One of the perpetual joys of the Nashville Predators experience is the delightful weather that tends to roll in during the first round of the NHL playoffs. It’s perfect for pregame gatherings on bar patios and in parking lots before the cacophonous walk down Broadway to Bridgestone Arena.
There will, of course, be none of that this year.
For one thing, Middle Tennessee’s August weather is not so much “delightful” as “what would happen if Satan and a sauna manufacturer with a history of industrial accidents collaborated on swamp design.”
And of course, there is no bar-patio gathering, and tailgates must be conducted exclusively at home — preferably with only family members present, and with everyone standing at least six feet from the grill, and contact-free beer tossed from the cooler with a Rube Goldbergian contraption made from a pooper-scooper and a series of pulleys.
Broadway is more contagious than cacophonous lately, and there’s no reason to go since the Preds will be taking on the Arizona Coyotes in Round Zero of this “season’s” NHL playoffs (officially, it’s the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round) in Edmonton. The Predators finished sixth in the Western Conference, while the Coyotes made the 24-team field by finishing 11th. The teams split their two regular-season meetings and are squaring off in the playoffs for the first time since the infamous What-Happens-When-a-Russian-and-a-Belarusian-Break-Curfew-in-Scottsdale second-round series in 2012.
This time, though, it’s the Coyotes in turmoil. For reasons still vague, their wunderkind general manager John Chayka abruptly resigned just days before the team was to depart the desert for Alberta, prompting a brusque response from the owner that Chayka “quit” on the team (a far cry from the usual “wish him luck in his future endeavors” gibberish that usually accompanies such news). Beloved former Predator Steve Sullivan will act as the team’s general manager in the meantime.
There’s no way of knowing how this will affect the Coyotes on the ice, but what we do know is: 1) Taylor Hall, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Phil Kessel are all pretty good; 2) the ’Yotes still have trouble scoring, though their goaltending is solid; and 3) Brad Richardson still plays for the team after all these years.
Somehow, we may know even less about the Predators. After a decent start, the team cooled considerably as fall gave way to winter, and they were joint last in the Central Division at the end of 2019. Peter Laviolette was fired a week later and replaced by John Hynes. The time-share arrangement in the crease between Finns Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros began tilting more to the latter’s favor, and the youngster responded by posting one of the league’s best save percentages in the weeks before play stopped in early March. In fact, Saros posted back-to-back shutouts in a home-and-home against Dallas in the penultimate and antepenultimate pre-pause games.
The Predators overall were playing well before the pandemic stopped things, though the old adage about backing the hot team in the playoffs probably doesn’t apply, given the fact that nearly five months will have passed before the team plays a meaningful game.
The goaltending question is the biggest one facing the Preds. Yes, Saros was sharper during the regular season, but is he still after the time off? Sure, Rinne is a sentimental favorite, but historically he’s been underwhelming in the postseason (he posted a .930 save percentage during the Cup Final run in 2017, but in five of his eight postseasons, he’s been .909 or worse).
Offensively, Nashville is likely to continue its spread-the-wealth approach. Ten players finished the shortened regular season with 10 goals or more, though only Filip Forsberg had more than 20. (Nick Bonino, inexplicably, finished second in goals with 18.) Even Rinne put one in the net this season. (Remember? That was cool.)
Though both played better after Hynes’ arrival, forwards Kyle Turris and Matt Duchene have largely underwhelmed this season. For any prolonged playoff success, Hynes will need both to bolster the scoring behind the apparently resurrected line of Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Forsberg.
Captain Roman Josi was easily the team’s best player (Bonino’s unexpected theatrics aside), and was rewarded by being named a finalist for the Norris Trophy — which will be awarded whenever this season ends to the league’s best defenseman.
Playoff-bound teams were permitted to bring 30 players to the league’s two bubble cities (Edmonton for the West and Toronto for the East), and Hynes and general manager David Poile made few shocking decisions for the traveling party. Purported future sensation Eeli Tolvanen made the list, but beyond that, the extra bodies are extra beefy, with forward Michael McCarron at 6-feet-6, 232 pounds, and defender Jarred Tinordi at the same height and two pounds lighter — making a formidable tag team, if not a particularly dazzling scoring duo.
But ultimately, Hynes’ most important decision is the choice between his two Finnish netminders. Does Saros finally take over permanently, or does Rinne have one more bit of magic left behind that wholesome visage?