Now that we’ve taken brief glimpses at the other three divisions on the NHL, it’s time to hone in on the Central Division, which features the teams that stand tallest between the Blackhawks and a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here’s the other team that was also in Chicago’s division last season: the Nashville Predators.
Last season: 31-23-2 (64 points), fourth place in Central Division, lost in first round
Key losses: D Luca Sbisa, D Ryan Ellis, F Erik Gundbranson, F Erik Haula, G Pekka Rinne
Key additions: F Michal Grandlund, G Dave Rittich
In an injury-plagued, pandemic-shortened season, there were no handouts for the Nashville Predators. Despite a heap of obstacles, though, they finished fourth in the Central Division, good enough for a playoff spot. Their postseason prize? A first round matchup with the division champion Carolina Hurricanes. While the Predators did ultimately exit after the first round, having six playoff games end their 2021 season tells the tale of what the future may hold for Nashville.
Throughout Nashville’s 2021 season, their lineup was shuffled on a game-to-game basis — not one player on their roster played all 56 games. Injuries to key players such as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Roman Josi opened up roster spots for a group of budding talent. Overall, nine young players who qualified as rookies saw ice time. Of the bunch, forward Eeli Tolvanan proved to be the biggest difference maker, finishing with 22 points (11 G, 11 A) in 40 games. The solid play of their young talent, paired with a plethora of speed and fantastic goaltending from Juuse Saros, was ultimately the story of Nashville’s success in 2021. Taking 15 of a possible 16 points from the Blackhawks didn't hurt either ...
Losing players like Ryan Ellis and Erik Haula will force the crop of young players in the Preds’ pipeline into major roles in ‘21-22. With long-time Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne retiring in the offseason, Saros will cement his place as the No. 1 goalie, with backup support from newly acquired David Rittich.
If Nashville wants to get back to being “Smashville” they will need repeat performances from their young stars, and the Predators’ dangerous speed is enough to cause problems for their opponents. If Nashville can combine that speed with skill, quality net-minding and a well-rounded 200-foot game, there’s a chance they can find a way back to the playoffs in ‘21-22.