Predators “Herd Line” Vital to Regular & Postseason Success

To begin the season, only Colton Sisson was guaranteed a roster spot on the fourth line. He is a staple among the Nashville Predators’ bottom six, and he has been one of the most underrated defensive forwards of the last few years.

In the first game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cole Smith took the final roster spot. In the next match, Mathieu Olivier made an appearance. Two games later, in their first game against the Dallas Stars, Yakov Trenin got his shot. The pieces were all there, and once Brad Richardson went down with an injury, head coach John Hynes put all three on the same line. From there, the production started to flow, so did the nicknames and their marketability.

Trenin and Sissons’ nicknames are relatively easy to figure out. No, it’s not “Trendawg” as the Predators social media put out earlier this season. Instead, “The Yak” has been his nickname since the 2019-20 season. Sissons usually goes by “Siss,” but for these purposes, “The Colt,” a young male horse, was more fitting. Finally, Olivier, otherwise known as “The Biloxi Bull,” is originally from Biloxi, Mississippi. Combined, these three players make up one of the most fun parts of the 2020-21 Predators, “The Herd Line.”

Yakov Trenin Nashville Predators
Yakov Trenin, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The three wild animals were off to a rolling start. Their forecheck was excellent, and they controlled play with the best of them and sustained pressure on opposing teams. However, on April 10, Olivier was sidelined 4-6 weeks with an injury. The Herd Line would be broken up for the foreseeable future. Luckily, the perfect player was waiting in the wings. An All-Star by the name of Tanner Jeannot was doing everything possible with the Chicago Wolves to play his way into a roster spot.

With the number of injuries sustained by Predators to that point, outside of Olivier, Jeannot was called up to show what he can do. He has not disappointed. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound forward is a massive presence at both ends of the ice. Coincidentally, he played with Olivier in Milwaukee on their identity line and was also excellent at controlling play, according to head coach Karl Taylor. Jeannot was now on The Herd line and needed an animal nickname. Luckily, he is from Oxbow, Saskatchewan, so naturally, he is nicknamed “The Ox.”

The nicknames are fun, but it wouldn’t be a great article if I didn’t provide evidence that the line has not only been fun but also excellent, would it?

Eye Test

All four players thrive off loose puck battles, and they protect the puck exceptionally well in all three zones. Their offensive zone game is mostly dump-and-chase, but they can afford to do it because of their “no shift off” mentality. They love to chip the puck past the defender reasonably deep into the offensive zone, but not far enough to lose hope of retaining it.

The dumping and chasing aspect of offense is a massive problem for the Predators as a team, mainly because they don’t high-tail it to the puck after dumping it in the zone. They also don’t dump in the puck close enough to retrieve it effectively. The dump and chase strategy is exemplified exceptionally well in Trenin’s goals against the Dallas Stars highlighted below. Jeannot lays a hit on the Stars defender and knocks the puck loose. Sissons obtains the puck and backhands it to the top of the faceoff dot for a wide-open Trenin to shoot.

The last goal was a bit of a fluke, as Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin probably should’ve had it trapped under his arm. Instead, he let it slip through. The next one is no fluke. A great rush backed by a possession entry by Trenin after a possession exit from Sissons leads to Olivier getting the rebound in front of Detroit Red Wings goaltender Thomas Greiss.

Also, not one, not two, but all three of the forwards head straight for the net to pick up any loose change. Trenin goes around the net, throws it in front, most likely intended for Sissons, but instead, he gets his stick tied up, and Olivier reaps the reward on the scoresheet.

All four members of The Herd Line have intelligent habits. They might not be the most skilled, but they’re willing to outwork everyone who stands in their way. Whether they’re matched up against the first line of the Carolina Hurricanes or the fourth line of the Detroit Red Wings, The Herd doesn’t stop moving.

What Do the Numbers Say?

Of course, the eye test is unreliable. So, to further my point, here are the statistics. None of the members of The Herd Line have staggering point totals. Sissons has the most at 15, with Trenin following up at 10, then Olivier with five, and bringing up the rear is Jeannot with four. They’ve all played a vital role in each other’s point totals, as linemates do in the general sense. However, as with most things, point totals don’t tell the whole story.

Looking at the micro stats, the line enjoys forechecking, mainly dumping and chasing the puck, which is straightforward and effective if utilized correctly. According to manually tracked micro stats that are publicly available thanks to Corey Sznajder, Trenin is first among all Predators forwards in forechecking/cycle offense, also known as positional offense, at 14.82.

Olivier isn’t as high because of his injury, and Sissons doesn’t provide much offense in general. Both Olivier and Sissons are in the bottom half of the stat I used for Trenin, and Corey hasn’t been able to track Jeannot yet due to his small sample size of games played and time constraints.

Tanner Jeannot Nashville Predators
Tanner Jeannot, Nashville Predators (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

One conundrum I found was that the line with Olivier had a sub 50 percent, Corsi for percentage (CF%). On the other hand, the line with Jeannot has a 54.89 percent in the same category. In expected goals for percentage (xGF%), both lines are above 50 percent, which is a good sign. Even with the small sample size, according to Evolving-Hockey, Sissons with Trenin and Jeannot at 5v5 is the fourth-best line out of 16 (minimum 40 minutes played) in goals for per 60 (GF/60). The two with Olivier are the ninth-best. In terms of expected goals per 60 (xGF/60), it’s the same story. The two with Jeannot are fourth, and the line with Olivier is 15th out of 16.

It is interesting, though, because Olivier and Jeannot bring different things to the lineup. While The Herd Line with Jeannot is excellent offensively, the line with Olivier is fantastic defensively. The roles are reversed in terms of RAPM expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60). With Olivier, they place fourth on the team in the category, and with Jeannot, they rank 13th. The two players are strong checking forwards with a knack for getting to the front of the net, but the discrepancy in isolated offensive and defensive metrics astounds me.

How Important Is “The Herd Line”

Since Juuse Saros returned from injury, he has been arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. The short but stout netminder has been the primary reason for the Predators’ turnaround, but credit also needs to be distributed elsewhere. Hockey is a team game, after all. Another reason for the turnaround has to be The Herd Line.

They’ve singlehandedly provided an identity to the team’s bottom-six, which is something that the Predators have not had for a while. The four players are excellent contributors, and it’s fantastic to see that they continue to build chemistry. They are all players that Hynes can rely on to perform when a boost is needed.

However, keep an eye on Jeannot and if he is taken out of the lineup when Olivier and/or Forsberg return. He has solidified a roster spot and proven he can play in the big show. The data agree and most people, including myself, think it would be a very poor roster move to take him for a player like Nick Cousins or Erik Haula.

At the end of the day, all four members of this line need to be on the roster. They can’t all be on the same line, but that shouldn’t prevent David Poile and Hynes from making the right decision. If David Poile wants to make his team harder to play against, this is where he needs to start.