The Nashville Predators Are Back From The Playoff Dead- But Their Greatest Challenge Is Ahead.

The Nashville Predators achieved a feat that would have once seemed impossible, turning a Southern city into a hockey town. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but I have been told by former residents of Nashville that Predators gear is more frequently seen around town than those of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Now, I am sure that a precise survey of data would not back up these anecdotal claims, however the fact that people are even given an impression like this in the first place is telling.

Since the franchise began play in 1998, they have been one of the league’s more successful expansion teams, stewarded for their entire existence by General Manager David Poile. The Predators achieved their finest moment to date in 2017, when, as the eighth seed out of eight in the NHL’s Western Conference, they made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they fell in a hard fought six game series to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The following year, the Predators won the President’s Trophy, representing the NHL’s best regular season record. However, they bowed out of the playoffs that season in the second round, and since then returns have been steadily diminishing. In 2018–19, the Preds won the NHL Central Division but lost in the first round. And in the 2020 expanded playoff bubble, Nashville bowed out meekly in the play in round to the Arizona Coyotes.

Admidst this playoff disappointment, the 2019–20 season marked the start of a new era for the Predators, behind the bench at least. January 2020 saw Peter Laviolette, the coach who had led Nashville to the Stanley Cup final and President’s Trophy, dismissed after six years. In his place came John Hynes, who had previously coached the New Jersey Devils, but also had spent six years working with the United States National Development Program for young players.

The 2020–21 season began to make clear what the hiring of Hynes represented- an opportunity for the Predators’ young, up and coming players to begin to make an impact at the NHL level. These include defenseman Dante Fabbro, and wingers Yakov Trenin and Eeli Tolvanen. These players were not rookies, having spent time with the Predators for at least a season preceding, if not longer, however all had so far failed to live up to their potential.

However, the Predators’ season got off to a near-disastrous start. They lost ten of their first sixteen games, falling well out of the playoff race in the NHL’s Central Division. Voices both in hockey media and Nashville’s online fandom began to call for the ouster of Hynes in only his second season, although longtime general manager David Poile stuck by his man. Nevertheless, the Predators seemed to be in line for selling off assets at the trade deadline, particularly defenseman Mattias Ekholm. The franchise entering into a prolonged rebuild looked to be at hand.

However, as the winter of 2021 turned into spring, the Predators’ fortunes began to turn around. As of April 11, the Predators have climbed their way back into the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division. It is true that a large part of that has been the turnaround in the team’s goaltending, as primary netminder Juuse Saros has been on fire, posting a .951 save percentage since February 25. But Nashville’s young skaters have also been a part of the team’s turnaround. Yakov Trenin has been a strong defensive forward with occasional offensive outbursts. Tolvanen has also performed very well, with nineteen points in thirty-one games, many of these coming during the Predators’ recent hot streak.

In order to continue their playoff trajectory, however, the Predators will now have to navigate a wave of injuries. These include Tolvanen and Fabbro, as well as Filip Forsberg, who has been Nashville’s leading scorer for the past several years. Also injured is Mathieu Olivier, another Predators rookie who has not put up major points, but has been a physical presence on the ice. All of these players will be sorely missed by Nashville as it seeks to hold on to a playoff spot.

Nashville and David Poile clearly hope that they can short-circuit the need for a long rebuild by developing the next wave of players while still remaining competitive in the playoffs. And, indeed, there are several more Nashville prospects yet to make their debuts, who the Predators hope can slot into prominent roles in the future.

These future prospects include 2019 first round pick Phil Tommasino, at nineteen years old performing at a point per game pace in the American Hockey League. There is defenseman David Farrance, who recently signed with the Predators from Boston University, where he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker, awarded to college hockey’s best player.

Finally, perhaps the most anticipated of them all, there is Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. Askarov was picked by Nashville 11th overall in the 2020 draft, is believed by NHL prospect analysts to be the best goaltender drafted by an NHL franchise since Carey Price in 2005. Nashville is an ideal fit for Askarov, considering they have successfully developed several top tier goaltenders in their franchise history, most notably Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne.

The risk that Nashville runs is that none of their current young players will be a true blue-chip prospect. Askarov is certainly of that caliber, but none of their skating prospects fit that description as of right now, although Tommasino comes the closest. And, even if Nashville does make the playoffs, are they really a Stanley Cup competitor compared to heavyweights in their own division such as the Tampa Bay Lightning or Carolina Hurricanes. Nashville has been a competitive franchise for nearly their entire history, without having to undergo a sustained rebuild- an impressive achievement in a non traditional hockey market. The question that still remains is- how much longer can they keep it going?