After its initial formation in 1993, the Central Division was dominated by the Detroit Red Wings for almost two decades. Many teams have come and gone since then. Currently, the Blackhawks, Stars, Blues, Wild, Predators, Jets and Avalanche call the Central Division home.
In the last seven years, teams taking home the Stanley Cup averaged winning two out of every three divisional games. Most impressively, the 2016 Penguins and 2013 Blackhawks went 20-8 and 16-1, respectively. The outlier was the 2015 Blackhawks that won only 45 percent of their division games.
Winning divisional games has multiple benefits. Bragging rights are up for grabs of course, as many rivalries stem from teams constantly playing one another. Even more important is the ability to climb to the top of the standings and create separation to secure a playoff spot.
If the Nashville Predators want to return to the playoffs again and do so in a manner that isn’t heart attack-inducing, they need to address some key areas of interest to cruise to the top of the Central Division.
Limit the Inconsistencies
The Nashville Predators are loaded with talent. While they don’t sport some of the flashier names that fans around the league would know, the team has been built as a cohesive unit that sees contributions from everyone. Unfortunately, due to injuries and other such things, that cohesive system can become disrupted.
The Predators experienced a roller coaster of a season in 2016 that stemmed from being inconsistent. After shooting out of the gate winning their first five games, Nashville would go on to have a mishmash of wins and losses over the course of the season filled with numerous streaks – both good and bad.
While it might seem like win and loss streaks would balance themselves out, it makes it incredibly hard for a team to gel. Not finding good chemistry until late in the season hurt, playoff momentum was slowed forcing the Predators to claw their way back into contention.
Avoiding the injury bug will play a major factor. Coach Peter Laviolette has done a fantastic job in juggling lines to find the right chemistry, especially in last year’s playoffs. However, having to do so on a frequent basis could be a major pitfall for the Predators in 2017.
Find a Guiding Light
Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” With the recent departure of captain Mike Fisher, the Predators need veteran leadership to help limit the mistakes of younger players. Nashville is stocked with a plethora of young talent that has great potential and could benefit from such guidance.
A player like Viktor Arvidsson that had a breakout season in 2016 will need someone to keep his head straight if things don’t start off as well as they finished. A player like Frederick Gaudreau that had his first real taste of NHL action in the playoffs will need someone to show him how to make his spot permanent.
The recent signings of former Predator Scott Hartnell and two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino should help fill that void. Hartnell has been in the league for 17 years so there’s no doubt he’s probably seen it all. Bonino brings a different kind of experience – a Stanley Cup winner experience.
Once the Predators decide who will be the next captain, the new captain will assume a role of veteran responsibility even if they aren’t a true veteran as defined by age. Past captains such as Shea Weber and Mike Fisher should provide a template for success that young eyes can look to for guidance.
Take Down the Big Dogs
This one seems obvious. To be the best you’ve got to beat the best. With the departure of the Detroit Red Wings from the Central division in 2012, the Chicago Blackhawks have largely been the team to beat with the St. Louis Blues next in line.
The Predators, for the most part, have been tamed by the Blackhawks. Chicago has the edge in the head-to-head matchup almost every year, as well as playoff meetings. Even though losing four of five this past season against the Blackhawks, the Predators swept Chicago in the first round exhuming their demons.
St. Louis has also had Nashville’s number over the years. Although the Predators won three out of five during the 2016-17 season and bounced the Blues in the second round of last year’s playoffs, St. Louis brings an aggressive, physical style of play that can be tough to overcome.
Should Nashville take care of business against the more elite teams, and dispose of the weaker teams as expected, they should find themselves atop the division. What’s more, the Predators might be able to lose the underdog label and secure home-ice advantage during the playoffs, unlike last year.