NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Nashville Predators at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
Injuries don’t just deprive us of the opportunity to see great players in action. They also tend to downplay just how dominant certain scorers are, as point totals shrink when you miss, say, 20 games.
Evgeni Malkin stands as a strong example of that phenomenon. As great as he is, would Malkin have been left of the NHL 100 list if he hadn’t been on the shelf so often?
Such thoughts come to mind when you consider Filip Forsberg‘s ascent with the Nashville Predators.
[Previewing tonight’s Predators – Golden Knights game]
Approaching elite production
If you just glance at last season’s 64 points, you might shrug your shoulders and think that it was business as usual. After all, Forsberg scored 63 in 2014-15, 64 in 2015-16, and 58 in 2016-17.
The difference, of course, is that Forsberg scored last season’s 64 points in just 67 games, leaving him close to a point per night. The Swedish sensation carried that strong work into the Predators’ overall-slightly-disappointing run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, generating 16 points in 13 games.
It’s not just about impressive numbers with Forsberg, who is currently tied for second in goals with 10, and has 14 points in 11 games this season.
It’s the fact that Forsberg scores highlight reel goals, and has the courage to make unthinkable moves in high-pressure situations. His game-breaking ability can bring fans out of their seats and make defenders look outright foolish:
Since last season, Forsberg has exactly 78 points in 78 games; his (exact) point-per-game rate during that span matches Patrick Kane and Mark Scheifele. We’re approaching a moment where it’s fair to wonder if Forsberg’s making a leap from star to superstar.
Now, granted, the winger isn’t going to score almost a goal per game all season.
As talented as he is, Forsberg’s shooting percentage (25 percent, or 10 goals on just 40 shots on net) is bound to slip. Considering his career average of 13.1 percent, it may even slip by half.
Even so, it’s plausible that Forsberg is ascending among the NHL’s most potent wingers.
Help from his friends
It’s also worth noting that the Predators’ top line might just be able to hang with the other elite groups. Forsberg is joined by another volume shooter in Viktor Arvidsson, who has 28 SOG in 11 games (generating seven goals and 11 points). Arvidsson won’t continue his 25 shooting percentage either, yet he’s likely to continue making an impact on games; the Swedish jitterbug is currently in the middle of a five-game streak where he’s generated at least 3 SOG.
One pivotal factor in Forsberg’s climb toward more recognition is the play of Ryan Johansen, and his hot start might be the most promising sign of all … well, beyond the fact that Forsberg’s absolutely unleashing the puck so far this season.
Johansen carries an $8 million cap hit, yet he hasn’t always received plaudits for his work as a top center.
(For instance: Ryan Kesler‘s BFF didn’t land on Andrew Berkshire’s top 23 centers list heading into this season, falling behind the likes of Derek Stepan.)
So far, Johansen’s been off to a strong scoring start, collecting two goals and 13 points in 11 games.
It’s natural for Johansen to shoot less often than trigger-happy wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson, yet he drew some criticism for being pass-first to a fault. The past two seasons were tough in that regard, with Johansen averaging a meager 1.63 SOG per game last season, and a not-much-better 1.88 SOG per contest in 2016-17.
This is a small sample size, but so far, Johansen has 23 SOG in 11 games. While that’s not an enormous uptick, this line gets scarier if Johansen isn’t telegraphing passes, and they’re combining for more than eight SOG per game between the three of them.
Shouldering a burden
It’s tempting to look at the Predators as a deep team at all levels.
The label is accurate for a defense featuring P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. It says a lot about what the team’s built that Vezina winner Pekka Rinne can go on IR and few really panicked, as Juuse Saros is a gem in net. It also doesn’t hurt that hit-or-miss second-line center Kyle Turris is off to a promising start (eight points in 11 games).
Such factors distract from how crucial Forsberg and Nashville’s top line is to their success, though.
With Kevin Fiala going through early season struggles, the Predators’ offense depends upon that top line, that elite fleet of defense, and sporadic scoring (Turris, Ryan Hartman, few others). It makes you wonder why Eeli Tolvanen isn’t getting more immediate opportunities, but that’s a discussion for another day.
That tend is really just carrying over from the postseason, as Turris and Nick Bonino really failed to give Nashville the sort of supplementary scoring that contenders usually need. One can see the temptation of even spreading the wealth, although that would most likely qualify as messing with a good thing.
As strange as it might sound considering GM David Poile’s many great recent trades, a bigger-picture look at the Predators makes you wonder if another bold move could be in order.
On the bright side, there’s mounting evidence that Nashville’s top trio is for real, with Forsberg leading the way.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.