The Predators roll into mid-November with an 8-8-1 record and 17 points, good for 12th in the Western Conference. So what do we know about this team and their prospects for the remainder of this season?
We know this about the Predators. This is a team that can successfully play gritty, grind it out hockey, and when they do, they have the potential to win any game. This team will not win this season by being flashier than their opponent and scoring highlight reel goals. Instead they will win by shooting the puck (which, thankfully, is a concept they have seemed to finally embrace) and crashing the net. Dirty goals will be the norm for this squad. There is nothing wrong with that style of play- the goals still count the same.
Another positive aspect of this team is that some of the younger players are showing that they are capable of making the jump from the AHL to the NHL and be productive. Andreas Thuresson, Mike Santorelli, and Cody Franson had played quality minutes and have contributed offensively. This was a gamble that General Manager David Poile made at the start of the season- relying on unproven talent from the farm system to fill roster spots instead of pursuing high priced free agents. Assuredly a high risk gamble that has required a period of adjustment by these youngsters. They have started to round into NHL caliber players and although the season has many games to play, it appears that this move will be positive for the Predators.
The defense has started to round into shape and settle in as a solid component of this team. The top paring of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have performed as expected, which is as one of the top defensive pairings in the league. Francis Buillon has been a quality add for this team, and has been very steady on the blue line. Kevin Klein and Dan Hamhuis both started the season with very shaky performances, but have seemed to settle down over the past six games and their play has improved markedly. Cody Franson, one of the youngsters making the jump from the AHL this season, has shown the ability to log quality minutes and chip in offensively. This unit, especially the second and third pairings of Klein/Hamhuis and Buillon/Franson will have to continue to elevate their play for this team to have a successful season.
The forwards. Ah, the forwards. The source of great consternation for Predator fans. Scoring has been, and will continue to be an issue for this team. No great, consistent scorers up front. Yet this group, when they play to their strength, is effective. A pleasant surprise has been the play of Patric Hornqvist. He has shown a willingness to camp in front of the opposition's net, and he has been rewarded for his efforts, having tallied five goals, which already is better than his total in 27 games last season. J. P. Dumont has shown great play making skills and leads the team in points with 11 (3G-8A) in ten games. Dumont has missed six games already due to injury, and his durability is in question, but he is dangerous when he is on the ice.
At this point of the season, we also know that this is a team that has to have balanced scoring to win. They have won so far with great goaltending, solid defense and timely scoring. Unfortunately for the Predators, scoring has been spotty, and frankly, many of the players that were counted on to contribute have be missing in action. David Legwand and Marty Erat have been disappointing, each with only one goal apiece, and Legwand's was an empty netter with six seconds to go against St. Louis. These players were rewarded in the off season with the largest contracts on the team, and they were expected to produce commensurate with their compensation. This has not been the case. In the early going, both have often times been invisible on the ice. For the Predators to contend for the playoffs, these two players in particular are going to have to step up their offensive production.
Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan have to become more productive as well. Each has five points (both have 2G-3A). These are proven veterans that have to score, and their scoring has to increase-quickly. Arnott and Sullivan have been reunited with J.P. Dumont on the top line, which has not had much time together this seaason due to injuries to Dumont and Arnott. When this line is together, they have the potential to dominate as they did for stretches in the St. Louis game. This line, particularly Arnott and Sullivan, has to start scoring consistently for this team to gain ground in the highly competitive Western Conference.
An indication of the lack of scoring from the forwards is that 11 of the Predator's 36 goals have come from defensemen. While this scoring from the blueline is welcome, it is evidence of the production that is lacking from the forwards.
Neither Pekka Rinne (5-4) nor Dan Ellis (3-4-1) have taken the number one goalie position. Both have shown flashes of brilliance and both have shown they can be shaky. The team has to have a clear number one who is solid in the net. Predator fans are still waiting for one of them to claim the starter's role.
So is this a team that has the potential to make the playoffs, or are they destined to be on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin? This team has shown that they can play with anyone when they play their game- solid defense and gritty, balanced offense. They have also shown that they can stink up a barn when they aren't focused on what makes them successful. After some early season meltdowns, it appears that this squad is understanding and embracing what they have to do to win. We know that scoring will have to improve for this team to make a run at the playoffs. We know that if it doesn't, they will be spectators come playoff time.