The Predators Prowl is a weekly post on how the Nashville Predators performed the previous week. Generally published on Tuesdays, Predators Prowl isn’t a recap of games, but rather a look at the themes, news and rumors that occurred throughout the week. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how the team performed this week, your views on the week’s themes and any other ideas or questions you have about the team.
Related: Last Week’s Predators Prowl
This week’s Predators Prowl is a bit different as the team played one game since the last edition thanks to the All-Star Game festivities and the league-mandated bye week. As a result, I will discuss the lone game they played, but also some thoughts I have on the team from the first half and what I’d like to see occur the remainder of the regular season as the team prepares for a stretch run.
Predators Survive Golden Knights Onslaught
The Predators may have won their road matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights 2-1, but had it not been for Juuse Saros’ performance in net, they would have been blown away. Vegas outshot the Predators 48-27, which represents the team’s second-lowest shots for percentage on the season. At five-on-five, were outpaced 26-15 in control of scoring chances and 14-8 in high-danger chances.
But, as mentioned above, it was Saros’ heroics that kept the Predators in the game and allowed them to emerge victorious. He turned aside 47 of 48 shots for a .979 save percentage (SV%). His 47 saves were the most by a Predator this season, and the highest of his career. In the game against Vegas, he stopped all 12 medium-danger shots he faced and 13 of 14 at high-danger. Even on the lone Vegas goal, he did nothing wrong.
On that play, P.K. Subban lost positioning on eventual goalscorer Max Pacioretty. It resulted in Pacioretty leaking to Saros’ left and finding a soft spot in coverage. A quick, accurate pass from Paul Stastny allowed Pacioretty to bury the shot. There was simply nothing Saros could have done to prevent the goal. Allowing Saros to face premier scoring chances was the story of the night for Nashville’s defense.
Offensively, Ryan Johansen and Nick Bonino continued their excellent seasons as both netted goals. Once again, the team failed to convert on the man advantage, this time on two opportunities. However, their penalty kill succeeded in killing off all five penalties they committed. Although the game didn’t go the way head coach Peter Laviolette would have preferred, the Predators still got the result they wanted.
Thoughts on the First Half
Because I previously discussed what did and didn’t work to start the season, wrote predictions for the rest of the season and gave out my team awards for the first half, I’m simply going to highlight some prevailing thoughts I have on the first half.
For several seasons, the Predators’ offense has been defined by strong depth as opposed to the elite top-six that other teams have. This season has been a bit different. They still have strong depth, although some players have dropped the ball, but it’s their top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Johansen that has carried the offense.
That trio has combined for 46 goals and 98 points, 23 percent of the team’s points, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing 41 games between them. That line has had strong metrics for several seasons, but this season they are a dynamic scoring threat anytime they’re deployed. Johansen has gone from a one-time 30-goal scorer to a premier playmaker while Arvidsson and Forsberg are great two-way players with elite scoring touches.
In lines two through four, success has been hit-and-miss. As mentioned above, Bonino has been great this season despite mostly playing a defensive role. But in addition to him, Craig Smith is having a typically productive season and Colton Sissons has already set a new career high in goals. Meanwhile, Kevin Fiala, a former first-round pick, continues to struggle as a goal scorer. Then there is Kyle Turris, who has missed 22 games so far this season and hasn’t been worth his $6 million cap hit.
Even the Predators’ best position group, their blue line, has been questionable at times this season. On the positive side, Mattias Ekholm is having a breakout season with six goals and 37 points and should be a darkhorse Norris Trophy contender. He’s also their best blueliner when it comes to playing defense. Ryan Ellis is also having a strong season with 24 points and, most importantly, he hasn’t missed any games. Even offseason free agent addition Dan Hamhuis has performed well in a shutdown, third-pair role.
Now to the less-positive side of things. Roman Josi has generated plenty of offense this season and should finish in the top-15 in points for defensemen. However, the downside of him jumping up in the offensive zone is that he finds himself pinned in too deep when the puck goes the other way, often leaving his defense partner out to dry. Now when he plays with Ellis, his typical partner the past few seasons, it works because Ellis is accustomed to covering for him. But, when he plays with Subban as he has in recent games, it’s been a different story, partly because Subban hasn’t been good this season.
Related: The NHL’s Top 4 Defenses
I’m a big Subban fan and thought he deserved more Norris Trophy love than he did last season. This season, however, he’s been downright bad on some nights. The example referenced above in the game against the Golden Knights, he was directly responsible for Pacioretty’s goal. That’s been a common sight this season. He’s also been consistently beaten to the outside, his skating has looked sluggish and he has even struggled on the breakout. Whether it’s rustiness from injury or something else, his struggles are impacting what is otherwise an elite blue line.
In net, Pekka Rinne and Saros have been up and down this season. They have similar stats – Rinne with a .915 SV% and 2.47 goals-against average (GAA) and Saros with a .914 SV% and 2.58 GAA – and have generally performed well. What’s been interesting is that when one has played poorly, the other has thrived. When Rinne went down with injury in October, Saros kept the team in games.
Then, when Saros struggled in November and early December, Rinne played his best hockey of the season. The Predators entered the season with one of the league’s best goaltending tandems and they’re at that point again, even after some questionable performances in between.
