Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Predators Mid-Season Evaluation

With the Nashville Predators off for a few days for the All-Star break we have a chance to look back at the season and evaluate their on- ice performance through the first forty- six games.

The Predators are currently in fourteenth place in the Western Conference with 43 points. While they stand only eight points out of a three way tie for sixth and a playoff position, they also lie one point ahead of last place St. Louis.

The Western conference of the NHL, where only three of fifteen teams are below .500 for the season, offers the Predators no opportunity for a night off against a weak opponent. The Predators are 13-18-2 versus the West and 7-5-1 against the weaker Eastern Conference opposition.

The consensus that the Predators have not performed up to expectations is widely accepted. Realistically, the preseason projections that the Predators would either be in the playoffs or competing for the final spot through the last week of the season may have been too high.

Much of the thought that the Preds would make the playoffs was based on the track record of Coach Barry Trotz and his ability to work magic on the young Predators. Last year he took a group of under-talented players and pushed them past all expectations and forced the eventual Stanley Cup Champs to six games in the first round of the playoffs.

Barry has not been able to produce any magic this year. The Preds downfall started during the summer when rising star and 25-goal scorer Alexander Radulov unexpectedly jumped ship and went to Russia to play while still under contract with the Predators. This occurred after the top free agents had already signed, leaving the Preds with few options.

As opposed to signing a second tiered free agent, the Predators chose to try to replace the missing goals with youngsters Ryan Jones and Patric Hornqvist. After 20 games it became clear that both needed more seasoning in the AHL where they were dispatched to play for the Milwaukee Admirals.

As expected, scoring goals has been the dominant issue with this year’s version of the Predators. They are currently in 29th place with 111 goals in 46 games, an average of 2.46 goals per game.

The problem has gotten worse as the year has progressed. During the pre-Thanksgiving weekend portion of the schedule the Predators were averaging a respectable 3.05 goals per game. Since Thanksgiving, the Predators have become anemic, scoring an average of 1.87 goals per game. That figure would be considerably worse except for a nine goal in two game outburst a couple of weeks ago.

The defense had a slow start early in the season but has improved in the last 20 games. Still, turnovers have left the Predator goalies in far too many odd man situations recently leading to more goals than the paltry offense can overcome.

The Predators specialty teams have been a mixed blessing. The power play, in spite of scoring in five of the last six games, ranks 29th in the league with a 13.7% success rate. The penalty kill, which has been ranked in the league's top five for several years, has played well, currently ranking sixth with a 84% kill rate.

Individually, there have also been positives and negatives for the Predators. Shea Weber has become the dominant Norris Trophy candidate defenseman, which has been projected for him since he first burst on the scene. Pekka Rinne has proven that he has a future as a top level NHL goalie and was named the replacement starter for the rookie team at the NHL young Stars game. Captain Jason Arnott, despite several injuries, has been solid, leading the team with 15 goals.

The list of players not meeting expectations is much longer. Goalie Dan Ellis no longer can be considered the team's number one goalkeeper after losing in his last five starts. J P Dumont has scored only eight goals and has looked out of sync since a big hit by Alex Burrows on December 9th. David Legwand still has not produced at a level that fans have been waiting for since he was the second overall draft pick eleven years ago. The poster child for underperformance has been veteran defenseman Greg deVris who is currently injured and more than likely has few days left in the organization.

The jury is still out on the return of Steve Sullivan, a career point per game guy during his tenure with the Predators. After missing over 600 days due to injury, his return is one of the league's best “feel good” stories of the year. Sully has shown signs of his traditional abilities but has also been beaten at times while running the point on the power play. He still has a way to go in his recovery to be a consistent contributor.

The Predators are by no means in a position to give up. Barry Trotz pointed out after the last game that the team has only five points less this year after 46 games than in last year’s playoff season. However, with 36 games left, the Predators will need to win the vast majority to get back in position to vie for a playoff spot.

The Predators return to action Wednesday with a game at Vancouver, the first game in a three game road swing before returning to play Phoenix at home on February 3rd. It should become obvious in the first few games after the break whether the Preds will be staying home during the playoffs as they have little room for error remaining.

Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass

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