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The Tennessean

What do new-look Nashville Predators have to prove? Quite a bit, it turns out

By Paul Skrbina, Nashville Tennessean,

2023-03-15
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Those who can, do. Those who "can't," sometimes try to do anyway.

Take for example the 2022-23 Nashville Predators, at least the ones you still recognize.

Outgoing general manager David Poile was a seller at this year's trade deadline, even though his team was far from the cellar. Still, Poile reasonably reasoned, getting rid of players such as Mattias Ekholm, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Tanner Jeannot made sense for the present and the future. Just making the playoffs no longer is good enough, Poile said.

So in came names such as Egor Afanasyev, Luke Evangelista, Rasmus Asplund, Tyson Barrie and Cal Foote.

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And in the playoff race stayed the Predators, who have won eight of 11 and are four points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference after Tuesday's victory against the Detroit Red Wings.

"We were told we can't, but there's a lot of guys in that locker room that have a competitive spirit to them," Predators coach John Hynes said. "You don't get to the National Hockey League because you're easily deterred.

"For us it was, how is this particular group going to be able to continue to move on and carry forward? Every guy in that locker room, every player, coach, trainer, whoever's on with that group every day has been told at points in their career that you can't. Our job is to prove we can. The players have done a very good job of buying into that and bonding together."

That the Predators returned from their longest road trip of the season with a 4-1-1 record is nothing short of impressive. That they did it without the aforementioned players, not to mention without injured players Filip Forsberg (who remains day-to-day), Ryan Johansen (out for the regular season) and Alexandre Carrier is almost unthinkable.

It's not that Predators upper management doesn't want the team to make the playoffs. It's that "just making it" no longer is acceptable. Hence the bevy of moves that netted Poile and the Predators an embarrassment of draft capital or, as Poile put it, "taking a step backward to take us a couple of steps forward."

Those backward steps also include valuable experience for some of the younger players, who will have fighting for a playoff spot and playing meaningful NHL games on their resumes. Making the playoffs this year, with this roster, would be acceptable and, frankly, exceptional.

"Can we still make the playoffs this year? Maybe. Possibly," Poile said. "We're going to give it everything we can. But we want to be a team that's competing for the Cup."

For now, the new-look Predators remain focused on trying to get the franchise to the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, a tall ask of a task to be sure.

But the team had three games in hand on the Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche, the two teams in front of them in the wild-card race. Not to mention a roster full of players ready to try to prove they belong in the NHL.

"You always want to make the playoffs, right? ... Especially with a lot of guys getting their first taste, it's maybe a little extra jump for us," said forward Tommy Novak, who has 13 goals and 15 assists in 34 games. "We're not counting ourselves out for sure. That's our main goal right now."

Veteran forward Matt Duchene stopped short of saying whether or not the deadline moves motivated the players in the room. He did say all eyes in there are on the now.

"I look at it as hopefully it's (a have your) cake and eat it too situation," Duchene said, "where we get to make the playoffs with what we have right now and with the young guys getting acquainted with the league and our older guys pulling their weight.

"The summer will be an exciting summer for us. I'm excited to see what we do. It's a situation where we're going to be a better team come September. I think everyone is believing in the plan and buying into it. There's some excitement for the future but at the same time, right now, we haven't taken out eyes off this season at all."

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