The coroner is in. Let us discuss the demise of the reanimated Nashville Predators.
The skinny: Give the Predators some credit; they should not have even made it this far. In mid-March, the Predators were one of the most troubled teams in the league, failing to get production from their top stars while the special teams continued to be among the league’s worst units. It felt like the trade deadline and offseason would provide wholesale changes and see the definitive end to this era of Predators hockey. But then, the Predators rebounded, rampaging through their division in the weeks prior to the deadline and working their way to securing the fourth seed.
Unfortunately, that effort put them in the path of a Hurricanes team who had solved its goaltending issue and was loaded with depth. It was a spirited effort from a Predators squad that looked outmatched on paper, with all of the final four games needing overtime to decide a winner. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Hurricanes eventually broke through. So what finally finished the Predators off? Let’s take a look…
Power play: Tell me where this sounds familiar: the Predators were let down by their power play. Feels like a common theme over the last three years, and it proved true once again. Despite having seven power play opportunities in Game 2, Nashville failed to capitalize on all of them. For context, Carolina held a 1-0 lead until the final minute of the game. It was the most egregious example of the Predators’ power play providing momentum in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t get much better for the Predators with the man advantage, operating at an 11.5% clip (only Montreal has a worse power play percentage). Part of playoff success comes from taking advantage of the opposing team’s mistakes, which is something the Predators can’t seem to do consistently.
Uneven production: It wasn’t that the Predators failed to get production from their stars; it’s just that they weren’t able to stay consistent. Ryan Johansen came on late in the series with three goals in the last four games, Mikael Granlund paced the team with five points, and center Erik Haula and defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis each picked up four points. Then we get the negatives. Whereas Johansen lit up the Hurricanes in the final four games, Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene ran cold with only one point between them in the final three games. Viktor Arvidsson, a usual source of offensive production, missed the final four games with injury. Power play goal leader Eeli Tolvanen was held off the scoresheet in the four games he played. Calle Jarnkrok managed only one assist. It was simply a case of the negative outweighing the positives with Nashville.
Coaching: The John Hynes hire to replace Peter Laviolette raised more than a few eyebrows, and it’s fair to wonder if this series did anything to quell the unrest. Sure, give Hynes and his squad credit for pulling out two gutsy double-overtime victories in Games 3 and 4, but they deserve some heat for not matching up with the Hurricanes adjusting to overcome the newfound adversity. In Games 5 and 6, the Predators were holding the lead late, but let the Hurricanes back in to give them life. It’s momentum that the Hurricanes pounced on in overtime, eventually sending the Predators home. It falls on Hynes to at least some degree, as he couldn’t put it all together as Carolina attacked with near-reckless abandon.
The crystal ball: It’s clear from this series and the four years since their Cup Final appearance that the contention window has closed on the Predators. Like any team having to adjust from a closed window, it leaves serious questions for the Predators to answer? Is the Hynes-David Poile regime viable in the long term? How do the Predators approach soon-expiring deals like Forsberg, Jarnkrok, and Mattias Ekholm? What will Juuse Saros’s extension look like? Will a big contract be moved to allow the Predators to pivot towards the future? It’s an offseason that is crucial towards determining where this team for at least the next few years.
The biggest stage for the Predators this offseason will unquestionably be the Expansion Draft? Despite Dante Fabbro’s slower-than-expected development, the emergence of Alexandre Carrier likely pushes the Predators to protect eight skaters instead of the more common seven forwards and three defensemen. If there is a goal for the Predators here, it would be convincing Seattle to take either one of Duchene or Johansen’s contracts off their books. It would undoubtedly take a package of prospects and picks for Seattle to even remotely consider the idea, but it would give the Kraken a legitimate top-line center to start their team with and the Predators much-needed cap flexibility in the flat cap era. They could use those cap savings to try and swing a deal for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Mike Hoffman, both of whom could help the Predators out on the power play, but would the fans really be keen on taking a swing at another big-ticket free agent so soon after Duchene?