At the midpoint of the season, the Nashville Predators have a 25-14-3 record, good for 53 points and tied with Calgary for fifth in the Western Conference. After opening the season with a 12-8-1 mark and tenth place in the conference, the Predators have improved over the next 21 games to 13-6-2 and have played themselves into the thick of the playoff race.
Once again, let's look at the components of this team and the individual player performance to see what has changed for this team:
It goes without saying that head coach Barry Trotz and his staff get the most out of the talent that they have put on the ice every night. Trotz attributed the turnaround in play to the simple fact that this team started to play like they are, not who they wanted to be.
Translation: This is a blue collar team that will never win games with flash. They will win by playing sound, fundamental hockey, and doing what Trotz calls the "dirty work" to score goals, shoot the puck, go to the hard areas in front of the crease, and win the puck battles. This team has bought into the message that the coaches have been preaching, and the results have been to pile up wins and points.
Pekka Rinne is still the putative number one goalie, and has a 16-7-2 record with a .906 save percentage and a 2.74 GAA. Pekka has been solid but not spectacular in his sophomore season, showing flashes of brilliance but also letting in the occasional stoppable goal.
Dan Ellis, 9-7-1 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.79 GAA has been a very capable backup. Ellis provides the Predators with quality starts, and the team knows it can win when he is in the net. With the compressed schedule due to the Olympics, it is imperative Ellis continue to provide sound goaltending.
Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are outstanding as the number one defensive pairing. Both are sound in the defensive zone and move the puck well and log time on the first PP unit.
Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Klein have righted their game after a horrific start to the season and both appear to be playing with a greater comfort level and confidence with each other in the second pairing.
Francis Bouillon continues to log solid minutes and is a stabilizing presence with his partner, rookie Cody Franson. Franson has settled in as the sixth D man and has played good hockey once he became a starter.
Alexander Sulzer has split time between Nashville and Milwaukee. He shows promise, but has been unable to stick with the Predators. Outside of the first pairing of Weber and Suter, this group has begun to play to their potential, but they are not there yet.
This is the group that has shown the most improvement over the last 21 games. Specifically, the contributions of Martin Erat and David Legwand have picked up noticeably. Erat has discovered his scoring touch and is an offensive threat. Legwand has started to score, although he still show an annoying habit of passing up shots.
Top forwards Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan, and J.P. Dumont have tremendous talent but have a habit of disappearing for stretches of games. Arnott, for instance, scored his first goal in ten games in game 42. For the Predators to continue to have success, these players have to produce more consistently.
The pleasant surprise for this team has been the scoring of secondary players. Marcel Goc has tied his career high in goals for a season (8); Jerred Smithson has scored a career high in goals (6); and Patric Hornqvist has set a career high in goals (13).
Additionally, contributions are coming from other third and fourth line players, and this balanced scoring has resulted in an increase in goals per game from 2.28 in the first 21 games to 3.04 in the next 21 games.
Overall team grade: B
Now it's time to take a look at the individual players.
Martin Erat (14G 13A 37 GP)
After a tremendously slow start, Marty has caught fire and has been showing the offensive prowess that was expected of him. He had 10 goals in a 13-game span, and these came from using his speed, driving the net, and shooting the puck. These qualities were absent from his game early in the season. He has embraced his role as an offensive leader, and his productivity improved significantly when moved to the top line with Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan.
Jason Arnott (12G 14A 35 GP)
The captain possesses a wicked shot that he needs to uncork more often. Arnott has been a streaky scorer, showing the ability to get goals in bunches, but also showing the frustrating habit of disappearing for stretches of games. He recently snapped a ten-game goal drought, and this team needs him to be much more consistent. A solid presence in the locker room and on the ice.
J.P. Dumont (7G 19A 35 GP)
J.P. possesses great hands and good vision on the ice, and has the ability to be a consistent scorer. Unfortunately, J.P. needs to get better at finishing a play. He has been dropped down to the third line, which is reflective of the spotty nature of his play. He has great offensive skills, but has been unable to consistently become an offensive force for the team.
