Turn the lights out, it’s time to head home.
Well, not officially. But with only eight games remaining to make up five points on five teams, it’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario where the Nashville Predators make the playoffs.
Although they do have two games remaining against the current eighth place Detroit Red Wings, the injuries have piled up. Mike Fisher was the latest casualty, joining forwards Paul Gaustad, Gabriel Bourque and Colin Wilson in the infirmary. With already a dearth of talent up front, and being given a paltry 1.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, it’s time to look to next year.
And with the NHL debut of rookie Austin Watson on Sunday night, the Predators have already begun that process.
Though he may not have scored or even registered a single point, Watson looked comfortable in his role. Coach Barry Trotz gave him a variety of game situations to wet his feet. Midway through the first period, Nashville took a bench minor, and rather than having the rookie serve it, Trotz threw him right into the fire and asked him to help kill the penalty. Which they did.
In the second he was rewarded with some power play time, and despite did not scoring, Watson was poised with the puck.
It was not a flawless game from the former 18th overall pick, however. Watson struggled in the faceoff circle, going two-for-eight, and was on the ice for two Chicago goals, including the late tiebreaker. Still, there was a lot to like about his game.
Going forward, there should be no reason Watson does not finish the season in Nashville. For a team that’s already playing for next year, there is nothing to lose. Exposing rookies like Watson and Taylor Beck — who looked strong in 11 games earlier this season — to NHL speed can only strengthen the team. Neither player has anything left to prove at the AHL level and their development will only stagnate unless they are given the opportunity to succeed at the higher level.
The Blackhawks became the first team to mathematically clinch a playoff spot with their victory. While the Predators don’t appear to be headed for the playoffs, more strong play by rookies down the stretch could set a positive tone for next year. It’s not the result that the fans wanted to the end of this season, but it’s one that they needed.
And should Watson and Beck lead the Predators to a long winning streak, they may even accomplish the improbable.