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The NHL's best and worst this week – Predators hope Winter Classic helps shape their identity – ESPN

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This season’s Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators is shaping up for impressive optics. The NHL has already sold 84,000 tickets, and they’re expecting 85,000 fans to pack the Cotton Bowl to watch Texas’ first outdoor hockey game. Steve Mayer, the NHL’s Chief Content Officer, has projected the event can bring in more than $30 million for the city of Dallas.

The NHL also says more than 20,000 fans are expected to come in from Nashville — the biggest total ever for a visiting fan base on New Year’s Day. So there’s a decent spotlight on the Predators for the next few days. The problem is, this team has yet to form an identity. The Predators, quite frankly, have been a confusing team for the first three months of the season.

“We were struggling for a time there, in November,” forward Colton Sissons said. “We were struggling with consistency early on in the season, and sometimes it takes teams some time — especially when you have some new faces, like we do. But I think we’re coming along.”

GM David Poile spent the summer shaking up his veteran roster. His team has been a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the past few years, but after back-to-back early playoff exits, it appeared the product (specifically the offense) was becoming stale. Poile traded P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils to clear cap space. He then committed seven years and $56 million to Matt Duchene, the long-coveted No. 2 center.

In what feels emblematic of their season, the Preds had back-to-back strong wins entering the Christmas break (against the Bruins and Coyotes) then came out of the break with back-to-back clunker losses to the Penguins.

Entering the Winter Classic, the Preds, like the Stars, are right on the playoff bubble.

As veteran goalie Pekka Rinne notes, “the Central Division is the most competitive I’ve seen it during my time here.”

“For years and years the powerhouse used to be Chicago and things have turned a lot,” Rinne said. “It’s fun to play the division games these days. Teams like Colorado and St. Louis are among the best in the league. All these teams are good. Right now, we are trying to catch up to most of the teams in our division.”

Nashville’s defense, as usual, has been stellar because of its depth. The team hasn’t skipped a beat without Subban. In fact, now that Subban’s gone, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence we’re talking about Roman Josi as a Norris Trophy finalist for the first time in his career. As the team’s leading scorer (39 points in 38 games) Josi is on pace for a career-best campaign in terms of offensive production. Ryan Ellis, second on the team in points, with 28, has been nearly as impressive.

“I wouldn’t say those guys are underrated around the league or among fans,” Sissons said. “It’s more like, underappreciated. They definitely haven’t been underappreciated in this room.”

Dante Fabbro, 21, has also stepped into a full-time NHL role nicely, skating a healthy 19:13 per game on average.

The offense, however, has been trying to find its groove. The power play, which finished last in the league last season, has improved slightly. Meanwhile, coach Peter Laviolette shuffles his lines constantly.

“A couple new guys coming in, myself included obviously, just trying to find things that work,” Duchene said. “I really like the combo of me, Fil [Filip Forsberg] and Granny [Mikael Granlund]. I think that’s something that has worked real well when we work together. It would be nice to see that stick a little bit.”

The biggest question mark is in net. That’s different for Nashville, which has relied on Rinne for the entire decade. The Finn is only two years removed from his Vezina Trophy season, but it already seems like the team is transitioning to the 24-year-old backup, Juuse Saros. The two goalies (countrymen and good friends) started strong, then slumped, and have split the last 18 starts.

“It’s been ups and downs for me,” Rinne said. “Tough to say if it’s mental or physical for me. I think it’s more mental when you’re having tough times. Sometimes you start second-guessing yourself and stuff that you’re doing; is it the right thing? Or the wrong thing that you’re doing? Being a goalie you have to feel confident out there. If you struggle with confidence, it’s always hard.”

“If you play all the time, you have a rhythm,” Rinne said. “So it has been an adjustment. At the same time, I feel good about it. I have a great goalie partner. Juuse Saros is an amazing young goalie. He deserves to play, he’s played well. He deserves his starts. Even though I wish nothing but the best for him, it’s still an adjustment. As a professional player you always want to be out there. But if it gives my body a rest, gives me a chance to work [on] things on the ice, there are a lot of benefits, too. I’m 37 years old now.”

Rinne is looking forward to the Winter Classic. He knows the experience will be special: bringing family and friends to the game, playing in his first outdoor game since he was a kid. But he also knows it could be a good statement for his team.

“We can show everyone what kind of team we really are,” he said.


Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn’t like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up


Emptying the notebook

I was in Nashville for a few days over Christmas break, and it was impossible not to notice not only how much the city loves its hockey team (I saw way more Preds paraphernalia than I saw for the Titans) but also how the team has integrated into the community. It’s not just the team, it’s specific players that have taken initiative, too. As I was sitting in Bridgestone Arena for a morning skate, I couldn’t help but notice something cool in the rafters. There were 11 banners featuring current players’ faces, and underneath it was the charity they either created or support in the community: Kyle Turris and Kyle’s Crew, Sisson and Holiday Outreach, Austin Watson and Holiday Outreach, Nick Bonino and Bonino’s Barracks, Mattias Ekholm and On Ice With Ekky, Duchene and Hockey Tonk, Ryan Johansen and Youth Hockey, Rinne and 365 Fund, Forsberg and Make-a-Wish, Josi and Best Buddies, Yannick Weber and Weber’s Wolf Pack. Very cool.

After the Predators’ morning skate last week came a Penguins morning skate — which is actually really rare for Pittsburgh. The NBA’s load management trend may not be coming to the NHL anytime soon, but teams are finding better ways for their players to conserve energy. A growing trend is the cancellation of the longstanding tradition. The Penguins are one of the teams that have nixed a ton of them. “We believe it has [had an effect on guys],” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Every coaching staff is different and how they approach their team. It’s really about knowing your group and trying to make the best decisions accordingly. We’re trying to manage the workloads throughout the ebbs and flows of the schedule. Sometimes from just a mental fatigue standpoint — of not having to put your equipment on twice a day times 82 games a year — that can pay dividends.”