David Legwand (10G 16A 42 GP)
David most always draws the shutdown role opposite of the the opponent's top line, and he has done a masterful job in this role. His offensive game was absent in the first quarter of the season, but in the second quarter David began to drive the net and shoot the puck, and he has been rewarded for this type of play.
At the end of the first quarter of play, he had three goals and seven assists, so the offensive component of his game has improved. David still needs to shoot the puck more, and he has far too often passed up open shots in favor of the pass. His offensive game needs to continue to improve, but his production in the second quarter of the season has been welcome.
Steve Sullivan (9G 16A 42 GP)
The good news for Predator fans is that Sullivan is showing great durability and no loss of speed from his back injury. The not so good news is that Sully is not the point per game producer he was prior to the injury. Sullivan still has great offensive skills, but like Arnott, has a tendency to disappear at times on the offensive end of the ice and can be streaky.
Joel Ward (7G 15 A 40 GP)
Ward had 35 points in his rookie campaign last season and is on pace to surpass that mark. Ward does the dirty work for the line on which he plays—battling in front of the net and on the boards. Ward has scored the majority of his goals in the area around the crease where he uses his big body to get position. Solid on the PK, he logs a lot of quality minutes and plays his role well.
Patric Hornqvist (13G 9A 41 GP)
Hornqvist has emerged as a force in front of the net for this team, especially on the power play. He often draws the attention and ire of the opponent's defenders as he screens the goaltender. He has good hands around the net and the majority of his scoring has come on tip-ins and rebounds. After a season split between Milwaukee and Nashville last year, he has matured nicely and has shown that he can handle the rigors of a full NHL season.
Marcel Goc (8G 8A 40 GP)
Goc has been a very pleasant surprise for the Predators as he has capably handled the third line center responsibilities as well as excelling in the face-off circle. He also plays as one of the penalty killing forwards. Goc has also tied his career high of eight goals that was set in his rookie season with San Jose. His responsible defensive play has made the coaches confident enough to play him in any situation.
Jordin Tootoo (2G 7A 19 GP)
When Tootoo has been on the ice, he has been very effective. He has played very responsible hockey and has been much improved in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, Tootoo has battled injuries all season, the latest being a broken bone in his foot suffered when he was hit with a Shea Weber slap shot. He needs to get in the lineup consistently in order to continue to develop his game. His grade reflects his lack of playing time.
Jerred Smithson (6G 1A 37 GP)
Smithson has already set a career-high in goals, which has been a very welcome addition to his game. He has always been strong in a shutdown role and on the PK; getting the offensive production from Smithers has been a bonus for this team. Watching him play this season, I am impressed with his confidence in his offensive game. He is currently out due to a broken hand he suffered in blocking a shot.
Ryan Jones (4G 1A 23 GP)
After starting the season in Nashville, Jonesy was sent down to Milwaukee to work on his game. After his call up, he has played some good hockey for the Predators. At one point, he scored a goal in four consecutive games, and those goals were in the hard areas in front of the net.
Jones has a big body that he uses well for positioning in front of the net and battling on the boards. His game is continuing to develop, and I would expect him to follow a path similar to Hornqvist as he matures. He has to become more consistent in the offensive end.
Mike Santorelli (2G 1A 23 GP)
Santorelli has shuttled back and forth between Nashville and Milwaukee, and while showing potential, has not achieved a consistent level of play. I believe that he has the ability to play at the NHL level, but it is going to be a matter of making the most of his opportunities.
Andreas Thuresson (1G 2A 15 GP)
Called up due to injuries to several forwards, Thuresson has given the Predators quality minutes. Not afraid to throw his body around, he is tough on the boards and in the corners and will go to the front of the net. A young player that is playing with tremendous hustle, he must continue to adapt his game to the NHL level. Seasoning with the Predators will be important to his development.
Wade Belak (0G 2A 23 GP)
Belak has assumed the role of the enforcer for the Predators as Jordin Tootoo has continued to grow into a complete hockey player, and Belak is capable in that role. Unfortunately for Beeks, that role has diminished this season. Consequently, he sees fourth line action and limited minutes on the ice, and that is not expected to change over the course of the season.
