If there’s one thing regular readers of this author are aware of, it’s his dislike of the “mushy middle” in the NHL.
From this perspective, there’s nothing worse than a team caught in competitive inertia, just good enough to not finish at the bottom of the league (and thereby secure the best odds at the NHL’s No. 1 overall draft pick), and just bad enough to not get into the playoffs or falter quickly if they do manage to qualify for the post-season.
To that end: Is it me, or are the Nashville Predators going nowhere fast? I mean, I like Juuse Saros as much as anyone, but who's going to score goals for this team? They're just going to be decent, win 30 or 32 games, and go out in the first round of the playoffs to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Tampa Bay Lightning, or the Florida Panthers. Play Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’. Same as it ever was. Ho-hum.
The Predators’ offensive lineup for the coming year hardly brings to mind that of the Colorado Avalanche’s or Toronto Maple Leafs’. Yes, they have a star in left-winger Filip Forsberg, and yes, captain Roman Josi is a Roomba of clean, smart hockey. You just throw him on the surface and let his battery power do the rest. But beyond those two, are there true superstars – and if so, are there enough of them – throughout the Predators’ roster.
I think you have to acknowledge this Preds team – which scored 156 goals as a team last season, second-worst in the Central Division, ahead only of Detroit (127 GF) – is going to need to win a lot of low-scoring games in 2021-22, and Saros is going to be leaned on like never before. If he wobbles, or is injured, Saros has as an understudy former Flames/Maple Leafs backup David Rittich, and that shouldn’t be interpreted as a guarantee he’ll thrive if given the opportunity. He’s a decent-enough netminder, but Rittich can’t be expected to shoulder a large load.
Nashville’s oft-praised defense corps still has capable contributors, such as Josi and big Swede Mattias Ekholm, but there are far fewer above-average contributors on the ‘D’ corps now than there were only a couple of years back. All in all, depth across the board is an issue for this team, and very few teams are fortunate enough to evade large bites from the injury bug. One or two injuries to key players, and this team is going to be passed in the standings by Dallas, and be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
In one way, that’s a good thing: perhaps a stark indication of where the Predators actually are competitively is an indication actively needed. Too many teams fall in love with their lineup at large, but this Nashville group is difficult to fall in love with. There is just no room for error in the salary-capped NHL, and the Preds’ window to win is slipping downward when teams around them are headed in the opposite directions. The time for patience was a while ago now.
Predators GM David Poile is one of the most gentlemanly, statesmanlike figures in all of hockey. He has been given ample rope in Nashville, error forgiveness many hockey men have gotten far less of in other markets. This is not to say Preds fans are gullible; to the contrary – I think they’re loyal. I think there’s something very admirable about that.
The problem for hockey lifers like Poile is, for every savvy move he makes – and he makes many – there’s an error, a draft pick or trade that looks awful in retrospect. Those are the ones that pile up to make an eyesore out of any administration. And while the Preds aren’t in danger of falling into Buffalo Sabres’ territory, ask yourself this: do you really see them embarking on a deep post-season run this year? If so, how many young Predators do you think will need to improve significantly in order to make that playoff run? After a while, you need to put hope aside, and start producing. And Nashville simply hasn’t done enough of that of late.
Just good enough to be not the worst; just bad enough to have no legitimate Stanley Cup championship aspirations. The mush in the middle. That’s where the Predators are headed, and that’s a sticky situation to extricate yourself from.