Predators were derailed by injuries, offensive woes
The Nashville Predators' run of three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the last two in which they advanced past the first round, came to an unceremonious end with a 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in their 44th game of the season.
Nashville had qualified for the postseason seven times in the past eight seasons.
Here are five reasons why they missed the playoffs:
With three weeks remaining in the season, the Predators had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs but injuries, which had hurt them all season, took on a cumulative and overwhelming effect.
-- On March 9, Colin Wilson, who was the leader in points at the time, suffered a shoulder injury. He hasn't returned.
-- On March 28, Mike Fisher, who has centered the team's top line since arriving in February 2011, injured his hand. He has missed eight of past last 10 games and last played April 6. Even in the two games he played after returning, he was mostly forced to play wing because of difficulty taking faceoffs.
-- On April 2, Gabriel Bourque, who was leading the team in goals at the time, went down with a knee injury. He hasn't returned.
-- On April 4, checking center Paul Gaustad, a key penalty killer and the team's top faceoff man, played his final game of the season. A recurring shoulder injury that kept him out on three different occasions finally shut him down, limiting him to 23 games on the season. Like Wilson and Bourque, he had surgery on Monday.
-- Earlier in the season, right wing Patric Hornqvist, who has led the Predators in goals for two of the past three seasons, missed 16 games with two separate injuries. He has four goals in 24 games.
The injuries were so numerous and to such quality players that the replacements from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League had no chance to serve as adequate substitutes. When the Predators were eliminated Monday, seven of their 18 skaters were rookies. Four of them had played four NHL games or fewer and a fifth had played 14.
"I've been here a long time," said Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history, "and we haven't had this many injuries at one time -- ever. We're thin."
2. Subpar performances
A host of players, Hornqvist included, did not live up to what they had done in the past. Left wing Sergei Kostitsyn, who led the team in goals (23) and points (50) in 2010-11, ranks seventh on the team in points despite playing in 42 of the team's 44 games. He has three goals and 12 assists.
Forward Craig Smith, who scored 14 goals as a rookie last season, earning an invite to the NHL SuperSkills competition at the All-Star Game, has three goals and six assists in 40 games, ranking him 11th in points on the team. What's worse, he has a minus-15 rating -- by far the worst on the team.
Young wing Matt Halischuk, who had 14 goals last season, has two this season in 33 games. He did not score his first until almost two months into the season, on March 14.
Another key underperformer was long-time right wing Martin Erat, who requested and was granted a trade. Even though he was tied for the team lead in points at 21 at the time he was dealt to the Washington Capitals, Erat managed but four goals and went through the longest goal-less streak of his career (21 games).
Two defensemen -- one young, one old -- also did not live up to expectations. Second-year player Ryan Ellis, the former Ontario Hockey League player of the year and a first-round draft pick with an offensive upside, had two goals, four assists and a minus-2 rating in 32 games. He was sent down on March 25, recalled once, on an emergency basis, and remains in Milwaukee.
Hal Gill, 38, was acquired last season for his penalty-killing and shot-blocking acumen. He struggled after not playing during the lockout and was a healthy scratch four times in a five-game stretch in February. He is minus-2 and has averaged 13:15 per game in 28 games, as he, too, was limited by injuries.
3. The schedule
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After playing its first two games at home, Nashville played eight of its next nine on the road. While it went 4-2-2 (two wins were by shootout), the toll came later.
From Feb. 18 to March 19, the Predators went 1-9-0 on the road. The killer was a five-game, eight-day trip during which they traveled to four different time zones and finished 1-4. Trotz said he had a hard time remembering the last time he was as tired as he was after that trip.
"This year has not been good for a lot of reasons," general manager David Poile said. "What are the other reasons? Is it the 48-game schedule? Is it our very difficult travel to begin the year? Is it players not really being ready to start the season? Is it players not living up to their usual level of play? It's probably a little bit of all those things. The schedule has worked well for some teams; it hasn't worked well for us."
4. Power play failures
A major reason for the Predators' struggles this season was their inability to score. They entered Thursday as the League's lowest-scoring team at 2.23 goals per game.