The most aggravating thorn in the Predators’ side this season has been their special teams, but more specifically, their power play. They currently have the 29th-ranked power play, converting on 13.1 percent of opportunities. They scored at least one power-play goal in 18 games, which ties for 27th-most, and had a 14-3-1 record when doing so. That means they had 34 games without a goal on the man advantage and they went 16-15-3 in those games. At the time of writing this, they haven’t converted on the power play since Jan. 9, a span of seven games.
A big reason for their power play struggles is that they don’t generate enough offense. Their 48.7 shots per-60 while on the man advantage ties for 20th while their 43.1 scoring chances for per-60 rank 27th and their 16.3 high-danger chances for per-60 rank last. It’s something I’ve discussed in the past. They rely too much on generating offense from the blue line when on the power play, which considerably cuts down high-danger chances. Shooting from that distance allows penalty killers to clog shooting lanes and they are generally easier shots for the goaltender to stop.
They’ve fared slightly better on the penalty kill, succeeding 80.5 percent of the time, 16th in the league. They allowed at least one power-play goal in 25 games with an 11-12-2 record in them. They killed off every opportunity in 27 games with a 19-6-2 record in those games. With a mobile defense like the Predators have, plus talented forwards, the team’s penalty kill is generally successful at hindering offensive zone entries and are quick to turn play the opposite way for shorthanded opportunities.
Ways to Address the Team in the Second Half
Now that I’ve wrapped up my thoughts on the first half of the Predators’ season, it’s time to move on to a few ways I think the team could be improved in the second half. For starters, they need an influx of offense, one that I think can be brought about by adding a net-front presence.
Wayne Simmonds is the first name that comes to mind with his smooth hands, ability to screen netminders and his physicality. Adding someone with his skillset would not only improve their offense, but also help their struggling power play. Arvidsson is good in front of the net, but his size limits his impact. Plus, his accuracy means he can thrive in a shooting position. Additionally, given Nashville’s desire to generate offense from the blue line when on the power play, Simmonds would be the perfect acquisition to redirect point shots and bury rebounds.
Next up, I think the Predators need to further add to their top-six, particularly at center. With Turris’ injury issues and general mediocrity since the team acquired him, the Predators could use another piece in the top-six. There are plenty of options to fill this need at the trade deadline, from Matt Duchene of the Ottawa Senators to Kevin Hayes of the New York Rangers, but the Predators need to add more offensive depth to ensure they can keep up with the high-flying offenses in the Western Conference. In the coming weeks, I will be addressing the team’s needs at the 2019 Trade Deadline and look into the three players mentioned, and more.
The last way I think the team needs to improve in the second half is figuring out the defense pairs. Prior to their Jan. 19 game against the Washington Capitals, the pairs were concrete except for situations when injuries forced changes. These pairs were Ellis/Josi, Ekholm/Subban and Hamhuis with Anthony Bitetto, Matt Irwin or Yannick Weber. However, with the team giving up far too many scoring chances, Laviolette and his coaching staff adjusted the pairs with Josi and Subban becoming a pair and Ekholm and Ellis playing together.
While the Ekholm/Ellis pair has worked well, the Josi/Subban one has been a wild ride at best. Both players are prone to turnovers and questionable decision-making and neither are used to being the defensively-responsible partner on his pair. While the original pairs weren’t working, I can’t imagine the current pairs working long-term.
Perhaps the answer is dividing the top-four among the three pairs with one of them playing on the bottom pair with Hamhuis, Irwin or Weber. Perhaps the solution is dealing one of their top-four (Josi and Subban are the best options) and acquiring a blueliner who is more responsible in his own zone.
Something to keep in mind is the future addition of Dante Fabbro to the NHL roster. He’s currently a junior at Boston University and is projected to be a top-four blueliner. If he signs his entry-level contract after his college season ends in the spring and is ready to perform in the NHL, he provides the Predators with one more arrow in their quiver. Either way, the team needs to do more to help out their goaltenders. Rinne and Saros are great, but they can only do so much when they’re facing a plethora of high-danger shots each game.
News, Top Performers and the Week Ahead
Josi and Rinne represented the Predators and the Central Division at the weekend’s All-Star festivities. At the skills competition, Rinne participated in the Ticketmaster Save Streak and tied for seventh with a two-save streak, while Josi participated in the Enterprise Premier Passer event. Of the eight participants, he finished seventh with a time of 1:47.
In the All-Star Game, both players appeared in two games, the result of the Central Division defeating the Pacific Division in the first game. Josi finished with one goal and five assists while Rinne stopped 14 of 19 shots he faced.
In other news, the Predators placed Bitetto on waivers on Jan. 24 and the Minnesota Wild claimed him the next day. Neither move was particularly surprising as the Predators were carrying eight defensemen on the NHL roster and Wild GM Paul Fenton was previously the assistant GM in Nashville. Bitetto had three points, all assists, in 18 games this season with the Predators. Lastly, the Predators reassigned Colin Blackwell to the AHL on Jan. 24.
Because there was only one game since the last Predators Prowl, and only two goals were scored in that game, I’m skipping the ‘Top Performers’ section for this week.
The Week Ahead
- Feb. 1 at Florida Panthers
- Feb. 2 vs. Dallas Stars