The Nashville Predators finished out their 2019-20 season in excruciatingly familiar fashion. Though they were a better team than the Arizona Coyotes on paper, they ultimately failed to prove it when it mattered, allowing the Coyotes to take advantage of a few bounces here and there, all while riding hot goaltending from Darcy Kuemper and making the Preds’ furious efforts to generate offense a continuous act of repetitive, predictable tedium.

It was, at times, mind-numbing to watch. Though the Preds continued to pile up shots, many of which were high quality, they couldn’t put them away when it mattered. Then, like clockwork, the Coyotes capitalized at the other end to change the score and the momentum.

Game 4 was much like Games 1 and 3, in that regard. A turnover by Craig Smith led to an early Coyotes lead, even with the Preds’ peppering the Coyotes zone throughout the 1st period. Then another turnover in the 2nd period and another score for the Coyotes, this time by Phil Kessel. Finally, after Filip Forsberg’s heroic efforts to tie the game with 31 seconds left, a relatively harmless shot on goal by the Coyotes bounced into the Nashville net off of Brad Richardson, ending the game and the series.

The Predators outshot the Coyotes in every game in the series, ultimately finishing with a +38 advantage in shots on goal across the four games. They also finished with four power play goals in four games, an impressive outcome for a Preds team that had struggled for several years in that department.

It should be noted that all that positive action on the ice was mostly due to five players. Ryan Johansen’s line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson was fantastic, perhaps as good as we’ve ever seen them. And the top defensive pairing with Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis was equally as impressive.

But none of that matters, because the rest of the roster couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Outcome is king, and all the rest is for nothing. If you don’t win the games, you don’t get the credit.

The Preds lost three games this week despite playing some excellent hockey at even strength. In any other week of the regular season, those results might bring mild concern. Instead, they bring major introspection and, perhaps, major change.

The Preds have lost much more than another series

In 2017, the Nashville Predators were one of the hottest tickets in the NHL. Young skilled players, tough defensive hockey, great goaltending, electric energy on home ice, and anything else you could want in an exciting hockey team.

They rode that reputation all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where of course they lost in six games, but they also left an impression on the rest of the league: not only was this Nashville Predators team fun to watch, they were good. They were also able to lock in most of their team to long term contracts, giving folks ample reason to expect them to be back at the Cup Final very soon.

And so their “Stanley Cup window” was wide open.

But along the way, they’ve lost something.

In 2018, they were the best team in the regular season, winning the President’s Trophy and looking as good as ever. Then they landed a tough matchup in the Winnipeg Jets, losing to them in seven games.

In 2019, some real problems started to show, mostly with the power play unit and the defense. P.K. Subban followed up a Norris Trophy finalist season with… well, something else. Pekka Rinne wasn’t the same Vezina Trophy winning goalie. Two awful trade acquisitions in Wayne Simmonds and Cody McLeod, and the sale of Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, were the beginnings of real issues with leadership and coaching in the locker room.

Then came 2020, when everything, including the coach himself, hit the fan. Viktor Arvidsson’s injury derailed things early, causing Ryan Johansen to become a shell of himself without his jittery, Tasmanian devil-ish linemate. Peter Laviolette benched Kyle Turris for unknown reasons, though in the end, maybe that was a premonition of things to come. For that quizzical move, and probably others as well, Laviolette was fired in January. David Poile then hired John Hynes, a man with a less than stellar resume from New Jersey, to pick up the pieces mid-race.

All of this came to a head with the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown and concluded with the Preds losing in four games to the Coyotes, ending their season shy of the playoffs (technically) for the first time since the 2013-14 season under Barry Trotz.

Cup window firmly shut for Nashville

For as little roster turnover as the Nashville Predators have had in the last three seasons, they look like a completely different team from the 2017 Western Conference Champions. They lack the drive to start and finish games the way champions do, and they lack the consistency to succeed in an 82 game season and get themselves in a position to win in April and May.

But the real reason that the Preds window is about to close is because of the coming changes this summer.

There’s no way David Poile can simply roll with the same team going into the 2020-21 season. The “Keep the Band Together” refrain he’s heard from the team every summer since the Cup Final run no longer has any weight. He has to seriously consider making some serious changes to how this team is built.

No one on this roster is safe, though some are admittedly safer than others. Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and Ryan Ellis aren’t going anywhere, but that’s the extent of the untouchable list.

Let’s start with the obvious changes. Three replacement level defensemen are on expiring contracts and should not return: Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, and Korbinian Holzer. Of those, only Yannick Weber could make an argument for a new contract, but he only played in 41 games this year and did very little to earn one.

Then there’s the “Smith or Granlund” debate that raged this season. In the end, it looks like “neither” is the best option. Craig Smith was invisible in the Qualifying Round and lost ice time to younger, more effective skaters. Mikael Granlund is probably still due a pay raise, but he’s just not the same player he was in Minnesota. I would argue he’s playing with the wrong linemates, but I’m not sure his skill set makes sense if you are paying Matt Duchene $8 million per year.

So that’s five players that might not return next year, but we’re not done yet.

Kyle Turris, annual scapegoat since 2017, needs to go. He’s had chances and he’s been given opportunities. It’s just not working. The only issue is the contract; how do you unload a ineffective player who is still owed a lot of money?

A buyout might be David Poile’s best option. While it would hurt psychologically more than financially (the Preds would be on the hook for only $2 million per year for the next eight years), the alternative is to find a trade partner and offset Turris’ cost with draft picks or prospects. That’s not something a rebuilding (yes, I said rebuilding) team can do right now.

Those six players (Hamhuis, Weber, Holzer, Smith, Granlund, Turris) are more than likely not going to be around next year, if David Poile wants to make significant changes. Some have called for the team to trade Ryan Johansen or Matt Duchene, but I doubt that happens. Johansen looked to be back in shape against Arizona, and I think Duchene gets another full year to prove his $8 million price tag isn’t highway robbery.

Look the future, Preds fans

There’s always a light at the tunnel, however.

The Preds have a change (albeit a small one) to land the top pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, where they would get top prospect Alexis Lafreniere. If that happens, you can probably rewrite this article to say “the Preds’ Stanley Cup window has closed, but a back door just opened up.”

There’s also very good things happening in the prospect pool. Philip Tomasino is a star in the making, Igor Afanasayev could be just behind him, and the goalie and defensive prospects are also quite promising. The team also still has dynamic, top tier playmakers in Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi. With that kind of talent in Nashville, the Preds will attract free agents.

In the end, David Poile will have to look in the mirror and ask this question: “Can the Nashville Predators make it back to the Stanley Cup Final with the roster as it’s currently built?”

And if he has any sense at all, he already knows the answer.

— Featured image via Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports —


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