By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a lot of changes for the National Hockey League. With the new season starting this week, far later than usual, it’s also going to be quite different for the Predators. When they open the season Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they’ll only be playing 56 games instead of the usual 82. The league has been realigned, with all the Canadian teams playing in their own division.
The Predators are now in the revamped Central Division with the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and defending Stanley Cup Champion the Tampa Bay Lightning. All their regular season games will be against divisional foes.
The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs, and the first two rounds will also be played completely within the division. After that teams will be reseeded. What has yet to be addressed is what happens if the pandemic has still not been dealt with to the extent Canada will permit USA teams to travel across their borders. That’s the reason for the temporary realignment and move to divisional play, and while the NHL says that’s temporary, they have no way of knowing how different things will be by spring.
Predators head coach John Hynes had a short training camp to install his system. The team also unloaded some veterans, most notably Kyle Turris and Craig Smith, as well as Austin Watson and Nick Bonino. Their first round playoff defeat at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes convinced everyone, especially upper management, that they had to make changes in both personnel and the style of play on the ice.
They signed Erik Haula, Mark Borowiecki, Nick Cousins, Matt Benning and Brad Richardson in free agency, and acquired Luke Kunin in a trade. There are high expectations for Matt Duchene, who was signed for big money by hockey standards (eight million) and didn’t produce at the desired level in the playoffs. They’re also hoping Eeli Tolvanen has a complete season as opposed to a hot start and a late fadeout.
The two players who are being counted on to duplicate outstanding seasons are Roman Josi, who won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, and his partner Ryan Ellis. Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen also are expected to have big years, particularly Johansen, who by his own admission had a down year. The hope is Viktor Arvidsson can go through a full year without injury, because when healthy he was outstanding. There’s also the hope they get more offense out of Mattias Ekholm.
Still, the Predators have always depended heavily on topflight goaltending. Longtime starter Pekka Rinne surrendered the top spot late in the season to Juuse Saros, who begins the year now clearly the number one goaltender. But Rinne is going to get his share of starts, and the Predators need both sharp to contend in what looks on paper to be a very tough division.
No one’s anticipating a Stanley Cup run this time out, but a better playoff performance seems a reasonable goal.