As pretty much every NHL fan knows, the Nashville Predators were eliminated from the 2019 Playoffs. They fell to the Dallas Stars in overtime in Game 6 after never gaining a stronghold on the series. As the Central Division winners, the Predators were technically the favorites, but the series was viewed as a toss-up at best. That last sentence was the theme for the Predators in 2018-19: should have been the favorites, but failed to live up to expectations.
Although this early exit is a difficult pill to swallow, it isn’t surprising. Since reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, they’ve been eliminated in an earlier round each of the past two seasons. Going back to before the 2014-15 season, there’s a clear line of moves that leads to the present, a team seeking answers after another season of failed expectations. Sure there was the climb that peaked with a Western Conference championship, but since then it’s all been downhill, and the decisions that helped in the climb were also part of the regression.
2014-15: Laviolette’s First Season
Following the 2013-14 season, the Predators had had exactly one head coach (Barry Trotz) and one general manager (David Poile) in franchise history. They were coming off a season in which they had missed the playoffs for the second straight season after reaching them three straight seasons between 2009-10 and 2011-12. They had never advanced beyond the conference semifinals.
Soon after the 2013-14 season concluded, Poile announced that Trotz had been let go. In his place, the Predators hired Peter Laviolette, former head coach of the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. He brought with him a winning pedigree that included a Stanley Cup win in 2006 with Carolina and a Cup Final appearance in 2010 with Philadelphia. Also during the offseason of 2014, the Predators signed Mike Ribeiro to center their top line, giving the Predators a decent one-two punch down the middle with Mike Fisher. That summer they also acquired James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins to add a reliable goalscorer.The moves the team made worked, finishing second in the division with 104 points. They were led offensively by a 20-year-old Filip Forsberg’s 26 goals and 63 points. It was also the rookie seasons for Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala and Miikka Salomäki. The Predators were ousted in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.
2015-16: Trading for Johansen
The offseason following the 2014-15 season was a quiet one for the Predators. The only free agents they signed were Barrett Jackman and Cody Hodgson, and neither made a lasting impact. The team did buy out the contracts of Rich Clune and Viktor Stalberg, the latter whose buyout lasted through the 2018-19 season. The Predators had a strong regular season, with 96 points and a fourth-place finish in the division.
Their season was made better with the January acquisition of Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets. This trade addressed the team’s perpetual need for a first-line center. They paid a large price by giving up young defenseman Seth Jones, but it was a good one-for-one hockey trade in which both teams were bettered. Although skeptics questioned whether Johansen was a 1C, he’s proven them wrong as he’s developed into one of the game’s better playmaking centers and is the driving force of the team’s top line.Once again Forsberg led the team in scoring with 33 goals and 64 points. In the postseason, the Predators defeated the Anaheim Ducks in the first round with the series going the full seven games and setting up a rivalry in the process. They faced the San Jose Sharks in Round 2. That series also went seven games, this time resulting in a Predators loss. They didn’t reach their ultimate goal, but made strides by winning a round. They also landed their top center and the team’s current roster was taking shape with Juuse Saros making his NHL debut.
2016-17: Stanley Cup Final
Fresh off advancing a round, the Predators went into the summer looking to upgrade their roster. They started by drafting Dante Fabbro, Samuel Girard and Rem Pitlick in the draft, all three players who would have an impact on the team in coming seasons. They followed that up by pulling off one of the bigger one-for-one trades in recent memory when they sent captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban.
That move sent shockwaves throughout the league and it was analyzed from all angles. The consensus appeared to be that the trade could be a wash in the early seasons, but it would be a Predators win long-term. The team later added defensemen Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber in free agency.
Interestingly, despite these additions, the Predators finished the regular season in fourth place with 94 points. It was the second straight season of regular-season regression. For the first time since 2013-14, someone other than Forsberg led the team in points with Arvidsson and Johansen both posting 61 points. Forsberg still had a great season, however, with 58 points. The 2016-17 season was that trio’s first as the JOFA Line and they drove the team’s offense.Although they were the eighth seed in the Western Conference and the league’s 16th seed, the Predators upset the top-seeded Blackhawks by sweeping them. They followed that up with a six-game series victory over the St. Louis Blues in the second round and a hard-fought win over the Ducks in the conference finals, also in six games. They faced the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, their first in franchise history, and lost the series in six games.
During the postseason, the Predators’ speed and quick transition style gave teams fits. They were seemingly able to send wave after wave of offense at the opposition with little dropoff down the lines. It also helped that they had an active defense that was unafraid to play deep in the offensive zone.
They played so well in the playoffs that had Johansen not gotten hurt (13 points in 14 games) and missed the Cup Final and had Neal not broken his hand, the Predators likely would have won the Stanley Cup. It also didn’t help that Pekka Rinne was pulled in two of six games versus the Penguins. The Predators dominated five-on-five play and their style was problematic for the Penguins, but the lack of a number one center, plus the absence of center depth behind Johansen, cost the team the series.