If this season goes sideways, the Predators will have to ask themselves some tough questions

Nashville has games in hand and a chance to make up ground in the Western Conference, but a tough schedule and underwhelming results has made them look like a fringe playoff team. If this season ends as a step back for the Predators, what comes next?
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One loss coming out of the all-star break isn’t going to send the Nashville Predators scrambling to press the panic button. This team and its management is old enough, wise enough, has seen enough that they know there’s still plenty of hockey to be played, still plenty of ground that can be made up and that the games in hand they possess – anywhere from two to four on the handful of teams sitting between the Predators and a wild-card spot – are enough to claw back into the post-season picture by the end of the regular season.

None of that, however, changes that the Predators are fighting an uphill battle and that each and every loss from here on out will result in dwindling playoff hopes.

While it’s hardly a perfect science, consider what Monday’s defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs did to Nashville’s post-season potential. According to SportsClubStats, the Predators entered the contest with a 53.2 percent chance of punching their ticket to the dance. By the time they left Bridgestone Arena ice on the wrong side of a 5-2 scoreline, SportsClubStats estimated Nashville’s probability of making a post-season appearance dipped by a whopping 11.9 percent to 41.3 percent. That puts the Predators a full 12 percent behind the eighth-place Vegas Golden Knights and isn’t all that much better than the Chicago Blackhawks’ 36.1 percent post-season chance.

As we outlined yesterday, too, the upcoming schedule is going to do the Predators no favors, particularly not in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline. To wit, nine of Nashville’s next dozen games are against teams in a playoff position as of Tuesday morning. Included among those is a meeting with the Washington Capitals, a home-and-home set against the St. Louis Blues and a four-game Western Canadian road swing in which the Predators will face the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks – currently third, second and first in the Pacific Division, respectively – in a span of five nights.

In the immediate, Nashville’s upcoming schedule and declining playoff potential raises two questions: how will the Predators respond and when, if ever, will they begin making up ground?

The more important question, however, pertains to the Predators’ direction at the conclusion of this campaign. Though there remains a chance Nashville sneaks into the playoffs and manufactures a Los Angeles Kings-esque low-seed Stanley Cup victory, those chances appear about as slim as Mary Swanson ending up with Lloyd Christmas. And whether this season ends after Game 82 or at the conclusion of whatever brief post-season run the Predators are able to piece together, it will almost assuredly be the case that this campaign is either a step backward or nothing more than a lateral move. And that could, and probably should, mean some changes are on the horizon.

Chief among those changes, of course, is finding a solution to the Kyle Turris situation. Though the 30-year-old center has played a regular role since spending seven consecutive games as a healthy scratch in November, he’s remained a bottom-six fixture earning top-six dollars – he has another four years remaining at a $6-million cap hit after this season. And while his contract isn’t necessarily a drag on the Predators’ cap situation with Nashville projected to have upwards of $11 million with which to work come the off-season, it’s the additional flexibility that Turris’ contract doesn’t provide that’s the great issue.

But that’s not the Predators’ only concern.

The perception of this roster, and the spirit in which it has been built, is that it’s a defense-first club that carves its path to success by way of quality goaltending and strong defending. To a degree, the latter is true. When it comes to suppressing shots, shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger chances against, the Predators find themselves above average or among the most limiting teams in the NHL at five-a-side this season. The core of the blueline, with Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and (the presently injured) Ryan Ellis, is also one of the strongest in the league. Even up-and-comer Dante Fabbro has slotted in nicely.

But Nashville will have to consider its options this summer when veterans Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin can all walk. Is there a cost-effective third-pairing option to be had? Or will the Predators spend to reestablish some version of a Big Four? That’s what Nashville had when P.K. Subban, who was shipped to the New Jersey Devils in the summer, was part of the core.

As for the crease, perception has not at all been reality. In fact, the Predators’ 5-on-5 goaltending has average at the best of times and their all-strengths save percentage ranks better than only the lottery-bound Devils and Detroit Red Wings. Maybe that can be chalked up to the sometimes impossible-to-predict nature of goaltending. Maybe it’s that the Predators’ goaltending tandem is a past-his-prime Pekka Rinne and the relatively untested Juuse Saros, who only recently played his 100th big-league game. Whatever the case, two things hold true: Rinne isn’t getting any younger and Saros’ performance this season – he has an .895 save percentage in 23 appearances – has done nothing to instill confidence in his ability to take the reins.

Given that’s the case, would the Predators consider changing course and strengthening the position instead of passing the torch to Saros, as many expected would be the case? There will be veteran backup options available, some of whom have posted strong numbers in recent years, including Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. With the money available, a one-year pact with any of those goaltenders might provide good value, but it also puts in place a roadblock for Saros, who needs the reps if he’s going to take over for Rinne at some point.

There is also the matter of age. In a young man’s league, the Predators are steadily aging, and the pattern that’s emerging is troubling. Four seasons ago, Nashville was a Stanley Cup finalist. Three seasons ago, they were ousted in the second round. Two seasons ago, it was a first-round exit. And if the season ends with the Predators on the outside looking in, GM David Poile will have to seriously consider if his roster has what it takes to get the job done or if the window has closed far enough that the current group must be shaken up and some new life must be injected into a club that presently has the fourth-highest average age in the NHL.

For the time being, the Predators won’t need to answer these questions. There are greater concerns, a trade deadline to worry about and runway left to make up the points between themselves and the post-season. But come the summer, one way or another, Nashville will need to do some reflecting on a season that thus far has given no reason to believe they can simply stay the course.

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