Pekka Rinne

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Will Laviolette bring out best of 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Stars dump Predators; Hurricanes push Caps to Game 7

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  • The Stars eliminated the Predators from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, thus Dallas will move on to face the Blues as the first official Round 2 matchup. It wasn’t easy for Dallas in Game 6, though.
  • A back-and-forth game ended with some controversy, but however you feel about a disallowed goal, the Hurricanes beat the Capitals, thus forcing the third and final Game 7 of Round 1.

Hurricanes 5, Capitals 2 (Series tied 3-3, Game 7 Airs on NBCSN; Stream here)

From the score, you might not believe that this was a close game, one that ended in some controversy. It was, though, as the Capitals saw a would-be 3-3 goal disallowed. Not long after that, Justin Williams scored a 4-2 insurance tally, and an empty-netter made it 5-2. This was a well-played contest overall, with Carolina fighting back from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 to eventually win. Alex Ovechkin was prominently involved, including doing a chicken taunt, and then getting kicked out late in the contest while he was enraged about the nongoal.

Stars 2, Predators 1 [OT] (Dallas wins series 4-2, will face St. Louis Blues in Round 2.)

For much of that Round 1 series, the two teams were keeping scoring chances down, and the goalies were stopping almost everything — with a few hiccups. Game 6 was different, as this was a hectic, exciting game with plenty of scoring chances. There were plenty of near-misses, and eventually the Stars got the best of the Predators when John Klingberg scored the OT game-winner. The Central Division champion is out, and now it will be Stars vs. Blues.

By the standards of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this really isn’t an upset … maybe it would be during a normal postseason, though?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ben Bishop

Both goalies were sharp in what should have been a high-scoring Game 6 between the Stars and Predators, where both netminders needed to make their fair share of point-blank saves. Bishop was tested several times in high-difficulty, high-danger situations, with only Austin Watson‘s goal getting through.

Overall, Bishop finished Game 6 stopping 47 out of 48 shots to help the Stars advance.

Bishop set a high standard for himself during the 2018-19 regular season, particularly down the stretch. Remarkably, he’s performed at that same level during most of the postseason so far, setting the stage for what could be an unexpected goalie duel against Jordan Binnington.

2. Jordan Staal

The Hurricanes needed a team effort to hang with the Capitals and force a Game 7. Justin Williams continues to be a great big-game performer, delivering big hits (including one accidental collision with his own goalie, Petr Mrazek, unfortunately), a key insurance goal, and also a would-be goal that didn’t count because he batted the puck down with a high stick. Dougie Hamilton enjoyed some retribution with an assist and an empty-net goal.

But Staal had arguably the biggest impact. He scored the game-winner on a high-effort play, and Staal also collected an assist on Williams’ important 4-2 tally to make a Capitals comeback unlikely. Staal finished the game +2 and with five hits, so it was a busy night for the underrated two-way center.

3. Pekka Rinne

It probably won’t provide much solace for Rinne, but he enjoyed a strong final performance of 2018-19.

Rinne stopped 49 out of 51 shots on goal in Game 6, giving the Predators a chance to win. Game 6 could have been a monster output for Jamie Benn, what with the power forward firing eight shots on goal, but he finished with zero points largely because of how strong Rinne was. Honestly, Nashville’s defense really failed to find answers for Dallas’ top line other than “Let Pekka make the saves,” and that worked about as well as it could have. It didn’t work well enough for the Predators to force a Game 7, however, so now they must ponder how to remain contenders after another painful playoff finish.

Factoids

  • Justin Williams cringes at “Mr. Game 7,” so maybe we should call him “The Eliminator?” With a goal in Game 6, Williams now has 27 points in 23 games where his teams have faced elimination. His 1.17 points-per-game in those situations ranks as the second-best among active players, behind Patrick Kane‘s 1.26 average.
  • Jordan Staal’s eventual game-winner ranks as the first lead change of the Hurricanes – Capitals series.
  • Hockey fans are spoiled: this is the first time we’ve had three Game 7 matchups in the first round since 2014, according to Sportsnet.

Two Game 7’s on Tuesday!

Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)
Game 7: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

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.

Net gains: Andersen, Grubauer, Rinne stepping up in playoffs

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DENVER (AP) — This classifies as fun for Frederik Andersen: Protecting a late lead in the third period by leaping out of his net to stop a shot with the handle of his stick.

Sticky situation handled.

”Doing whatever it takes to save it,” the Toronto goaltender explained after the 3-2 win Monday over Boston. ”Fun one.”

Going into the postseason, there were some reservations concerning such goaltenders as Andersen, Philipp Grubauer of Colorado and even Pekka Rinne of Nashville. They have each responded in a big way with Andersen, Grubauer, Rinne helping stake their teams to 2-1 leads in their first-round series.

All three look to come up clutch yet again in Game 4 on Wednesday night.