Veteran Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is all in favor of the new routine. He personally stopped taking regular morning skates five or six years ago. “I just thought every time I put the gear on, I would try to work on different things and burn a lot of energy I wouldn’t get back at night,” Letang said. “I thought it was more important to get the rest. I mean, I’d love to be out there, but I’m not going to lie — my least favorite part of hockey is getting dressed. I hate getting dressed.”

Letang added: “I think a lot of young guys in the league feel like they need to do morning skate, that they aren’t entitled to skip it. They need to get the goalies ready, I guess. But with the way the league is going with all the young guys, sometimes the best thing is to rest and make sure they don’t skate. Coach took that in his hands and made it easy for everyone so we don’t have to make decisions.”

I often ask players, coaches or execs if there’s one trend they notice in the NHL. Letang gave a really interesting answer. “I feel that there are a lot of pucks in the air this season. I wouldn’t say people don’t control the puck, but they play with speed and that means they chip it off the wall and they get to races. That’s kind of where it’s going. The era of the Blackhawks, where they would keep the puck on their tape the whole game — coming back just to make sure they didn’t lose it — has ended, and now I feel the trend is to play fast and with speed, and that has led to more pucks in the air.”


Three stars of the week

The Lightning need to start putting together wins, and they gutted out a comeback victory against Montreal after the Christmas break — after letting the Habs take the first 18 shots of the game. Hedman was key in that game, and posted two goals and six assists for eight points in three contests this week.

The Bruins veteran posted four goals and an assist in three games this week, including two which proved to be game-winners. It was a good week for Boston, which beat the division rival Sabres twice and smacked the top team in the East, the Capitals, 7-3.

Schwartz is on a nice hot steak — six straight games with a point — which included scoring twice in a big divisional win over the Winnipeg Jets. He had three goals and three assists in three games this week, including two game-winning goals.


Things we liked this week

  • And then the internet decided to play wingman. “Remember Beau when you saved me from a burning building, cooked me a 7 course meal and taught me 8 languages, that was a great day,” former Islanders defenseman Bruno Gervais replied to the tweet. Others chimed in on the thread thanking Beauvillier for saving someone from drowning, lending someone a helicopter to visit their dying grandma. Apparently Beauvillier even paid a year’s worth of someone’s rent — quite generous for a guy who just came off his entry-level contract. All of this got Kendrick’s attention. Maybe Beauvillier won’t get a date, but he did make her smile:

  • Another Christmas tweet that went viral: This 86-year-old woman attended her first NHL game, and it is so pure:


Things we didn’t like this week

  • Alex Ovechkin announced he is going to skip the All Star game for the second straight season, despite being voted as the Metropolitan Division captain. Ovechkin’s reasoning? At age 34, he feels it’s better to rest his body for the second half of the season. I have no problem with Ovechkin skipping the festivities, but his one-game suspension — either directly before or after All-Star break — once again doesn’t sit well with me. There was a discussion last year (after Ovechkin made the same decision) to have this rule amended, especially for players age 30 or older, or those who have been to multiple All-Star games before. This is something that would have to be negotiated into a CBA, though I wonder if the players’ association would be able to work something out with the NHL in their continued talks.

  • The injury to Ilya Mikheyev was a scary one for all involved. He’ll be out at least three months after undergoing surgery to repair a severed artery and tendons in his wrist after he was cut by the skate of Jesper Bratt. Here’s wishing the absence is not much longer than that for the promising 25-year-old rookie.

  • As if the Devils season couldn’t get more depressing, this own goal from Damon Severson — to end the game in overtime! — was the worst I’ve seen this year:

  • Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook is done for the season, and as many pointed out, it felt weird the way the team was talking about his absence, almost as a career eulogy. Seabrook, 34, has looked like a different player for the last two-plus seasons — which is troublesome considering he is under contract through 2024. He’s been an iron man for the Hawks, missing only 15 games over the last 13 seasons. Seabrook likely played through a lot. Now he’s getting three major surgeries, to his right hip, his left hip and his right shoulder. All the best in his recovery.

  • The Blackhawks now have four players on long-term injured reserve (Seabrook, Calvin de Haan, Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula) combining for nearly $17 million in cap space. They posted a huge post-Christmas home victory against the New York Islanders, but it’s still feeling more and more likely this is a transition season for Chicago, which is now giving significant playing time to a ton of youngsters.


Games of the week

I asked Duchene to offer a reason for fans to watch this game. Here’s his preview: “It’s two of the best teams in the West. For sure. I know it will be a tight, intense game. But also, it’s really cool to have this in the South. Hockey is really growing down here. People love it. For me, raising a son down here who will likely play, it helps the game grow and it gives him a better product. I know there are a lot of kids around this area who are starting to pick the game up. The more attention stuff like this brings to the game, the better.”

Ah, yet another John Tavares revenge game. This time, though, the focus should be on two of the best teams in the East, especially given their contrasting styles. The Leafs have the NHL’s best point percentage since Sheldon Keefe took over, and they rank first in goals. We know how stingy the Islanders defense can be.

How on Earth do the Penguins keep picking up wins with the injuries they’ve had? Pittsburgh welcomed back Patric Hornqvist, and it sounds like Sidney Crosby is close to returning, given that he’s back skating (let’s give it another week or so). The Panthers are hovering on the playoff bubble. They’re top five in the league in goal scoring, but they still need more out of their goalies.


Quote of the week

“I’d rather lose 8-0.” — Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, after his team lost to the Maple Leafs 8-6, including five goals by the Leafs in the third period to cap a wild comeback

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