I barely recognize these Nashville Predators. And you know what? I like it | Estes

I barely recognize these Nashville Predators. And you know what? I like it | Estes

It’s recommended viewing, with one caveat: You’ll want an updated roster handy.

Definitely, if you haven’t watched the Nashville Predators lately. And even if you have, there’s still a good chance you’ll see numbers and faces you won’t recognize, another rookie here today, someone else gone tomorrow. That’s what it looks like when an NHL franchise waives the white flag on its season at the trade deadline, especially while also enduring a rash of late-season injuries to remaining top players.

They’re a mess on skates, frankly. Or at least, they should be.

But they’re not.

They’ve become a lot of fun, actually, and Saturday afternoon’s 6-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues at Bridgestone Arena was the latest indication that the Baby Preds are already building something with staying power beyond a current season headed nowhere.

Well, probably headed nowhere.

Technically, there’s still an outside chance at a playoff spot that seemed unthinkable about a month ago. You know, back when the team was selling off Nino Niederreiter and Tanner Jeannot and Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund? And then you throw in injuries to Roman Josi and Matt Duchene along with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen? I mean, forget about it.

Yet while raiding their AHL team in Milwaukee, the Predators have somehow managed to win nine games out of 17 since the start of March, earning at least a point in 11.

“We’ve had every excuse to just pack it in here and coast away the season,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, “but it’s been great to be a part of this run here.”

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Saturday’s win moved the Predators three points back of the Winnipeg Jets – who’d play later that night – for the Western Conference’s final wildcard spot. With seven games remaining, Nashville’s playoff odds according to Moneypuck.com were 4.6% on Saturday afternoon. So a long shot, but still a shot.

Remarkable, considering the fact that Saturday the Predators didn’t start a forward older than Colton Sissons (29).

The average age of the top six was 23.5.

Of the 19 starters Saturday, eight didn’t even make the trip with the Predators to Europe for their season-opening Global Series.

To spend time with the Predators now versus earlier in the season, it’s barely the same team. But that hasn’t been all bad. A weight has been lifted in the locker room. You can feel it. Expectations and pressures and concerns that have dogged the Predators for years seem no more.

In its place, suddenly, is the fearless, youthful swagger of those with nothing to lose and much to prove.

“That’s kind of what’s driving us right now is the fact people counted us out,” said 21-year-old forward Luke Evangelista, one of the budding stars in Nashville’s new bunch. “I think people can take us lightly a little bit. We’re kind of trying to shove it to them and just show that we’re not out of the dogfight.”

All things considered, these Baby Preds have had no business sniffing the playoffs.

The fact that they are, “it’s special,” said Predators coach John Hynes.

Special enough to provide surprising hope that the Predators may not be destined to wander the hockey wilderness in the coming years. Their new generation – backed by the continued heroics of elite goalie Juuse Saros, it must be noted – already appears closer than would have been believed this soon.

“They’re fun to coach,” Hynes said. “They are coming in every night with a belief that if we do certain things we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Evangelista has made a splash. So has his second-linemate Tommy Novak. Egor Afanasyev was on the top line Saturday next to Cody Glass and Philip Tomasino, two other promising young forwards. And then you’ve got a bunch of draft picks stockpiled from these latest trades.

Suddenly, the future feels brighter than it has for the Predators in quite some time.

That’s in spite of who wasn’t playing Saturday.

It’s also partially because of it.

These youngsters are being helped by not having to defer to a Forsberg or a Duchene or a Josi.  Basically, as Hynes said, “they feel the onus is on them to be able to produce.”

“It’s good for them in their careers,” Hynes said. “It’s good for the organization I think it’s a true (evaluation) of where they’re at, because they are playing in some pressure situations. … These guys have come up and been able to thrive.”

Just feels so new, all this fun and hope and players whose names we may still need to learn to pronounce. It’s not so easy. I know that. I know patience is still going to be required here.

But I barely recognize you these days, Predators, and you know what? I like it.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.