Like Andersen, Rinne turned in a huge save in a 3-2 win Monday over Dallas – sliding over from his knees to stop left winger Jamie Benn‘s attempt with his left goalie pad.

”Every once in a while he makes one like that where you roll your eyes and say, ‘How did he do that?”’ Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”He’s been doing that for a long time, though.”

Rinne, the reigning Vezina winner, wasn’t exactly vintage Rinne a season ago in the postseason, allowing 21 goals in a second-round series loss to Winnipeg that was extended to seven games. So far this season, Rinne has a 1.98 goals-against average against Dallas and a .936 save percentage.

Now that’s more like Rinne, who led the Predators to the Stanley Cup Final in ’17.

”Peks made a couple unbelievable saves in the third there,” Filip Forsberg said. ”It’s what the playoffs is all about.”

Andersen entered the postseason on the heels of a bad stretch to end the season, when he allowed 35 goals over his last 10 appearances.

Against Boston, he’s made 108 saves and none bigger than his stop of center David Krejci on Monday. Andersen lunged out of his net as Krejci made a move to the backhand. He kept his goalie stick close to the ice and had the puck deflect off the end.

The chants of his name by the fans only intensified.

”Playoff time, this building comes alive. It’s a special place to play,” Andersen said. ”It makes you want to play even harder.”

A year ago, Grubauer started the first two games of the Stanley Cup title run for the Washington Capitals before surrendering the net to Braden Holtby. Grubauer was dealt to Colorado in the offseason and he began as the backup to Semyon Varlamov. But Grubauer took over late and went 7-0-2 down the stretch help the Avalanche earn the No. 8 seed. He’s allowed seven goals and made 90 saves against the Flames, the top seed in the Western Conference.

”We have to be in the moment and I think we’re doing the right things right now,” Grubauer said after a 6-2 win, the second in a row for the Avs.

Holtby appreciates the grit of Grubauer.

”He’s too good of a goalie to not have success over time,” Holtby said. ”It’s great for him. Obviously he’s had an adjustment to a different situation, adversity he’s grinded through. He’s a strong guy mentally, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to any of us.”

BOSTON at TORONTO (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

Boston forward Patrice Bergeron remains confident his line will crank up the production.

Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand have combined for three goals in three games against the Maple Leafs after a regular season in which they had 106. One of the reasons is the defensive work of Toronto’s offensive line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.

”It’s tight right now. There’s not much space,” Bergeron said. ”We believe in ourselves and know we’re playing a good team and a good line.”

NASHVILLE at DALLAS (8 p.m. EDT, USA)

At 5-foot-6, Predators center Rocco Grimaldi is one of the shortest players in the NHL. He’s certainly coming up big in this series, scoring in consecutive games.

After going into the lineup for Game 2 – filling in when 6-6 center Brian Boyle had an appendix issue following Game 1 – Grimaldi had his first career playoff goal Saturday with a stick coincidentally named ”Frankie” – on the three-year anniversary of the death of his grandfather Frank. He added another goal, with a different stick, in Game 3.

CALGARY at COLORADO (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The Flames watched film as a group in lieu of practice Tuesday. Among the topics discussed was getting back to playing the way they played in amassing a Western Conference-best 107 points. Johnny Gaudreau has been held in check, with just one assist in the series. He had 99 points in the regular season.

”Everyone’s got to be better, not just one guy,” Gaudreau said. ”All of us are going to be better next game.”

Calgary is searching for a way to slow down MacKinnon, who has three goals, including an OT winner in Game 2.

”We’re going to have to make sure we eliminate some of that ice he’s had available through three games,” Flames coach Bill Peters said.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Granlund’s goal the difference as Predators edge Stars in Game 3

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Mikael Granlund‘s seeing-eye shot with 8:19 left in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and helped give the Nashville Predators a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3. Nashville now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; USA).

The Predators stormed out to a 2-0 lead 14 minutes into the second period as they kept Ben Bishop busy in the Dallas net. Eight minutes after Rocco Grimaldi scored his second goal of the series, Nick Bonino floated a pass to Filip Forsberg, who then added another highlight-reel tally to his resume.

Dallas continued to battle back and broke through minutes after Forsberg’s goal when Mats Zuccarello netted his second in three games. Tyler Seguin would connect after some great work behind the Nashville net by captain Jamie Benn to even the score at two.

Not long after Seguin’s goal, Benn had a glorious chance of his own, but he was denied by the left pad of Pekka Rinne, who finished with 40 saves.

“Just desperation,” Rinne told NBCSN’s Joe Micheletti afterward about the save. “It was a good save at the time.”

But an icing call three minutes later put the Stars in their own zone for a faceoff and unable to get a change. Kyle Turris won the draw and Granlund wired a shot that got by Bishop for the eventual game-winning goal.

Stars head coach Jim Montgomery threw out Benn, Seguin and Alex Radulov in hopes of finding an equalizer, but Rinne and the Predators stood strong to during a third straight one-goal game.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.