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VOL. 43 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 6, 2019

It's getting late early for Predators

NHL history unkind to teams that misfire in 1st quarter of season

By Mike Hopey

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Do you have a copy of NHL 20 the video game? You might want to pick one up as the winter holidays approach because that might be the only chance you’ll get to see this year’s Predators in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Preds have been playing some of their worst hockey at one of the most important times of the season. It’s true that an NHL season is 82 games, but game No. 20 is, for many teams, more important than No. 82.

Twenty games into the season or right around Thanksgiving, is when the playoff picture starts to cement.

Last Thanksgiving, for example, just four of the 16 teams in playoff positions didn’t make the postseason. That number was six in 2017-18.

It’s not a guarantee that a team’s chances will be doomed one quarter through the season. The St. Louis Blues were in last place Jan. 1, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The NHL is inherently weird. That’s the unscientific description for the parity that has built in the league because of the salary cap and advancements in player development.

There is a large talent gap between say Conor McDavid and some center recently called up from the AHL, but that talent gap shrinks drastically when it is between teams. Teams can no longer simply pay top dollar for the best players and be runaway favorites like the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s.

The preseason assessment about the Predators being a talented team with tremendous upside wasn’t and isn’t wrong. To use a cliche, “this is why they play the games.”

Matt Duchene was the most sought free agent in 2019 and has proven to be worth the big contract he received in July. He’s been the Predators’ most consistent forward, leading them all in scoring.

-- Photo By Derek Cain|Icon Sportswire

A fourth of the way through the season is a good time to look at how they got where they are – 12-10-4, fifth place in the division headed into this week’s play – and how they are set up for the rest of the season.

The Good

The biggest headline entering the season was the addition of Matt Duchene. It was hoped he would become the team’s true No. 1 center, something they have lacked in this run of success.

General manager David Poile flipped popular blue-liner P.K. Subban to New Jersey in order to clear enough money under the salary cap to make the Duchene deal work, putting even more pressure on the signing.

Subban, who came to the Preds after the 2016 season, was a popular player both on and off the ice. He also is one of the league’s most visibly charitable players. While with the Montreal Canadiens, Subban helped the children’s hospital raise $10 million and got a wing of the hospital named for him.

Subban saw a dip in his production last season – as he is now on the wrong side of 30 – but was still a special player to the fans. Anyone replacing him had to show it was worth it, even if playing a different position.

Duchene didn’t waste any time notching three assists in the Preds’ season opener against the Minnesota Wild in October. The center from Haliburton, Ontario, was brought in to generate offense, and he has done that.

Nashville goalies Pekka Rinne, 37, and Jusse Saros, 24, have struggled so far in 2019 combining to give up almost three goals a game and have a save percentage below .900.

-- Photo By Derek Cain|Icon Sportswire

Duchene leads all forwards with 20 points entering this week. In addition to seven goals, No. 95 has 10 of his 12 assists coming at even strength, when the teams are playing 5-on-5 hockey. Even-strength points are important because generating offense is more difficult at 5-on-5.

The Predators aren’t struggling terribly on offense, aside from the power play. Filip Forsberg leads the team with 10 goals in 18 games, a 40-plus goal pace. Nick Bonino has been a nice surprise with 10 goals.

None of the Predators are a liability thus far. The team is rolling four pretty good lines, and the elite defense is contributing, as well. All of the team’s possession numbers are good, and the Preds are controlling the puck more than their opponents. They’re generating better scoring chances, as well.

So why are they so mediocre?

The Bad

It’s easier to talk about negatives when a team is struggling. And the Predators aren’t where they are in the standings because things are going smoothly.

Nashville plays from behind too early and too often. Going into this week, the Preds were 2-9-0 when trailing after one period.

They haven’t been giving up a large number of first period goals – less than one a game – but they aren’t scoring in the opening frame. In 50% of their games through Nov. 30, the Preds were trailing and showing an inability to come back despite having two-thirds of the game left.

Two reasons for the Preds inability to play from behind, and by extension their general mediocrity, is their expected goals for and their penalty kill percentage.

Predators captain Roman Josi was given an eight-year, $72.472 million contract in October and has backed it up by leading the team in points through Thanksgiving.