Even late in the season when they had a chance to make a playoff push, they lost 1-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks on April 6, 1-0 to the St. Louis Blues on April 9, and 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings on April 14 -- a game in which they trailed 1-0 with less than three minutes to play in regulation.
They have been shut out a League high nine times; they also failed to score in regulation on Feb. 12 against the San Jose Sharks, but won 1-0 in overtime.
A better power play would have helped immeasurably. Last season, the Predators owned the League's top power-play unit. They scored 54 goals on 250 opportunities for a 21.6 percent efficiency, and surrendered only four shorthanded goals.
This season, Nashville has plummeted to 19th, converting 22 of 129 chances for a 17.0 percent efficiency -- and even worse has yielded four shorthanded goals again in about half as many chances.
With the exception of defenseman Ryan Suter -- who was replaced on the unit by a skilled defenseman in Roman Josi, whose 17 points rank fifth on the team -- the personnel was almost identical to last season.
Perhaps the initial adjustment to the loss of Suter, followed by Hornqvist's two lengthy absences and, finally, the departure of Erat robbed the unit of any chemistry.
5. Personnel departures
As much as it pains the Predators, Suter, who signed with the Minnesota Wild as an unrestricted free agent on July 4, is a leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman.
It took Nashville's top remaining defenseman, captain Shea Weber, who was a finalist for the Norris in each of the past two seasons, a while to adjust to a new partner. First it was Josi, then for a time aging veteran Scott Hannan (later traded), before he ended up back with Josi.
Trotz talked recently not so much about the difficulty of replacing Suter but of replacing Josi on the second pair. Kevin Klein had his usual reliable season but he, too, shifted partners throughout the season. It wasn't until rookie Victor Bartley was called up on March 8 that the Predators began to firm up that spot.
Lastly, even though Erat underperformed, he remained a co-leader in points on the team when he was traded and, at the time, the Predators did not receive a roster player in return.
Erat ranks second in team history in goals and assists and, had he remained, the Predators would have had some semblance of a first line in some of those crucial close losses in the games after the Trade Deadline. Without him, they did not.
Here are three reasons for hope for the Predators in 2013-14:
1. Renewed health
Trotz said recently that he thought if the Predators had not dealt with so many injuries, they would have been in the hunt for the playoffs. Before their current seven-game losing streak, which ties the longest in franchise history, they were right there.
With the benefit of surgery, Wilson, Gaustad and Bourque should have a better chance of staying healthy and coming back strong.
Wilson, a first-round pick in 2008, looked like he was poised to break out with 19 points in 25 games. His career high is 35 points in 68 games last season. Bourque, who scored some big goals in the playoffs as a rookie a year ago, projects as a future 20-goal scorer.
The usual 82-game season gives teams more time to overcome injuries. This one did not for Nashville.
The Predators still have one of the best goalies in the League in Pekka Rinne and one of the best defensemen in Weber, a combination that ought to keep them competitive for the foreseeable future.
A finalist for the Vezina Trophy each of the past two seasons, Rinne might not have the numbers that he usually does, but he still is tied for the League lead in shutouts with five. As Nashville tried to make a desperate playoff push, he was at his best.
Weber got off to a slow start offensively -- Trotz thought not playing during the lockout had something to do with it -- and he also had to adjust to playing without Suter. Still, his 23 points (all of which have come in the last 35 games) tie him for the team lead. Next season, he should hit the ground running.
3. Promising rookies
With the benefit of the full season, Bartley looks like a solid top-four defenseman. He is a strong skater and his 19:20 in time on ice per game over 20 games ranks fifth on the team. He also is plus-3, third best on the team.
Wing Taylor Beck, with size and a willingness to shoot the puck, has impressed since being called up. He is good on the wall and drives to the net, giving him three goals and four assists in 15 games.
Finally, there is rookie forward Filip Forsberg, the 11th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. The Predators received him in exchange for Erat. He has yet to score in his first two games, but has six shots and looks as if he belongs.
If he makes the team as a 19-year-old, he could make an impact. After all, on the lowest-scoring team in the League, it would not take many goals to do so.