Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
The Nashville Predators were oh, so close to reaching the pinnacle of the NHL.
So close to hoisting a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. So close to the Music City faithful singing world champion melodies about their beloved team for years to come.
After collecting 94 points and coming within two wins of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the Predators would falter to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. As a follow-up, the Predators over the course of the 2017-18 season would collect 117 points (the most in franchise history) and the Presidents’ Trophy. Although the success would be unfounded, Nashville would not make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, as the team would be booted by the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
Two years of immense success to varying degrees would not net Nashville a championship. Over their next two corresponding seasons, their success, while still good enough to garner postseason consideration, would still not be enough. After having another 100-point season during the 2018-19 season, the Predators would get jumped in the first round by the Dallas Stars. After COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season, the Predators would pick up a qualifying round bid, only to lose in that series to the Arizona Coyotes.
While the 2016-17 and 2017-18 Predators did not win a Stanley Cup, they were still formidable and one of the soundest teams in the entire NHL. In the two corresponding seasons, the Nashville luster was no longer there. The team did not have that ferocious bite to it.
At this point, the question is simple.
To start, their offense regressed. The Predators’ offense during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons averaged 3.04 goals per game (GF/GP), which was tied for ninth in the entire NHL. Their 20.1 Power Play Percentage (PP%) was tied for 12th. Their shots per game played (Shots/GP) was also solid, as their 31.7 Shots/GP ranked 11th. Lastly, their Faceoff Win Percentage (FOW%) of 52.4% ranked fourth.
When looking at Nashville’s offense during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, the regression begins to be noticed. To start, Nashville’s GF/GP during the span decreased to 2.97, which was tied for 17th. Their PP%, meanwhile, dropped to 15.0%, which ranked last among all 31 teams. Although Nashville’s 32.9 Shots/GP and 51.9 FOW% were excellent (both areas were fifth and tied for third, respectively), the decline on the man-advantage would put the team at a severe disadvantage.
Team regression on offense, logically, would also mean a decline in individual player production as well. Nashville’s top four skaters in terms of total points during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons were Viktor Arvidsson (122), Filip Forsberg (122), Ryan Johansen (115) and Roman Josi (102). Although Josi’s point production increased over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons (121 total points), the remaining trio’s point production dropped to 76, 98 and 100, respectively. While the production was still relatively solid, it simply was not as earth-shattering as it was during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons due to a combination of regression, injuries and the constant grind of a hockey career.
Nashville’s bread and butter during their heyday, however, did not come on offense. It came from rock-solid blueliners and nigh-impregnable goaltending.
The group of Ryan Ellis, Josi, and Mattias Ekholm, among others, would allow 31.3 shots per game (SA/GP) over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, which would rank 16th in the NHL. While definitely average by all stretches of the mean, Nashville’s goaltending would pick up any pucks penetrating Nashville’s blueliners. Under the primary goaltending duo of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros (who possessed a 2.37 and 2.40 GAA, respectively), Nashville would allow 2.59 goals per game (GA/GP). This would rank sixth in the NHL. Nashville’s Penalty Kill Percentage (PK%) was also excellent, as the unit’s 81.5 PK% ranked 11th.
Just like the offense, regression and age would catch up to the defense and the goaltending over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. While Nashville’s SA/GP was still decent (their 30.6 SA/GP was actually an improvement), their goaltending would take a hit, as Nashville’s 2.82 GA/GP would drop to ninth. The relatively high ranking, however, would not tell the entire story, as Rinne and Saros’s GAA plummeted to 2.71 and 2.66, respectively. Finally, the team’s PK% would drop to 79.3%, which would be 20th among all teams.
While Nashville has still be a team in contention, they have not been the team other teams had to heavily contend with. The emergence of the Colorado Avalanche, in addition to the steady presence of the Jets, Stars and St. Louis Blues, has made the Central Division much deeper. As a result, Nashville has not been as dominating of a team as they were several seasons ago.
While they have not completely collapsed, the Predators over the past two seasons have been noticeably different from their production during the two seasons prior. While it does not necessarily mean Nashville has no chance at a Cup run, it is much more difficult. A hard-pressed roster prioritizing big-time physical contact in all zones becomes worn over the years. Regression, injuries and age eventually catch up.
The Predators were close to claiming the Cup. Alas, it would not happen. While Nashville is still a team to look out for, the change is readily apparent. This is no longer the team that once was during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
The bite is no longer as sharp.