Dave Scatchard (2G 3A 16 GP)
Scatchard has spent time both in Nashville and Milwaukee. When Arnott was out for several games, Scatchard was called up and, while not much an offensive threat, played solid minutes for the Predators. He is a seasoned veteran who can plug in at center or wing. Currently in Milwaukee.
Shea Weber (7G 16A 40 GP +3)
Weber continues his solid play in the defensive zone and he has the ability to shut down the opposing team's forwards with his physical and smart play. He has an edge and has shown a willingness to drop the gloves when provoked. When goaded by Ryan Kessler in a recent game against Vancouver, Weber pummeled the hapless Canuck forward.
His hard shot is deadly from the point. A criticism of his shot would be that he needs to get the puck on net with greater accuracy. Weber is only 24 and should become a truly dominant defenseman in the league.
Ryan Suter (2G 18A 42 GP +7)
The other half of the number one D pairing, Suter has quietly grown into the role of a number one defenseman. He has gotten stronger physically to go with his hockey sense. Suter is solid, and rarely does he make a mistake in the defensive zone. He has a sneaky hard shot from the point that is very accurate, and his shots have set up numerous scoring opportunities for the forwards. Suter is a steady presence on the blue line and he has great vision, which allows him to effectively move the puck.
Dan Hamhuis (4G 8A 38 GP +6)
Hamhuis had a horrific start to the season, and finished the first 21 games at -4. He has steadied his game and started to play like many thought he was capable. Hammer has become more physical in his play, and by doing so, it has settled his total game down. He has been able to chip in with some timely goals as well. The most frustrating aspect of his game is the ill-timed turnover that often leads to great scoring chances for the opponent.
Unfortunately, this seems to happen about once a game.
Kevin Klein (1G 7A 41 GP -4)
Klein, like his defense partner Hamhuis, struggled in the first quarter of the season. Although his play has improved slightly, he has still been erratic. The frustrating part of this is that Klein has the potential to be a solid NHL D-man. The fact remains that he is going to be one of the top six blueliners for the Predators and his play has to improve.
Francis Bouillon (1G 5A 42 GP -4)
Bouillon continues to be steady on the blue line, his -4 notwithstanding. That is more of a reflection of his D pairing than of his play. He is physically strong and unafraid to tangle with bigger opponents. He moves the puck well and is rarely caught out of position. He has often be paired with rookie Cody Franson, and his veteran presence has benefited the younger player.
Cody Franson (3G 8A 31 GP +8)
Franson solidified his spot as the number six D man and has played well in that role. He is a big physical presence and uses his size well. As he has logged more games, he has grown more confident in his game. He has a good shot from the blue line and moves the puck well. Franson has the potential to be a very good NHL blueliner.
Pekka Rinne (16-7-2 .906 Save % 2.74 GAA)
Pekka has shown flashes of the form that made him an top flight rookie last year, and he is a goalie that this team can ride to the playoffs. He has to become more consistent, as he has had a tendency to let in the occasional soft goal. Pekka is a competitor and thrives on the challenge of being a number one goalie. The more he plays, the stronger he gets, and I would look for him to get the majority of the starts in the second half of the season.
Dan Ellis (9-7-1 .908 Save % 2.79 GAA)
Dan is a capable back up that can provide quality starts. He is fundamentally sound, but has been prone to letting in stoppable goals. Dan will be called upon for some key starts due to the compressed schedule with the upcoming Olympics, and as head coach Barry Trotz has stated, the team knows it can win with Dan in net.
Nick Spaling, Alexander Sulzer. Both have spent limited time with the Predators, but not enough to earn a grade. Both have potential, but it is too early to render a decision on their performance at the NHL level.
The turning point for this team came with a realization that they were lunch pail guys, players that had to shoot the puck and crash the crease to score. Players that had to win puck battles. Players that had to play sound defense and get solid goaltending.
Continued success for the Predators will come from adhering to this style of play.
Winning hockey. Absolutely.
The Predators enter the second half of the season with a better record than the pundits thought possible. They find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. Keep improving, keep on playing your style of blue collar, winning hockey and the playoffs await. And the pundits will continue to be wrong about this team.