by Ed Neely
NASHVILLE PREDATORS 2017-18 QUARTER SEASON REVIEW
We are 26 games into the 2017-18 campaign and things are looking promising for the Nashville Predators. The Preds (16-7-3) are sitting in 3rd place in the Central Division with 35 points and one point behind both the 1st place Winnipeg Jets and 2nd place St. Louis Blues. The Predators are currently the 3rd best team in the West and the 4th best team in the NHL, but the season didn’t start out so rosy. When we really break things down by positions, lines, pairings and netminders, we will see why the Preds are having success right now and what they will need to do to continue having success.
I have two words to explain much of the success that the Predators are having at the center position and as a team. Those two word are Kyle Turris. That is not to say that he is the best center on the team, but his acquisition has allowed the coaching staff to slot players where they need to be. He has helped turn the Preds’ center corps into one of the strongest groups in the league, where in previous years it was a position of weakness for Nashville. With the Turris trade, the center depth is as follows: Johansen, Turris, Bonino and Sissons, but it is on the wings where the center depth lies and where the Turris trade really shows up. With Turris anchoring the 2nd line, the 3rd and 4th lines are heavy with natural centers. Bonino and Sissons are the obvious centers, but we also have guys like Jarnkrok, Watson, Salomaki either on the roster as centers or who have spent significant time playing center earlier in their careers. Lest we forget the good news story from last year’s Stanley Cup Final, we also have none other than Freddie Gaudreau.
All of the center depth has created a great deal of flexibility in the faceoff circle, with at least two players with a good chance to win the drop on every line. This equals better possession numbers than previous years from every line and has the Predators as the 2nd best team in faceoff win percentage with 52.9%. By contrast, the Preds were the eighth best team last season and won 1.5% fewer drops. More possession generally equals more scoring and this has held true this season.
The Preds’ wingers have been more productive at this point in the season than they were last year as well. To date, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have accounted for 22 of the 79 goals scored this season and the rest of the wing depth has contributed 25 goals. The wings have tallied 58 of the 128 assists the Preds have this season. By contrast, the centers have contributed 12 goals and 27 assists and the defensemen have registered 20 goals and 46 helpers. This is what a balanced attack looks like.
The Predators now have four relatively stable and productive forward lines. The JoFA line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson is one of the most productive lines in the NHL over the last couple of years and this season is no different. The Predators top line has accounted for 25 goals and 37 assists so far this season. That is 31.6% of the goals scored and 28.9% of the assists for the team this year.
With the arrival of Kyle Turris, the 2nd line is made up of Turris, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala. Their lines has become one of the fastest in the league. Smith is on pace to score 28 goals this season which would be the best of his career. Fiala has 3 goals and 12 assists already this season with both of his goals and seven of his assists having come since the acquisition of Turris. This line should continue its productive ways and continue to get better.
With the return of Nick Bonino from the injury that kept him out for 10 games, the 3rd line currently includes Bonino, Pontus Aberg and Calle Jarnkrok. This line has been very reliable in the faceoff circle and in terms of plus/minus, but it will likely change again with the impending return of Scott Hartnell from his injury. At that point, the Bonino line will likely include Hartnell and either Jarnkrok or Sissons. Both Jarnkrok and Sissons shoot right and are better than 50% in the faceoff circle, but Sissons wins draws 8% more frequently than Jarnkrok. That fact alone could put him as the 4th line center.
With the return of Scott Hartnell, the 4th line will likely include Colton Sissons and the hard hitting Austin Watson and either Cody McLeod or Miikka Salomaki, either of which will add even more physicality to the line that is generally tasked with reminding opposing teams that hockey is still a very physical sport. Watson is currently 8th in the NHL in hits per game and, while both McLeod and Salomaki are very physical players, Salomaki is considerably more productive in scoring and considerably less likely to end up in the penalty box. This reason alone should result in more playing time for Salomaki against most teams while McLeod would be reserved for teams like the Ducks and Oilers who like to drop the gloves.
The Nashville Predators defensive corps has been a bit of an enigma this season. Over the last couple of years the Predators blue line has been the envy of the league, and while that is still true, the traditional defensive stats have been mediocre. Nashville is 16th in shots against per game, at 31.7 allowed, and has a -2 shots per game differential. The shot differential is not necessarily a hit on the defense though, because the Preds are 26th in shots for per game. The return of Ryan Ellis should help increase the number of shots on goal which should also help the shot differential. The Preds have a team shooting percentage of 10.2%, which is 7th in the league this season and would have put them as the 2nd best shooting team last year.
