As the Nashville Predators arrived in Colorado late Saturday night (actually early Sunday morning) after their 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks, there was a dense fog in the area. Our buses navigated through it as we took the lengthy ride from the Denver airport (which is unfortunately nowhere near downtown Denver) to the team hotel.
It was an appropriate scene based on the trip so far, as the Predators managed just one point against the three powerful California-based teams; Nashville is still looking to get their overall game to the level they expect to reach.
With a couple of days to regroup before taking on the Avalanche on Tuesday night, here are a couple of observations of what has transpired, and a few areas Nashville will look to shore up.
1. The Shaping of the Locker Room
Although the Predators made relatively few changes during the offseason, the dynamic of the locker room is different. The obvious factor is the trading of longtime captain Shea Weber, but that is only part of the equation. Gone as well are veterans like Paul Gaustad, Barret Jackman and Eric Nystrom. While their value on the ice had begun to erode, they provided a steady veteran influence in the locker room.
Those guys have been replaced by either younger players or newcomers, and it takes time for the identity and roles to take shape. This is true of any locker room. As Head Coach Peter Laviolette stated more than once when asked about the significance of the first matchup with the Ducks and Sharks since the dramatic playoff series last season, "it's a new year, and every team is different."
Mike Fisher is an excellent captain. He has already done a tremendous job of handling himself during this early stretch. In time, younger players who are growing into new leadership roles will find their niche, such as Roman Josi, James Neal, Filip Forsberg and P.K. Subban. It will only get better.
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2. Tough Schedule
There are no easy games in the NHL, but some parts of a schedule are more difficult than others. The first eight games of the Predators season have all been against tough opponents. Five of the eight contests have been on the road, with three back to backs. Every team they have played made the playoffs last year, including both teams that played for the Stanley Cup. Two other teams (Chicago and Los Angeles) have won five of the last seven Cups. It won't get much tougher than that.
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Since Peter Laviolette took over as Nashville's head coach, the team has ranked in the top six in the NHL in 5-on-5 SAT Percentage. This is the most basic "possession stat" on the NHL.com website. For two seasons, the Predators have been taking about 53 percent of the overall shot attempts in their games. This year's squad is built to be elite in this category as well. However, after eight games, that number sits at only 48 percent, which ranks 20th in the League.
The opponents are a big part of this. The Kings, Sharks, Stars, Ducks and Penguins were all SAT beasts last year, and will likely do the same again this season. Detroit and Chicago also ranked in the top half of the League.
With the injury on Opening Night to blueliner Anthony Bitetto, the Predators are playing with only three of the same defensemen who anchored last year's squad. The third pair (until Bitetto returns) is brand new. The chemistry between the top four (Josi, Ryan Ellis, Subban and Mattias Ekholm) is a work in progress. Remember that Josi and Ekholm played deep into the World Cup tournament and joined training camp late as a result. Ellis and Subban were slowed by nagging injuries during camp as well, which complicated things further.
It takes time to learn the subtleties of a defense partner. Josi has been playing with Shea Weber for most of the last four years; Subban was playing under a different system and in a different conference. The Predators coaching staff, comprised of three former NHL defensemen, understand that the chemistry between the top four will improve with more reps.
Look for the SAT percentage to rise. The 73 shot attempts in San Jose is an encouraging start.
One good thing about fog? When it lifts, things come into focus. With time, reps and a good work ethic, the Predators have the ability to iron out some of the issues that have contributed to the 2-5-1 start. These issues include both the tangible and the intangible. The team has to earn it, but there is time for the Predators to achieve their season goals.
It's beautiful in Denver today.