What a difference a year makes.
Around this time last year, Nashville Predators forward Matt Duchene used the word fragile to describe the attitude and the resilience — or lack thereof — emanating from the Predators’ locker room.
Nashville wasn’t far off from a full rebuild.
Fast forward 12 months, the core has been altered a little and a hungrier, more youthful supporting cast that includes 11 players aged 25 years or younger currently comprise the Western Conference-leading Predators.
Oh, and good luck finding anyone to describe a Nashville team that leads the NHL with 416 penalty minutes, including a league-high 23 fighting major penalties, fragile.
“For a lot of us, we’ve gone through a lot of adversity,” Duchene said. “There’s a lot of guys that were in the same boat as me and people questioning us, and when you kind of hit rock bottom or you hit adversity, it’s about how you bounce back and it’s what you do next that’s important.
“We were never going to let this team get disbanded and let this team go to waste in terms of the talent we had; we have too much character and too much leadership, too much care in that room, there’s too many guys that give a damn, I guess.”
Players like Tanner Jeannot, Yakov Trenin, Colton Sissons and Mark Borowiecki have helped shape Nashville’s identity into something of a schoolyard bully, so to speak.
Borowiecki leads the team with seven fighting majors, and Jeannot is right behind him with six. In fact, both players rank first and fourth, respectively, in the NHL in total penalty minutes this season.
But the Predators aren’t solely a team that can beat opponents up; they can straight up beat opponents. Nashville currently ranks eighth in the NHL in goals scored (116) and the team has three players with 30 or more points, including four players with double-digit goals.
Duchene himself has 16 goals, while Filip Forsberg has a team-leading 18 goals and Ryan Johansen has 10. Just 37 games into the season, and the trio have already nearly doubled the 25 goals they combined for last season.
The 30-year-old Duchene is currently on pace for 38 goals and 78 points. Both would be new career-high marks. He has three multi-goal games this season, including Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche where he scored the game winner. His three game-winning goals in overtime are a new franchise record.
“It’s nice to see a guy like that get rewarded that — he’s made the changes, we’ve had the hard conversations,” Predators coach John Hynes said of the way Duchene has turned his game around. “But I also think that we’re giving him some things that he needs and he’s holding up his end of the bargain as the performer.”
The Predators aren’t just surpassing expectations, they’re shattering them. They’ve gone from competitive transition to Western Conference frontrunners in a matter of months.
This was supposed to be the season where Nashville finished near the bottom of the Central Division just a few points ahead of the current 7-23-2 Arizona Coyotes, according to the national media.
But Duchene has never been one to really listen to the media anyway.
“When I came here, we were ranked by all the ‘experts’ fourth in the NHL coming in,” Duchene said. “We were ranked that way because of our talent. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to put it together and play the game on the ice the way that we were looked at on paper.
“I think when you look at what we’ve been through and where we’re at now, we’re playing the game on the ice the way we’re capable of, and we’re living up to the skill that we have on paper.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_