The Predators are sitting much better over last season is in scoring by defensemen. Every regular performer is producing at rates higher than last season, yet their share of overall scoring is not higher than last season. The good news in all of this is that Preds Associate Captain, Ryan Ellis, is due to come back from knee surgery in a month. Ellis was the top goal scoring and 3rd point producing defenseman on the team last year. He was also 3rd on the team in average time on ice and led the team in blocks averaging nearly two blocks per game. So the defensive performance, as well as scoring, should improve with his return.
The current defensive pairings include Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin, and Matt Irwin along with either Tony Bitetto or, before his injury, Yannick Weber. The top pairing has been productive on offense, with 12 goals and 20 assists, and strong on defense with an even +/- rating and an average of 25:07 time on ice. The Subban/Emelin duo has tallied 4 goals and 17 assists and is -1 in terms of +/- while playing an average of 22 minutes per game, though P.K. plays roughly six more minutes than Emelin due to his work on Special Teams. The weakest pairing, by far, is the 3rd pairing of Irwin and Bitetto. While they have accounted 3 goals and 5 assists, they have been a bit weaker on defense and have a combined -1 +/- rating.
The real question comes with the return of Ryan Ellis. Last season, Ellis and Josi were very productive together both in terms of scoring as well as defensive production. Ellis had 16 goals and 22 assists last season and played 24 minutes a game. His return likely means that he will play alongside Roman Josi. That means that P.K. and Matty Ekholm will likely resume their successful relationship from last season. The 3rd pairing will become some combination of Emelin, Irwin and Weber. Both Emelin and Irwin shoot left, but Emelin has been very strong on defense over the last 10 games and has come up with some very skillful defensive stops.
The story of this season has undoubtedly been Pekka Rinne. Pekka has continued his stellar performance from last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. He currently has a 2.35 goals against average, which is 8th in the NHL and .926 save percentage, putting him 8th in the league. He is tied for 2nd in wins and 4th in shutouts. Rinne has singlehandedly kept the Preds in a number of games this season and has already had multiple highlight reel saves this year. If Pekka can keep up this performance, the Preds stand a very good chance of competing in the Division title race. The only concern is whether he will be overworked by the end of the season, which is where the backup Goaltender situation comes into question.
The current Predators backup, and heir apparent to the Nashville crease, has had a less than impressive beginning to the season if you look only at his stats. Juuse Saros, is 1-3-1 with a 3.7 goals against average and a .870 save percentage. This is way down from his 2.35 GAA and .923 save % from last season. It is not unusual for a backup to be below .500 when you consider the kind of starts they tend to get. Backups usually pull the 2nd half of back to backs and other games on the road. This puts them more frequently in hostile environments supporting a team that is more tired than the regular starter. Saros had starts against the reigning Cup champions, the hot NY Islanders, NY Rangers and an OT loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. He had impressive win against the LA Kings who were 11-1-1 at the time. It is also important to note that Saros is only 22 years old, which makes him the 3rd youngest goalie to start a game in the NHL this season and the youngest goalie to win a game. So long as Saros is able to steal points more often than not, it will give the coaching staff the comfort to play him more frequently, thereby giving Rinne much needed rest. If, however, Saros struggles much more, look for management to give Anders Lindback and try in goal. Lindback is the leading goalie in the AHL at the moment with a .925 sv% and 2.32 GAA. He is 11-4-0 with the Milwaukee Admirals.
If there is one place where the Preds are excelling, it is in Special Teams. The Predators are currently the 2nd best team in the league on the Power Play and 7th best on the Penalty Kill. Nashville is scoring on the Power Play 26.7 percent of the time, which is 6.2% higher than the league average. They are killing off 83.3% of their penalties, which is 9.5% higher than the league average. There is no reason why the Predators can’t continue to have the best Special Teams play in the league, especially with the return of Ryan Ellis.
Despite a less than impressive October (5-5-2), the Predators have become one of the strongest teams in the league. The acquisition of Kyle Turris and the return of Ryan Ellis, Scott Hartnell and Yannick Weber should make the Predators even stronger and likely help the Preds to improve on their already impressive performance.
Projected Record: 58-15-9 with 125 points and 1st in the Central Division, just ahead of the St. Louis Blues.
Bonus Projection: The Chicago Blackhawks will miss the playoffs!