The Nashville Predators' first month of play is in the books at 5-4-2. With the team getting a three-day break between the back-to-back split of Friday at Chicago and against the New York Islanders on Saturday, and the California swing that begins Wednesday in San Jose, this is a natural time for the organization to assess the progress of the group.
Rarely, if ever, do things go completely as planned. Take last season, as Nashville started 2-5-1. There were issues to say the least. At the time, I made my own assessment of what was happening, and predicted (fortunately) that things would get better over time.
This year, the challenges are different, but they are present nonetheless. Thanks in particular to stellar play from goaltender Pekka Rinne and winger Filip Forsberg, the Predators had a steady October despite missing two key cogs: Associate Captain Ryan Ellis, and (just as he was getting comfortable after four games) Nick Bonino.
With Ellis still out for a considerable amount of time and Bonino's return uncertain, here are a couple of evaluations of Nashville's first month, with an eye toward improved play moving forward:
What's Gone Right?
1. Rinne and Forsberg
Their stats speak for themselves. Both are worthy of consideration of the NHL's Three Stars of the Month accolades.
2. Big Three D
Though the defense pairings are still a work in progress until Ellis returns, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are all adapting and playing big minutes on the blue line. Josi has peppered the net with shot attempts. Subban has been steady with nine points. Ekholm is simply a rock. He's played with three different partners, often on his off side (playing the right side of the ice, instead of the left).
3. Hartnell is a Fit
Scott Hartnell has come back to Nashville and has fit in nicely. He's had a big impact on the team's power-play success. He's in excellent playing shape and is setting a strong example for the youngsters.
4. Sissons Shining
Colton Sissons has taken on increased responsibility, in part due to Bonino's injury. He has done an excellent job in the face-off circle, chipped in offensively and done some important penalty killing.
Samuel Girard has been quite impressive for a 19 year old. The Predators are 3-0-1 in his four games played, and he has chipped in with three points. More importantly, he has graded out well in his own end with his ability to defend against older, stronger competition. His future is bright. What the Preds do with him for the rest of this season will be quite intriguing.
What Must Improve?
1. Punch from Pontus
Pontus Aberg has skill. He has paid his dues in Milwaukee, exploding for 22 goals in his final 31 games last season, earning him a spot on the Predators postseason roster. Look no further than his spectacular goal during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final to see what he is capable of. However, he has yet to find his groove this season. There is still plenty of time.
2. Fire from Fiala
Like Aberg, Kevin Fiala is being counted on to provide some scoring punch. Neither has a goal to this point. However, Fiala has generated lots of scoring chances. He has had some critical assists. The foundation is there for a breakout.
3. Johansen Jump
Ryan Johansen, even when he's not on his A-game, can help you win. He wins big faceoffs that lead directly to scoring chances. His vision and touch lead to passes not many others can make. But when he's really on, he's on another level. He becomes not only a creator, but a scorer that constantly pushes and challenges the opposing defense. Johansen's October showed only flashes of what he is capable of - his best hockey of the season is ahead of him.
4. Saros Surge
Juuse Saros had an outstanding rookie season in 2016-17. This year, his three starts have all had poor outcomes. While his play hasn't been as sharp as it can be, he has also been victimized by some tough bounces. Plus, there have been some extreme breakdowns in front of him, which haven't helped. The numbers look ugly as a result. However, he is a special athlete. His teammates and coaches believe in him. He's only 22. Some adversity in a young goalie's career is inevitable. There is nothing but confidence that he will see his way through it.
5. Puck Luck?
The Predators have scored just nine goals in their last five games, yet they have managed to go 2-2-1 during that stretch. Part of the reason for the lull in goal scoring is the team's 5.22 percent 5-on-5 shooting percentage on the season, which ranks 30th in the League. Most analytics experts generally feel, for any team, that when the percentage is extremely low that luck is not on their side. Therefore, the Predators are due for that luck to turn, as long as they continue to generate their share of good scoring chances.