Grades submitted after Sunday’s road game vs. Winnipeg, a 3-0 loss that featured two empty net goals, and a barrage of 42 shots stopped by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
(A+) Pekka Rinne – While he has only won nine of his seventeen decisions (9-5-3), Rinne is sporting a GAA under 2 (1.98) and a save percentage of .935. His positioning has been excellent, and save for the brutal road trip in California, he has been more Vezina-like than any time in the past few seasons.
(A) Jusse Saros – Two starts. A win, a loss, but his loss was this most recent game, in which he gave up one goal and his teammates came up empty despite peppering the Jets with more than a handful of chances that would have beaten an average goaltender on most nights. Goalie of the future inspires confidence.
(F) Marek Mazanec – Two starts. Two brutal losses. The worst part about both of those games was that every time the team started to claw back, Maz gave up a softie and put the game out of reach. He’s in Milwaukee for now. He will probably be back at some point, but confidence is not high.
(INC) Tony Bitetto – An injury in Game One took Bitetto out of the game for the better part of six weeks, only returning last Friday at home vs. Winnipeg. Making the top six out of camp, Tony will look to the final 3/4 of the season as a chance to establish himself as a physical player who makes smart decisions and can also transition the puck up ice.
(A-) Ryan Ellis – Currently on IR, Ellis has missed the past two games, but prior to that solid on both sides of the puck. Currently a team second-best +6 with nine points (3g, 6a) and averaging just over 23 and a half minutes of ice time. He’s had to deal with learning to play with a new partner (Josi) after the four game Josi/Subban experiment was discarded by the coaching staff. Obviously a very valuable piece in the Preds defensive fibre.
(B+) Yannick Weber – Off season free agent acquisition that has worked out beautifully to this point. Team leading +8 while limited ice time (ATOI: 11:38) limits exposure to premiere offensive threats from the opposition. Should continue to succeed in this protected scenario.
(B) Mattias Ekholm – Would stop short of saying “has taken a step back” this season because he’s been matched with new defensive partner Subban, who plays a decidedly different game than former partner Ellis. Ekholm has seen his minutes increase from just over 20 last season, to over 23 this season. More responsibility, more time on ice, more chance for “exposure.” Not terribly concerned, but overall numbers may see a decrease by season’s end.
(B-) Matt Irwin – Much needed fill-in was recalled from Milwaukee when the Matt Carle experiment took a severe downturn. All Irwin did was step in and form a solid 3rd pairing in the wake of Bitetto’s injury, and score goals in three consecutive games at a time the team was desperate for ANY offense. Consider this, however, an aberration. Irwin and Bitetto will probably rotate in and out for a while, and when Ellis is healthy, one of those two will be the seventh defenseman, finding love and hors d’oeurves in the press box.
(B+) Roman Josi – Coming into this season, expectations were never higher for Roman Josi, who started feeling Norris talk swirling around him since his incredible 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. No longer the most dynamic offensive skating defenseman on the team, he endured four very tough games with Subban at his side before Ryan Ellis became his partner at the start of game five. His ATOI is down just slightly (from 26+ minutes to a shade under 25,) and his point production is a tick off his last two seasons (on pace for 47 after seasons of 55 and 61,) but Josi remains a very gifted piece of the Preds defensive puzzle, which is really no puzzle at all.
(B) P.K. Subban – There is however, an enigma in Gold. Subban is what I call “high risk, high reward,” and with the risk comes the occasional magnified play that causes you to shake your head and cringe. P.K.’s time on ice is always a potential human highlight reel, and sometimes the subject of concern. He’s paired with Mattias Ekholm and the two can only get better as the season rolls on. Fans would like to see him back out there with Josi, but at this point the coaching staff has been unwilling to go back down that road. Leads the defensive group in points, and although he doesn’t boast Shea Weber’s gaudy goal total, he’s been just fine offensively, and has already shown that his slapper from the blueline can beat even the best of NHL netminders.
(B-) Filip Forsberg – Yes, he’s the team leader in points (16) but he has just two goals, and none on the power play, where he receives top minutes. He’s taken 45 shots through the first 21 games, so he’s sitting well behind other wingers, Neal and Arvidsson in that category. Forsberg had a slow start last season, and came on to score 30 of his 33 goals after December 1st. If lightning strikes twice, this grade will skyrocket beyond the “A” barrier.
(C+) Colton Sissons – Called on to take over 4C responsibilities with the retirement of veteran Paul Gaustad, Sissons has had a slightly better than average start to the season, though currently on IR thanks to being boarded by Jets forward Brandon Tanev. Sissons has taken 154 draws and is currently at 50%, winning and losing 77 apiece. His role right now includes some PK duties, and he’s netted a shorthanded goal this year. He’s also been a big part of the team’s overall PK resurgence, currently 8th in the NHL, though 29th through October.
(B+) Mike Fisher – The newly appointed captain has had a solid start to the season, currently on pace for the best points season of his career (on pace for 55, high was 53 with the 09-10 Senators.) He’s been a minus player at even strength, but his 8 power play points is encouraging, as is his willingness to be one of a small handful of Preds players who will occasionally battle in front of the net in an effort to screen the opposing netminder. As many bemoan the loss of the previous captain, the locker room appears to be in capable hands with Fish leading the charge.
