In five of the past six seasons the Nashville Predators
have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs -- no small feat for a franchise that has consistently spent less than many of its rivals.
But the Predators have also been unable to make the second round of the playoffs in any of those seasons, or any in the club's brief history. For general manager David Poile, this month will be about assessing the viability of his current roster and what he needs to do, if anything, to try and push Nashville past that proverbial barrier.
"We're in good shape. I think we've played well to this point and we still have a lot of injuries as many other teams do," Poile said. "We have quite a few significant games before we get to the trade deadline.
"Do I want to improve my team? Absolutely. Are we going to try? Absolutely."
The Predators began Saturday in fourth place in the Western Conference and only seven points back of first-place Detroit in the Central Division. Still, their position is precarious. Five points separate Nashville from 12th-place Colorado, and teams can move up or down multiple spots on just about any night.
"We'll be prepared. Obviously much of it depends on who your team is playing and the health of your club at the time plus the closeness of the races," Poile said. "If [the cluster between fourth and 12th] doesn't change between now and the end of the month I don't think there's going to be a lot happening -- and certainly not a lot of trading within our conference."
Nashville's strengths are evident. Pekka Rinne
is second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.929). Combine Rinne with a talented, young defense corps led by Shea Weber
and Ryan Suter
, and goal prevention is why the Predators currently sit at the top of that cluster of playoff contenders in the West.
The need for a boost at the offensive end is also pretty clear. Weber leads the team in scoring with 32 points, which puts him in a tie for 95th on the League leaderboard. No Predators forward has more than 28 points, and Patric Hornqvist
is pacing the club with 16 goals.
A big question for Poile is how to go about addressing that, or any other potential need in the next few weeks. Nashville is in the bottom-third of the League in payroll this season, and managing his budget is part of the process for Poile.
"It is a puzzle for everybody, whether you are talking about my budget or someone who has very little cap space," Poile said. "It is all relative, but it is basically the same situation. It is a puzzle to make it all fit in. It is your willingness and desire with what you think you should do at this time of year in the framework of being a buyer -- how much are you willing to pay for what percentage of improvement you think it will get you. There are no guarantees. There's no guarantee that if you make a trade it is going to get you into the playoffs or that you win rounds."
Injuries have been part of Nashville's goal-scoring issues. Matthew Lombardi
was the team's marquee free agent addition this summer, but a concussion has caused to him to miss the past 50 games and his return this season remains questionable.
hasn't played since Dec. 23 because of a groin injury. Poile grabbed Marek Svatos
on waivers after St. Louis signed him in December to give the offense a boost, but he's been out for three weeks with a knee injury.
Sullivan and Svatos could return in the near future, but even at full strength -- minus Lombardi -- the Predators could probably use more help up front. Should Poile be in the market for veteran help, he has plenty of top prospects to draw from if he so chooses.
Nashville is particularly loaded with defensive depth. Not only do the Predators have a young core at the NHL level (five defensemen under the age of 27 have played at least 23 games) but Ryan Ellis
, Jonathan Blum, Roman Josi
and Charles-Oliver Roussel represent maybe the top cluster of prospects at the position in the League.
"You also have to weigh what it will cost you in terms of your future -- did you give away your first-round pick or your best young prospect?" Poile said. "There is a lot to weigh both with the short-term thinking and long-term thinking for your franchise. ... You go over many, many scenarios. I always feel like you go through maybe 100 different trade possibilities to maybe make one."