Better Days Ahead(?)
Y’know, it’s funny — disturbing, really — the way that things can turn — literally, proving to us that things aren’t always what they seem to be. Sometimes objects or environments viewed from one perspective can appear completely different when seen from a different angle or in a different light.
These so-called ‘tricks of the light’ occur because of the way that our minds deal with perception in general, often ‘filling in the blanks’ for us visually, allowing us to make sense of what we think we see, when in fact there’s actually not enough visual information physically available to support it.
Apparently, the same principle can apply to hockey teams.
Even after 30 of the truncated 48-game 2012-13 NHL season schedule has been played, in attempting to get a true read on this year’s edition of the Nashville Predators, thus far it has been nearly impossible to get a firm sense of what we’ve been looking at.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, this is the reason I’ve personally had such a tough time wrapping my arms around any meaningful commentary involving this team. As such, my approach to this story and even my rationale for choosing the series’ title has flopped all over the map.
Specifically, the title of this third segment: ‘Better Days Ahead’ was something I chose more than six weeks ago. However, now as a reflection of the series’ narrative, the title has a much different connotation in that vein than it does now. My original angle was that of what I believed was the team appearing to turn the corner following a spotty and uneven start when play began on January 19th.
After stringing together four wins in a row from January 31st through February 7th, Preds netminder, Pekka Rinne looked to be back to his old dominant self, after some uncharacteristic rustiness from the outset. The team seemed to be clicking better, offensively, as well. They were defending responsibly and finally seemed to be proving capable of going into overtime or the shootout and coming away with two points instead of just one.
Even after stumbling against Minnesota and Chicago, in consecutive encounters on February 9th and 10th, they followed up with back-to-back whitewash victories over San Jose and Phoenix, — both of them complete, 60-minute efforts. Nashville really appeared to have the ship righted. However, over the course of subsequent sixteen games played since, beginning with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks on February 16th, and in particular, the team’s most recent four straight losses on the road, the wheels appear to be dangerously close to falling off for Nashville.
And the narrative is changing.
The original connotation of this story’s title, ‘Better Days Ahead’ was, “Okay, we’re back — sorry to keep you waiting, Preds fans. We’ll be playing like the team you expected to see on the ice from here on in.” That message has now instead become, “Better days are ahead for this team, ‘cuz, the way things are going right now, they really couldn’t get much worse.”
A Crisis of Confidence
In this undulating mess of alternating success and failure for the Predators that we call the 2012-13 season, Nashville’s team appears to be experiencing a crisis of confidence, especially of late.
In the human experience, confidence is everything. It’s the ultimate game-changer. It’s the active ingredient in the exercise of free will. It’s knowing your limits and being proud of what you can do, while placing yourself in the position to do something you’ve never done before. In practical terms, it’s the difference between getting the girl, and being the wallflower at the high school dance; the difference between getting the raise and merely hoping your hard work will be noticed. In hockey, a sport dominated by the power of will above all else, it can also be the difference between a momentary stumble and a Jack-and-Jill-type tumble.
Confidence is as elusive as it is powerful. Once you have it, it seems pretty easy to keep. But when circumstances change and it begins to slip away, reacquiring it can be a much more difficult task than it might seem.
One never really knows how well they’ll deal with adversity until it actually comes knocking; and even then, when the variables change and the challenge presents itself even in a slightly different context, oftentimes the reaction can be much different; the profile of compensation much less effective; the result, far more dramatic.
The Predators’ long-held tradition of building and buttressing from within has been challenged harshly this season by a perfect storm of poor performance from healthy-yet-ineffective veterans, coupled by injuries to other key personnel who were performing to expectations. Add to the mix an alarmingly ineffectual at times, Rinne, and what’s left is a frustrating portrait of a talented team that just can’t seem to get out of its own way.
Ads and Subtractions
Injuries have certainly played a part, as the team has been without the services of three key forwards over the past three weeks, lost over three consecutive games. The absence of crease-crasher, Patric Hornqvist (March 8th); leading scorer, Colin Wilson (March 9th); and faceoff virtuoso, Paul Gaustad (March 12th) has gutted the Predators’ forward lines, and by its very nature, diluted team chemistry in general. Waiver-wire pickups and promotions from the team’s AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals, Zach Boychuk, Bobby Butler, Taylor Beck and Chris Mueller have played admirably (no pun intended), but have been unable to match the impact of the veterans they’re replacing.