(C+) Craig Smith – Enigmatic Craig Smith. For the past few seasons he’s shown signs of being a premier goal scorer in the NHL, but at other times you look back on long stretches of invisibility. Smith has just a lone goal and a pair of helpers in the past eleven games, and had five goals in his first nine contests (He was one of the food-poisoning casualties to miss the big home win vs. Pittsburgh.) The American born wing has been with Nashville for six seasons and has topped the 20 goal barrier in the past three campaigns. He’s currently on pace for a fourth, but his assist total is drastically slashed (he has just 2 in his first 20 games) and is still looking at his TOI being around 15 minutes (as it was last year.) There’s improvement to be made as this season progresses.
(D+) Cody Bass – With Salomaki scheduled to come back, and the solid play of Austin Watson, Bass was deemed expendable and optioned back to Milwaukee (AHL) late last week. He remains in the organization and will be available for toughness and little else.
(B+) James Neal – Recently placed on IR, Neal was off to a terrific start to this season, netting 10 goals in his last 13 games. October was cruel to most Nashville forwards, and as the calendar flipped to November, no one benefited more from the change than Neal. On pace now for a second 40 goal campaign, we can only hope his time on the injury list is short and he gets back to his linemates, Arvidsson and Johansen and continues to reinforce the notion that his quick release is among the best in the NHL.
(C+) Calle Jarnkrok – In his third full season with Nashville, Jarnkrok came to camp coming off a breakout sophomore season. In fact, his goal total rose from his rookie year (7) to a respectable 16, averaging around 16 minutes of time on ice for the team. This year his minutes are down slightly, and his even strength duties have seemingly mostly been relegated to fourth line status. However, his penalty killing is an immense strength, as the team has gone from October’s misery to November’s prosperity. The team sits eighth overall on the PK, and Jarnkrok is the team’s number one forward in terms of short handed time on ice. He needs to net a few key goals and regain some of his offensive mindset.
(INC) Miikka Salomaki – His injury in Game Two merely magnified what he meant to the team, especially in all those road defeats. Miikka is a gifted two way forward who combines his level of hockey smarts with the kind of physicality that keeps other team’s opposing forwards honest along the boards. He has resumed skating with the team, and we look forward to his return.
(C) Colin Wilson – While Cher wished she could turn BACK time, Colin Wilson wishes all of his stats were based on post season play. The enigmatic forward shows occasional flashes of his playoff-self, but more often than not he’s the guy who “could have had” monster games “if only.” A two-goal game against Winnipeg doubled his total to four on the year, but a highlight reel could be made of missed opportunities through the first quarter of the season. Wilson suffered through a dismal six-goal season last year, after netting 20 the season prior. This season should be a bit of an uptick, and enough to keep him on the roster through the post-season, but it’s always make-or-break for a talent like this.
(A) Viktor Arvidsson – The brightest spot of the Preds season behind the re-emergence of elite goaltender Pekka Rinne has been the sophomoric rise of Arvidsson. He is the smallest forward on the roster, but plays with the biggest heart, and is quickly getting under the skin of opposing defensemen on a nightly basis. Recently installed on the top line, and FINALLY seeing some action on the power play, Arvidsson has scored shorthanded, at even strength and with the man advantage. Expect him to get stronger on his skates through the remainder of the season.
(C+) Pontus Aberg – Really haven’t seen enough to know the true upside of Aberg, but he does not look out of place on any line Coach Laviolette has placed him on. Got his first NHL point at home vs. St. Louis, and followed it with his first NHL goal a week later in Ottawa. Pointless in his last five, with Salomaki set to return soon, he, Fiala and Watson are all on notice at this point in time.
(C+) Austin Watson – Disappointingly shipped to Milwaukee at the beginning of the season, Watson took his game to the American League, and was recalled with the food poisoning replacements and has yet to relinquish his spot on the fourth line. Supplying some grit, and some energy, he is fifth on the team in hits, fifth among forwards in blocked shots, and is the only player on the entire team yet to be saddled with a “give-away.” His eleven minutes on the ice is not usually visible on the scoresheet, but he’s obviously gained the trust of the coaching staff during Salomaki’s time on IR. While he is one of a small handful of guys “on-the-bubble,” he’s certainly made a case to be with the big club for the foreseeable future.
(C) Kevin Fiala – Had a two goal game during the food poisoning affair, and was rewarded with decreased ice time and a stint in Milwaukee. His coronation is not yet complete, and could be spending more time in Wisconsin if players like Aberg and Wilson continue to out play him. He has appeared in 11 games and the Preds have just 2 of their 10 wins in games he’s played (2-6-3)
(B) Mike Ribeiro – As good as Mike Ribeiro’s first season was, he was that bad last season. His numbers so far this season have been refreshingly encouraging, and his play has not been the maddening pass-first pray-later turnover machine that we endured in 2015-16. Ribs is skating close to 16 minutes a game. His faceoffs are down a bit at even strength, but he, like most of the forward group, seems to have new linemates ever game or two, and has been doing his best to have chemistry with whichever player the coach has put him with in the early going.
(C-) Ryan Johansen – No, his -3 in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Winnipeg did NOT factor into his grade, which after the first 17 games of the season was a big fat F. The Ryan Johansen in games 18, 19 and 20 was clearly an A, to bring him CLOSE to an average grade, but honestly, who could forget his lazy passing, or his insistence on standing by the half wall, presumably to pass the puck that he rarely saw in the early going. Folks, your number one center had just ONE EVEN STRENGTH POINT in the club’s first eleven games. Come on! His faceoff percentage with the man advantage is a remarkably league-worst 6 of 32 draws! These last few games have been terrific, but we need a LOT more before I consider his contributions to be number-one center-like.