-- Photo By Mark Zaleski|Ap Photo

Expected goals for is a metric that takes into account shot location and other factors to figure their goals for when both teams are playing 5 on 5. The Predators xGF is 36.2, a full four points behind the NHL average.

This means Nashville isn’t making the most of its 5-on-5 opportunities.

The Preds penalty kill was ranked 27th out of 31 teams – 75% – going into this week’s play. With a power play that ranked 16th in the league at the same time, they’re coming out in the red on special teams. It’s hard to win when both power play and penalty kill are in the bottom half of the league, that is doubly true for a team whose forward group is built on offensive firepower.

Nobody in the Preds forward group is going to win the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward, but they do have a world-class blue-line corps anchored by captain Roman Josi.

They aren’t supposed to lead the league in goal differential, but they should be better than a plus-two.

Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette coaches a good system. Last season the Preds finished the season with the sixth-best penalty kill in the league.

But any system counts on good goaltending. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are both having off years with sub-.900 save percentages. Rinne is 37, so a dip in production is expected at some point. More disheartening is Saros who, at 24, is expected to be Rinne’s heir in goal.

The Preds are lucky their problems aren’t plentiful and, given past results, can improve.

A bet the Preds will miss the playoffs would be really risky. It could be worse, they could be Minnesota.

The Unexplainable

The NHL is weird. For example:

• The Edmonton Oilers, a preseason pick to miss the playoffs, are in first place in the Pacific Division.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs, a popular preseason Stanley Cup favorite, are currently on the outside of the playoff race and have fired their coach.

These things aren’t just weird because no one predicted them. No one could expect Edmonton’s shooting percentage to be well above the historic average or for Toronto’s offense to play so tepidly.

These things are outliers. They are the examples why predictions are often wrong.

It’s easier to just say things are weird.

The Predators’ goaltending has been bad, as previously stated, which is strange because Rinne and Saros are both very good. They would have been counted among the game’s best goaltending duos going into the season.

Rinne keeps himself in such good shape that a big dip in production was unexpected. He is only one season removed from being the Vezina Trophy winner for the best goalie.

Similarly, Saros’ stats should be trending upward.

A goalie’s training and positional play can only carry them so far. Even the best in the world depend on a strong defense in front of them. That starts with the six defensemen, and Nashville entered the season with maybe the best six-man unit, certainly in the top five.

But that unit hasn’t been as elite as expected. No one has been a liability, but no one is standing out as a best-in-the-league contributor.

Captain Roman Josi, fresh off an eight-year contract extension, has been the excellent two-way defenseman for the Preds. He was the team leader in points heading into this week while averaging almost 25 minutes per game.

Even rookie Dante Fabbro has made a good debut for the Preds, leading all defenseman in even-strength, on-ice save percentage, a metric that measures the percentage of shots stopped while a player is on the ice.

The thing fans of the Predators were worried about entering the season was the power play. Last season, Nashville finished dead last in the NHL in power-play scoring percentage. That was weird because Laviolette coaches an up-tempo style, and the 2018-19 Preds featured Subban, one of the best power-play quarterbacks of the past decade, and Forsberg, an elite goal scorer.

Duchene was expected to be someone to lift the rest of the unit. Even with the loss of Subban, Nashville still sports defensemen with excellent offensive skills.

So far in 2019-20, the Preds power play has been better, converting 16.1% of their chances, better than the 12% from last season but is still behind the 19% league average.

What makes the power play weird is that Nashville goals with a man advantage are right in line with the league average. They are even generating more opportunities on the power play than most teams.

The low, but not last-year low, power-play percentage also is weird because the NHL is having its best offensive season since 1994. Power-play numbers that would have been pretty good in any other season are just so-so this year.

There is still much hockey to be played in the NHL’s 103rd season.

The power play can get better, the defense can get better, the offense can get better and the goaltending can get better.

Josi might be lifting the Stanley Cup in real life at the end of the playoffs. Weirder things have happened.

It isn’t a rule that being outside the playoffs at Thanksgiving means a team will have an early vacation. But the odds are stacked against them.

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