The Nashville Predators find themselves down 2-1 in their best-of-five Qualifying Round series against the Arizona Coyotes after dropping Game 3 by a final score of 4-1. In such a short series it goes without saying that each game is critical. The Predators have lost two games and are already on the brink of elimination.
There will be lots of soul searching. It’s the customary thing to do when staring down the possibility of going home and having to wait another year for a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup. But there’s a major problem the Predators need to focus on. It’s a problem that’s plagued them far too often in the playoffs: the lack of production from their second line.
All four lines have a role. The top-two groups of forwards have a fairly similar job, which largely revolves around generating offense. However, for the Predators, the top two lines are not even close to mirroring each other.
Head coach John Hynes has resurrected the famous “JOFA” line, made up of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The trio has played fantastic thus far, generating nine points, including five goals. They have pressed the Coyotes during the first three games, causing Arizona fits.
The problem comes when Hynes attempts to follow up a dominating “JOFA” shift with the second line; commonly comprised of Matt Duchene, Mikael Granlund and Kyle Turris. This combination has brought about as much joy and excitement as a root canal.
What makes this performance so much harder to accept is the moves made to acquire all three players. This was supposed to be the line that would fix the Predators’ one-dimensional offense. No longer was the value of Predators’ stock tied up in their defense. They had a top-six forward group to be proud of.
Impressive Names on Paper, On Ice…Not So Much
The Predators’ made a splash when they opened up their checkbook and grabbed their flashiest free-agent acquisition in years and possibly in franchise history, signing Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal.
At the 2019 trade deadline, general manager David Poile seemingly outclassed his understudy, Paul Fenton – the then GM of the Minnesota Wild – when he swapped Kevin Fiala for Granlund. Now Fiala appears to have developed into a sniper that the Predators desperately need. To be clear, this shouldn’t be held against Poile. A change of scenery and playing system can unlock a player’s potential and hindsight is always 20/20, but it still hurts.
Then there’s Turris, the center who has been on the receiving end of so much negative analysis that it’s almost too easy to point out all the problems that decision has brought. The former first-round pick was supposed to have no trouble sliding into the second line center spot, but his time in Nashville has been anything but smooth.
His first full year in a Predators’ uniform he registered just 23 points in 55 games and although his 2019-20 campaign was better – recording 31 points in 62 games – you need a lot more production when shelling out $36 million over six years. To add salt to the wound, the Predators gave up a promising young defenseman in Samuel Girard to acquire Turris.
The one-two punch should be there. The Predators’ offensive arsenal should be envied. Yet so far in this series, the second line has combined for just one assist and a minus-9 rating, despite having a combined salary of $19.75 million for 2019-20.
The Predators led wire-to-wire during Game 2. They came out fast and barring a collapse in the last minute of play and a small stretch in the first period, Nashville had full command of the game. The “JOFA” line chipped in two goals and the third line opened the scoring. It was a complete team performance, well almost complete. As much as the team was clicking during their win, there were only three forwards on the team who finished with a minus rating, any guesses? That’s right, Duchene, Granlund and Turris.
When asking about the keys to winning the Stanley Cup or making a team fit for a deep playoff run, you’ll often hear terms like depth. You need contributors who can step up and produce on any given night. You need players who’ll pick up the slack when others are struggling. If a team lives and dies through a single player or line, often so do their playoff hopes.
New Players, Same Problems
The Predators are well aware of these postseason keys. Nashville witnessed firsthand what happens when you lack depth. In 2017 the Predators lost Johansen with a scary leg injury sustained in the Western Conference Final, ending his season. They were exposed at center against the Pittsburgh Penguins and learned the hard way of not having a true second-line center.
So, Predators fan or not, you can appreciate the anguish that their fanbase is going through when management took the steps to address the issues, stock the cupboard with the tools needed for success, yet it seems to have been in vain.
Darcy Kuemper played an outstanding game, he deserves a lot of credit, making 39 saves on 40 shots. The Coyotes’ netminder made eight saves in the opening 3:32 of the first period and a total of 19 in the opening frame. There may be the school of thought that the Predators were beaten by a hot goalie and that’s just hockey. But you acquire big named stars to avoid having to fall back on that empty excuse.
There’s a problem when your second line is your lowest-performing. It’s unacceptable when the line makes up 25 percent of the entire team’s payroll.
Playoff hockey in August is new for everyone. The sports world is experiencing something never seen before. The league stopped for four months and then was thrust back into action. Rust is acceptable and expecting peak, prime performances are foolish. But the regular season for Duchene, Granlund and Turris was disappointing.
Duchene started the season hot but cooled off dramatically, Granlund was extremely inconsistent and Turris struggled to stay in the lineup at times despite being healthy. The performance from this line is starting to look less like the result of a lengthy layoff and more like a simple extension of the regular season.
Watching Game 3, there were occasional camera shots of Poile sitting in the stands. He was not in his usual executive suite. He was taking advantage of the space in the fanless arena to social distance. He was also wearing a face mask to follow guidelines. But after watching his very expensive second line equal the effectiveness of a teapot made of chocolate, Poile’s face covering may have been more to hide his disappointed and sickened expression.