Predators see good, bad and ugly in a lost season of Smashville hockey

Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:02pm

Barry Trotz conceded well before most — and the math — that the Nashville Predators would not make the playoffs this season.

The only coach in franchise history knows better than anyone how his team reached the postseason seven times in eight seasons and was the only one in the Western Conference to get past the first round in each of the last two.

So it was apparent to him what went wrong and why it would be impossible to overcome those things even when it seemed there was still a chance. Most notably, he pointed to the Predators’ struggles on the road and with injuries.

“Our expectations were to be a team that could contend for the Stanley Cup,” he said recently. “Now we’re not making the playoffs. Some of it is our own fault. Some of it is happenstance.

“We didn’t see all these injuries coming. And we had some guys that didn’t have the years we expected – older players and younger players.”

With only Saturday’s game at Columbus remaining, it seems there is no reason to wait to take a closer look at what doomed Nashville in 2012-13.

THE ROADTRIPS: In the seven seasons between lockouts, the Predators were .500 or better on the road six times. Not coincidentally, those were the six seasons in that period they made the playoffs.

Their prowess away from home was put to the test early in this season. Eight of the first 11 games, and 18 of the first 30 were on the road.

A promising start ultimately gave way to some significant struggles. With two games remaining — both on the road — Nashville had fewer road wins (five) than every other team except Colorado. Its success rate (0.681 points per game) was on pace to be the worst since 2001-02 (0.658), the season in which the franchise had its fewest overall wins (27).

• Jan. 22-Feb. 5 (seven games): This run of road games was so long it included two stops in St. Louis. The start was the third game of the regular season, and after a pair of shootout defeats at home it offered the potential to sink the Predators before they even got started.

As it turned out it was one of the season’s high points. Beginning with a victory over the now-hated Minnesota Wild, earned at least a point in five of those seven games, nine points overall and came back home with the momentum of three straight victories, each in which the opponent scored just once.

• Feb. 27-March 4 (three games): It shaped up as a simple six-day swing through California with a stop in each of the three markets. It ultimately was the trip that sent things in the wrong direction.

Nashville lost all three games by a combined score of 12-3 and was never a good road team again.

• March 12-19 (five games): This one was more condensed (eight days) than either of the previously mentioned trips but more spread out in terms of geography because it included at least one game in each of the four time zones.

Optimism following a 4-0 victory at Dallas to kick off the season’s last big trip quickly vanished in a back-to-back at Vancouver and Calgary. The Predators were outscored 13-7 in those two and goalie Pekka Rinne was pulled from both before the halfway point. Losses at Edmonton and Columbus followed, and the playoff chances effectively were gone at that point.

INJURY ISSUES: They’re a part of pro sports, and certainly in a season with a condensed schedule such as this one was, no team was free from them. The Predators simply did not overcome theirs.

In 2011-12, the longest any Nashville player sat out with an injury was 11 games. Forward Brian McGrattan and defenseman Teemu Laakso, both minor contributors, sat out that period of time.

This season Patric Hornqvist had two separate injuries that kept him out at least 10 games, Colin Wilson missed the final 23 contests, Mike Fisher hit double digits with an arm injury and Paul Gaustad had recurring issues with a shoulder that ultimately caused him to miss more than half of the campaign.

Even with more time to try to find suitable replacements for those on the sidelines, Nashville never did despite the fact that it added players through the waiver wire, trade and minor league recalls.

• The combination of seven players called upon to fill holes in the roster or as potential upgrades — Taylor Beck, Chris Mueller, Bobby Butler, Filip Forsberg, Austin Watson, Daniel Bang and Kevin Henderson — had 10 goals in a combined 68 appearances.

Gabriel Bourque started last season in Milwaukee, was recalled in December and stayed for most of the rest of the season. He finished with seven goals in 43 games and carried that momentum into this season.

• When Bourque sustained a season-ending knee injury on April 1 (12 games remaining) he was the team’s leading goal scorer with 11. It was not until Tuesday, when David Legwand scored in a 4-3 victory over Calgary, that Bourque finally fell to second in that category.

• Colin Wilson was a point-per-game player throughout February and looked to have made the breakthrough coaches and management had predicted for several years. Then came the shoulder injury that suddenly ended his season.

Ultimately nine Nashville forwards played more games this season than Wilson, who appeared in one more than half. Only one, Legwand (who has not missed a contest) has more points than Wilson’s 19 (seven goals, 12 assists).

THE SUTER EFFECT: The free agent departure of defenseman Ryan Suter had a much bigger impact than anyone in the organization wants to admit (publicly, at least).

The less glamorous half of what had become one of the league’s premier defense pairs with Shea Weber, Suter flourished in Minnesota, where he became a favorite to win the Norris Trophy.

Early, coaches tried a number of different players as Weber’s partner before they finally went back to their first choice, Roman Josi. Weber eventually put up decent offensive numbers and was the one guy, in a lot of ways, Nashville could not afford to be without.

To say the Predators ever actually replaced Suter, though, is inaccurate.

• Nashville’s success rate on the power play fell 4.6 percent from an NHL-best 21.6 in 2011-12
to a middle-of-the-pack 17.0 this season. Minnesota, on the other hand, improved from one of the league’s worst (15.1) to 17.8 percent.

Obviously, Suter was not the only player who was different for either team, but entering the final weekend of the regular-season his 15 power-play points were tied for the most by a Western Conference defenseman, and he had as many power play goals (three, which tied his career-high) as Weber, the league leader in that regard the previous season.

• Having played the majority of the season with Josi, who is at his best with the puck on his stick, Weber’s offensive chances decreased significantly.

It’s no secret that Weber has one of the best shots in the game, but he averaged just 2.61 per game, which was down from his career-high of 3.09 (twice) and even below his career average (2.72) coming into the season.

Josi, meanwhile, averaged 2.04 shots per game, which was higher than Suter ever managed with Nashville. His career-high was 1.82 in 2007-08, which was the season Weber missed 28 of the first 44 games with knee and leg injuries.

• Weber was a Norris Trophy finalist each of the previous two seasons — in part — because of the offensive numbers he produced in combination with his intimidating physical presence.

He is the Predators’ leading scorer this season — a first for a defenseman — but that has more to do with the fact that most of the team’s top forwards have missed significant time with injury. After all, Weber had just one assist and no goals in the first 13 games, a stretch that seemed easily attributable to an adjustment period to life without Suter.