Even though the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars are tied at two games apiece in the opening round of the 2019 Playoffs, Predators fans can’t be excited or overly optimistic going forward. The games they won were both by one goal, and included an overtime victory in Game 2 and a 40-save performance by Pekka Rinne in Game 3. Meanwhile, the games they lost included a one-goal defeat in Game 1 and a blowout in Game 4.
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There are many reasons why they’ve dropped the ball and should consider themselves lucky to be tied after four games. These include Rinne struggling in Game 4, a lack of discipline that has led to Stars power-play goals and a struggle to cleanly enter and exit the zones. Yet the biggest reason the Predators have struggled is a top line – known as the JOFA Line – that has largely been absent through four games.
JOFA Line’s Importance
During the regular season, the Predators were led offensively by their first line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson – AKA the “JOFA Line.” This isn’t uncommon, though, as most playoff teams have a dominant top line. The Predators’ problem in the regular season was that when the JOFA Line didn’t score, the team was unlikely to get offense from the other forwards. It wasn’t meant to be that way, however.
General manager David Poile acquired Kyle Turris in Nov. 2017 to center the second line and he’s been a bust. At this season’s trade deadline, Poile landed Mikael Granlund for the second line and Wayne Simmonds to play in the bottom-six. Neither have lived up to expectations. This resulted in Arvidsson, Forsberg and Johansen being the team’s only top-six forwards who consistently produced.
As a team, the Predators scored 236 goals and 621 points during the regular season. The JOFA Line combined for 76 goals and 162 points. When you take away the 43 goals and 197 points scored by the defense, the team’s other forwards only scored 117 goals and 262 points. That means Predators forwards not on the JOFA Line only accounted for 49.6 percent of goals and 42.2 percent of points. And that production is from 21 players, or an average of 5.6 goals and 12.5 points per player. That’s unacceptable. Because of that, everyone knew that the JOFA Line would have to lead the way offensively in the postseason, and that hasn’t happened.
Line’s Playoff Struggles
Through the first four games, the JOFA Line has combined for one goal and one assist. Forsberg has the lone goal, scored on a great individual effort in the Game 3 win. Johansen has the only assist of the trio, which occurred on Roman Josi’s goal in Nashville’s blowout loss in Game 4. But it’s not for a lack of trying or even creating chances, they’re just not finishing said chances.
The line has combined for 35 shots on goal and all three average at least 18:54 of ice time per game. They also have positive five-on-five metrics with a 56.8 percent shot share and are controlling 51.1 percent of scoring chances. They even have a positive expected goals for percentage at 54.6 percent. However, the Predators haven’t scored a goal with the line deployed, but has allowed a goal. The line is also losing the high-danger chances battle by only controlling 40 percent of them.
Looking at individual games, the line controlled at least 58 percent of shots in all but Game 3. This included a 77.9 percent shot share in Game 2. Considering the JOFA Line is the team’s only regularly-deployed line with a positive shot share in the series, it’s alarming that they’ve been unable to convert chances to this point. And if that doesn’t change, it’s unlikely the Predators have much of a chance to win the series.
A Productive JOFA Line Equals Success
Although the JOFA Line didn’t even have the team’s best metrics during the regular season (that belongs to the Nick Bonino, Colton Sissons and Austin Watson line), the Predators play their best hockey when the JOFA Line is producing. Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson were three of the top four Predators in terms of regular-season games with a point. Johansen had a point in 45, Forsberg in 36 and Arvidsson in 35. The Predators won 28 of the games Johansen had a point in, 25 Arvidsson’s games and 24 of Forsberg’s games.
Meanwhile, Arvidsson had 23 games without a point, Forsberg had 28 such games and Johansen had 35. The Predators lost 13 of Arvidsson and Forsberg’s games in which either went pointless and 17 of Johansen’s games. Given that the Predators lose nearly half the games in which one of Arvidsson, Forsberg and Johansen don’t score, their production is vital to the team’s performance.
This speaks volumes to the Predators’ lack of depth scoring. Other teams can overcome their top line going silent because they can rely on lines two through four picking up the slack. The Predators can’t rely on that. Surprisingly, during the postseason, Predators’ depth forwards have actually stepped up, combining for 12 points. However, only three of those points have been from members of the second line. That’s not a healthy breakdown in offensive production, and relying on your bottom-six to score 64.3 percent of points produced by forwards is not a recipe for success.
The JOFA Line is the team’s most talented line and was a major reason the Predators won the Central Division. The line’s play down the stretch helped the team leapfrog the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets. But now they’ve gone silent, and it shows in the results. Sure, the series may be tied at two games apiece, but the Predators’ two wins were gutsy efforts that had fans on the edges of their seats. The JOFA Line needs to get rolling and start producing, because relying on the bottom-six to pick up the slack isn’t a formula for consistent success. There’s still time to turn it around, but it has to start immediately with Game 5.