The Nashville Predators' season is sputtering like a half-built hot rod to its inevitable finish short of the playoffs.
The team will burp smoke and spin out in embarrassing losses — a full stall in a one-goal effort to beat an Edmonton team that put up a lamer defense than the Mexican Army at San Jacinto, a goalless game in Vancouver that had all the beauty of fetid meat. Then they'll rebound with spirited sprints — a six-goal outburst in Calgary, a shutout against the mighty Blackhawks.
At this point, however, even a resounding season-ending winning streak won't guarantee the Predators the playoffs. This season, for all intents and purposes, is more done than a discount pork chop.
Which isn't to say it's not worth watching.
With roster limitations lifted, the Predators can make calls to the farm and give wary fans reason to watch by granting opportunities to promising youngsters. (The Predators can do that; that's never a guarantee Barry Trotz actually will.) Much of the drama this season has concerned three such new-blood Preds.
First up from Milwaukee was center Colton Sissons, wearing the unlikely number 84 — a rarely permitted expression of eccentricity in Nashville, where weird jersey numbers are as uncommon as hat tricks. Sissons had 24 goals in 56 games with the farm team as a 20-year-old. Not an eye-popping number, but Sissons was never expected to be a prolific scorer. The youngster has settled into a role as a lower-line checker, and though the cackling crowd will argue he's been buried, the fact is Sissons — regarded as perhaps the best defensive player among the crop of young Predators forwards — is being used correctly.
No problem there.
Then there's Calle Jarnkrok, the Swede who came over from the Detroit Red Wings in the trade for David Legwand. After posting five goals and two assists in five games with Milwaukee, he got the call when Paul Gaustad went down with his annual upper-body injury. There was initial concern that Jarnkrok — whose surname means "Iron Hook" in Swedish because sometimes nicknames make themselves — would simply be slotted into Gaustad's role between unskilled or underperforming wingers.
But Barry Trotz surprised everyone by having the 22-year-old center a line including Craig Smith — the Preds' top goalscorer, though that's a bit like being the best classical violinist in a North Dakota oil field — and speedy forechecking enthusiast Gabriel Bourque. Thus far, the line has shown promise — and with all three players under the age of 25, the combination may have a bright future indeed.
Playing against type, Trotz has heaped a significant amount of trust on Jarnkrok. He's even playing the Hook on the penalty kill, where the coach often prefers his fetishized gritty veterans instead of smooth-faced, long-haired rookies.
No problem there, either.
But then there's Filip Forsberg. Younger than either Sissons or Jarnkrok — he's just 19 — the Swede came to Nashville from Washington in last year's Marty Erat trade, the deadline shocker that had Preds general manager David Poile widely praised across the NHL (and charged with grand larceny in the District of Columbia). The book on Forsberg is that he is highly skilled with the ability to be a prolific scorer, the kind of forward Nashville has never quite figured out how to find. Called up when Patric Hornqvist left the road trip on paternity leave, Forsberg was slotted into duty with Sissons and Rich Clune — who is a profoundly interesting person and a prolific pugilist, but whose hockey skills aren't exactly complementary to Forsberg's.
Trotz hasn't yet warmed to the youngster, repeatedly burying him on what could generously be called "defensively minded lines," even though such a setup doesn't play into Forsberg's talents. Sure, if Forsberg's production kicked up, he'd likely be elevated on the depth chart — but it's hard to say his production will go anywhere playing alongside two guys with 16 career points and six goals between them. Once Hornqvist returned, Forsberg returned to Milwaukee, and constant yo-yoing to Wisconsin will do even less to improve his NHL output.
On a certain level, it's understandable Trotz is giving more leeway to Sissons (a classic Predator-type forward) and Jarnkrok (who is a bit older than his fellow rookies, plus has that cool name). On the other hand, if, as Trotz promises, the team is going to show more offensive focus — which wouldn't be hard — why not give more chances to a player who's already got it, instead of fishing for goals in free agency this summer? That's a fast track to sleeping with said fishes, given the number of millstone contracts the Preds are carrying.
While Bridgestone Arena's shrieking sans-culottes harangue Trotz for miscasting all three rookies — and, to a degree, offense-minded blueliner Michael Del Zotto, another by-trade acquisition — the truth is he's gotten it mostly right on two of them.
But in Forsberg's case, the Jacobins aren't wrong. In this case, getting only two out of three is bad.