But even prior to the rash of forward injuries, through the earlier part of the season when the Preds were relatively injury-free, the product on the ice was still mystifyingly inconsistent.
Gone is the swagger of last year’s team, which some consider to have been the best in franchise history. Yet despite the fact that most of the personnel from this year’s team was the same at the beginning of this season, it has been a much more tentative group than the one we saw for the most part a year ago.
The obvious notable exception is of course, defenseman Ryan Suter, which in combination with the often less-than-stellar play of veteran free agent signee, Scott Hannan, certainly accounts for at least some of the Preds’ struggles, defensively. However, I believe there is another departed Predator whose loss is being felt more acutely than anyone might have projected.
The fire and attitude of enforcer/pest/sandpaper merchant, Jordin Tootoo, who defected to the arch rival Detroit Red Wings via free agency last summer, has in large part been replaced by newcomer forward Rich Clune, who has, as an added bonus, brought a surprising level of offensive skill that never existed in Toots’ game. Nevertheless, as pleasant a surprise as Clune has been, he does not at this stage offer the same benefit to the Predators that Tootoo did.
Tootoo had the unique ability to literally change the concentration level of opponents whenever he stepped onto the ice. Puck carriers were forced to now be constantly aware of his location, and in so doing, concentrate less on the task at hand and more on their own personal safety.
At Bridgestone Arena, and a surprising number of other NHL arenas, opposing skaters knew, when playing the Preds, if they heard that Tootoo whistle, a train-wreck body check might not be far behind.
Tootoo did more to get opposing players ‘off their game’ than anyone else who’s ever worn the sign of the saber-tooth on their chest. That is a wildcard element the Predators now quite noticeably lack. Despite how well Clune has played to date and likely will in the future, he has not been able to replenish Tootoo’s intangible aura, which may have been more a part of the Predators’ previous success than anyone ever wished to give credence to.
The door is still open.
Although this season’s trend has been far from positive, the Predators are accordingly, far from beyond resuscitation. Going into tonight’s four-game homestand opener versus the Calgary Flames, Nashville stands just four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with 18 games remaining to play. They’ll need a strong finish, but the schedule is in their favor.
Of the 18 remaining contests versus 10 separate conference opponents, 12 of them are at Bridgestone, where Nashville has played its best hockey. Also, among those 10 remaining opponents, only four are currently in the playoff picture, with four others blocking the Preds’ path to the #8 spot. However, the schedule does offer one notable detractor for Nashville: they’ll have to face the conference (and NHL)-leading Chicago Blackhawks four times in those 18 games.
Admittedly, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Will Head Coach Barry Trotz and crew be able to weather this most-daunting of storms since former owner Craig Leipold’s gut-and-sale of the team in 2007? We’ll soon see just how much a franchise known for its resiliency can hold to that reputation.
The good news is that Nashville’s injured are now poised slowly to begin their return to the lineup. Defenseman Hal Gill is back after missing 11 games with a lower-body injury and could see action as soon as this weekend. Hornqvist will likely return sometime within the seven-day period of the current homestand. Wilson and Gaustad may follow soon thereafter, although their timetable for return has yet to be announced. It will be interesting to see if a spark created by the returning players will get the Preds’ engine running smoothly again for the long haul, or if it will continue to sputter.
As bleak as things have looked, the door is still open for the Predators. Will they walk through it, or ultimately, see it slammed in their faces?
Next: #PekkaProblems, or, The Return of the Rinne?
NOTES: After a mostly positive cup of coffee in Music City, promising forward Zach Boychuk was waived to make room on the active roster for Hal Gill on Wednesday, and was subsequently claimed on Thursday by the team that originally drafted him, the Carolina Hurricanes. However, Boychuk could be back with the Preds soon if Carolina attempts to send him to the AHL. That would again cause him to be exposed to waivers. In that event, Nashville could be in a position to claim him a second time, but now with the option of sending him straight to Milwaukee, where Trotz has said he believes the former first round pick really needs to be in order to hone his game to NHL standards.