winning. Jackman was brought in on a two year deal to provide a steady, stay-at-home partner for Seth Jones, and be a tad more mobile and punishing that either Anton Volchenkov or Victor Bartley was last season. Results have been mixed this year, with Jackman getting about fourteen and a half minutes of ice on any given night, and has accrued a team leading fifty-four penalty minute. Couple that with the team’s woeful penalty killing and you see where the problem lies. Jones is gone, and Jackman is now splitting time with newcomers Bitetto and Granberg as the third pairing defensemen. Conventional wisdom (at least MINE) said that there were more than a few times over the course of the first half of the season, where Jackman’s effectiveness may have been furthered by the occasional night off, allowing the younger guys a chance to play a game or two with Jones. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and again, I call to Poile to improve on that third pairing as the team heads into the back half of the season.