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Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks lose 8th game in a row on comical Hurricanes goal

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Heading into an emotional return to Carolina, Cam Ward was the focus of Monday’s Blackhawks – Hurricanes game. Ward didn’t get the last laugh as he faced his old team, yet it was Brent Seabrook who absorbed most of the mockery.

While Ward was on the ice trying in vain to stop Sebastian Aho from scoring the 3-2 overtime winner, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you kept your eyes trained on Ward … or Aho alone, for that matter. Instead, make sure you watch Seabrook during that decisive goal, and there are high odds that you’ll get a good laugh.

(Unless you’re a Chicago Blackhawks fan. Fans tend to miss the humor in eight-game losing streaks.)

This is one of those instances where you should stick it out deeper into the video, as the best angles of Seabrook’s unintentionally funny defense crop up around the 30-ish second mark:

When someone gets faked out, you might hear a Jeremy Roenick talk about a jock strap being sent to the bleachers. In Seabrook’s case, it looked more like a sleepy person fumbling aimlessly to silence an alarm clock.

That moment of levity was just part of a rocky night for Seabrook.

The Blackhawks built a 2-0 lead, yet former Chicago forward Teuvo Teravainen began the comeback with a power-play goal after Seabrook was whistled for delay of game. Seabrook also drew the ire of Jordan Martinook by boarding Hurricanes rookie Andrei Svechnikov:

Ward wasn’t able to protect that lead and gain a win against his former team, but the Hurricanes still embraced their longtime goalie, including rolling with the type of tribute video you’d expect:

The Blackhawks were on a five-game losing streak when they fired Joel Quenneville. So far, new head coach Jeremy Colliton hasn’t enjoyed the honeymoon period that a team often experiences after such a change, as he’s 0-for-3 in trying to get his first win as an NHL head coach.

You can forgive Cam Ward for wondering if he’s shuffled off from a playoff drought with the Hurricanes to what could be a painful stretch for his new team in the Blackhawks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fight: Jamie Benn’s vicious bout with Josh Anderson

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In the rare moments when a star player fights, you usually grade them on a scale. You don’t really need to do that with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars.

The big winger isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, and he’s done so with some big names – and big humans – such as Dustin Byfuglien. Benn engaged in another frightful fight on Monday, as Benn and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson were throwing bombs.

(You can watch that fight – which seems like it’s going to end quickly, but then just keeps going – in the video above this post’s headline.)

Earlier this season, Benn fought with New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood. Benn’s already matched his two fights from 2017-18 (vs. Byfuglien and Corey Perry). Considering we’re not even halfway through November yet, this could be an awfully ornery season for Benn.

You have to wonder if he’s tempting fate a bit – you’d call Benn’s hands soft when they’re not landing haymakers – in risking injuries with these fights. You can’t debate that by losing his temper, Benn’s leaving the ice for long stretches (decisions that can be especially onerous if he gets additional penalties).

On the other hand, hockey’s a rough sport, and perhaps being so physical helps Benn stay engaged?

Selfishly speaking, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see him keep up this habit, as it’s quite the spectacle. Nothing will top his fight with Joe Thornton from many moons ago, which set the stage for a photo that would make for a great Fathead-style wall-sized poster:

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Classic.

Despite playing in different conferences, this game has had the nastiness of a heated divisional rivalry. You could see it in moments beyond Benn’s fight, particularly when Seth Jones was whistled for a nasty hit on Jason Dickinson.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ward’s return to Carolina, Kesler vs. Johansen highlight Monday schedule

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There are only four games on the NHL schedule Monday night, but they feature a couple of intriguing storylines worth watching.

First, in Carolina, former long-time Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward will be making his return as a visiting player for the first time when he is expected to the start for the Chicago Blackhawks. He will be trying to help them snap their seven-game losing streak and get them their first win under new head coach Jeremy Colliton.

Ward did not play when the two teams met in Chicago (a 4-3 Hurricanes win) this past week.

Ward is certain to get a warm welcome, and already did when he first arrived in the arena on Monday.

Ward’s time with the Hurricanes is a complicated one.

