At least for the time being, the youth movement is here.
With a compacted schedule in a shortened season, and a taxi squad of four to six players at the ready, the Predators had an inkling they might be dipping into their prospect pool over the course of the 2020-21 campaign – but probably not to this degree.
Injuries are inevitable, sure, but over the past week or so, there has been a revolving door on Nashville’s list. Defenseman Luca Sbisa has been sidelined the longest, but the month of March seemingly began with a new issue every night.
Defenseman Ryan Ellis and forward Luke Kunin went on Injured Reserve on March 2, goaltender Juuse Saros was added March 4 and forward Matt Duchene joined on March 6. As the Predators began their eight-game road trip on March 7 in Dallas, Captain Roman Josi was injured that night, and forward Brad Richardson, who had recently returned to the lineup from another ailment, was sidelined after a March 9 game in Carolina. Then, defenseman Mark Borowiecki exited early two nights later, leaving the Predators with more than enough injured players to ice a starting lineup.
Enter the newbies.
The Predators dressed six rookies on March 9 in Carolina – forwards Eeli Tolvanen, Yakov Trenin, Mathieu Olivier and Rem Pitlick, along with defensemen Alexandre Carrier and Jeremy Davies – the highest count of fresh faces Nashville had seen in a single game since March 12, 2016.
Davies made his NHL debut that night, and defenseman Frederic Allard‘s first NHL contest came two games later in Tampa Bay, the 12th blueliner the Preds had used through 28 games at the time. One would have to venture back to the Predators of the early 2000s to find the last time the team used more than 12 defensemen in a single season, and that was over the course of an 82-game slate.
The Predators won’t be making any excuses, but it would be easy to do so with that kind of turbulence throughout the lineup. Couple that with the fact Nashville is in the midst of facing three of the top four teams in the League in point percentage – Carolina, Tampa Bay and now Florida up ahead – and the experts would say things could and should be ugly.
Video: NSH@TBL: Carrier buries wrister from the right circle
Funny thing though, this game of hockey. Sometimes, when it seems all hope has been lost, a different kind of outcome arrives.
The trip hasn’t been perfect for the Preds – they are 2-2-1 through five of their eight games away from home – but despite five out of a possible 10 points thus far, Nashville has actually played quite well overall.
A 4-1 victory over the defending champions on Monday afternoon in Tampa seemed to be a culmination of recent games with better efforts that showed what the Predators still remain capable of, even with seemingly half their normal roster on the shelf.
For the youngsters, the opportunity to gain NHL experience is welcome, and all things considered, the Predators have liked what they’ve seen out of some future mainstays.
“They’re good players, and that’s why they’re in the organization,” Preds Head Coach John Hynes said of the rookies. “These kids aren’t rushed into the process either, and that’s how you want to be able to develop young players. They need to go through experiences, get some NHL games…and some guys, come in and play, some guys don’t get an opportunity right away, but we have a good organization and we have a good coaching staff. The way that you bring young players along is you don’t feed them to the wolves in the NHL. You need to make sure that they’re ready, that they understand all the rigors of pro hockey, the preparation, the competitive level in certain areas, and that’s why these kids have come in and then helped us be a competitive team through this process.”
There will be growing pains too, but that’s all part of the process. Hynes and his staff, in collaboration with Nashville’s AHL coaches and player development coaches, work consistently with each of the young players in the organization, especially those who are making their foray into the NHL. The process is continuous, and while each player on the roster – rookie or veteran – always has something they can improve upon, now is the time to make sure the youths know what is expected.
“You’re always trying to teach and work with guys, whether they’re veterans or rookies,” Hynes said. “Lots of times with the veteran players, I think they sometimes understand quicker some of the things that we want, or if they do something really well or they make a mistake, I think that they recognize that situation sometimes quicker and understand why things happened. With younger players, it’s more about the why – why they need to do certain things, or why certain things occurred, good or bad, and that’s really where you have the teachable moments with the younger guys. You may have more repetitive situations with younger guys or rookies where you’re maybe working with them on the same things more repetitiously than you have to do with veteran players, and I think that’s sometimes the biggest difference in the development of an older guy versus a young guy.”
Video: NSH@TBL: Trenin wires wrist shot past Vasilevskiy
With 27 games to go over the next 55 days, there will be plenty of teaching still to come, and perhaps further chances for more prospects to receive their call to the big club.
Of course, those who are dealing with injuries won’t be out forever either. Saros, a netminder, seems to be the only player whose return will come soon, but others will follow eventually, and that will leave the Preds with some determinations to make.
A little healthy competition won’t be frowned upon, and it’ll be up to those who want to stay in the lineup to prove themselves consistently as a potentially season-defining road trip winds down.
And, if nothing else, the rookies are showing Nashville’s future might have more than a few bright spots.
“Right now, we feel like we have a good mix,” Hynes said. “There’s a lot of young energy on the team right now, and they’ve done a good job. I also like the fact that the veteran players that are in the lineup, they’ve embraced those guys. I think they’ve upped their game, they’ve been good leaders there, you can hear them talking on the bench and helping guys through, so right now there’s really good chemistry in the room, on the ice, on the bench…and that’s a tribute to all the players coming through. Now, hopefully the individuals continue to play well, and you’d like to have tough decisions. I mean, if the team continues to play as hard as it plays and we win games and continue to get points, then you have to have tough lineup decisions. When younger guys can make the lineup decisions more difficult, you have a good situation on your hands.”