On one hand, he spent 13 years as the primary starting goalie for the team. That is, to say the least, a long-time, and there are not many goalies that spend that much with one franchise. So it is always going to be a big deal when — or if — they return as a visiting player. But goaltending was a constant thorn in the Hurricanes’ side during Ward’s time with the team and that is usually what his time there is remembered for to everyone outside of Raleigh.

But, he is still a significant part of the team’s history for helping the Hurricanes win their first and only championship during the 2005-06 season. And he played a huge role in that title.

Ward was a rookie during the 2005-06 season, and even though he only appeared in 28 games during the regular season, he was a rock for the team in the playoffs with a .920 save percentage, picking up 15 of the team’s 16 wins during the postseason. That run included two shutouts, including one in the Stanley Cup Final, as he took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

The Hurricanes only made the playoffs one other time during Ward’s tenure with the team (a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 when they were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins).

But banners hang forever, and thanks in large part to Ward’s contributions as a rookie the Hurricanes have one.

That should never be forgotten if you are a Hurricanes fan, no matter what happened after that.

The other intriguing game on the Monday schedule is in Anaheim where the Ducks are hosting the NHL-leading Nashville Predators.

The intrigue here isn’t so much with the game itself, because, quite honestly, it looks to be a rather one-sided matchup on paper. Nashville is rolling — again — while the Ducks are going in the complete opposite direction and trending toward the bottom of the league.

What stands out with this one is it could be another chapter in the ongoing personal feud between Predators center Ryan Johansen and Ducks center Ryan Kesler. They do not like each other. At all.

For a quick refresher, refer back to this August post from our Sean Leahy highlighting the feud that was continued with this Tweet from Kesler over the summer.

Things really escalated between the two during the 2017 Western Conference Final (which Johansen and the Predators won) and consisted of some back-and-forth trash talk between the two.

Among the highlights:

Johansen to Kesler: “Nobody likes you”

And…

Johansen on Kesler: “I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that.”

And…

Kesler on Johansen: “He’s not my friend. He’s not going to be my friend. He can say whatever he wants.”

So there is that little backstory.

Kesler, who was limited to just 44 games a season ago due to injury, only played in one of the Ducks’ three games against the Predators so we really have not seen them have a chance to renew their relationship on the ice since that Western Conference Final series.

In the one game they did face each other since then the two spent five minutes on the ice together and, of course, got into a fight late in the second period.

Referees Gord Dwyer and Jake Brenk, as well as linesmen Darren Gibbs and Brian Murphy, will be the ones in charge of trying to maintain order between the two on Monday night.

 

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Campbell injury adds to Kings’ frustrating season

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Nothing is going right for the Los Angeles Kings this season.

Already stuck with the league’s worst record and having just fired their coach, the team announced on Monday that goalie Jack Campbell will be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks due to a torn meniscus.

Rookie Cal Petersen has been recalled from the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League to take his place.

This is problematic for the Kings because Campbell has taken over the starting goaltending duties while regular starter Jonathan Quick continues to recover from his own meniscus injury that has sidelined him since Oct. 23.

Not only had Campbell taken over the starting role, he has been one of the few bright spots on the team during this otherwise abysmal start. As of Monday, he had a .923 save percentage on the season and had been especially good in November with a .939 save percentage in his past five appearances. That includes a 35-save effort over the weekend when he lost a tough-luck 1-0 decision to the Calgary Flames.

[Related: Kings’ problems run far deeper than their coach]

Now he is out, too, and a team that is 31st in the league in goal scored (only 2.06 goals per game) is going to have to rely on an unproven rookie that has yet to play an NHL game, and a 36-year-old Peter Budaj to keep the puck out of their own net.

Budaj has appeared in just one game this season for the Kings, stopping 10 out of 11 shots.

Petersen, meanwhile, was originally a fifth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 2013 and was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent in July, 2017. He signed with the Kings after an incredibly successful collegiate career at Notre Dame, and in his first year of pro hockey finished the 2017-18 season with a .910 save percentage for Ontario.

So far this season his play has dropped off considerably as he had just an .881 save percentage in his first 10 games.

In other words: Good luck, Willie Desjardins. You are going to need it.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.