Predators Prowl: Adjustments on the Blue Line

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

Since the last Predators Prowl, the team got some much-needed home cooking after their season-long six-game road trip concluded, although you wouldn’t know it from their 1-2 record in their three home games. The week started with a dominant 7-2 win over the Washington Capitals that included a hat trick from Viktor Arvidsson and two goals by Nick Bonino.

Things clicked on all cylinders in the first game in which the defense pairs were changed, but more on that in a bit. The victory was also the 599th of Peter Laviolette’s career. Considering the Predators had two more home matchups before heading back on the road, it felt like his 600th win was all-but guaranteed to occur in Nashville. However, sometimes hockey is a cruel sport and he had to wait three games to reach that mark.

Nashville Predators Viktor Arvidsson
Viktor Arvidsson scored a hat trick against the Washington Capitals. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It started when the Central-Division leading Winnipeg Jets came to town and dismantled the Predators 5-1 as Pekka Rinne struggled in net with an .853 save percentage. On the first Jets goal, he allowed a wraparound goal that should have been stopped. On the third goal, he allowed a dangerous rebound and Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber didn’t clear the puck nor did they box out Bryan Little, the goal scorer.

Related: Predators’ Laviolette Wins 600th Game

In total, the loss was embarrassing considering it was played in front of a home crowd. Ryan Johansen, battling in the corner with Mark Scheifele, two-hand chopped Scheifele in the side of the head and neck in an all-around ugly event. Given the talent the Jets have and the likelihood that the two teams face each other in the playoffs, the Predators will have to figure out a way to consistently beat the Jets. They have split their two games this season, with the Predators taking the first one 3-0.

Two nights later, the Florida Panthers were in Nashville for what appeared to be a winnable matchup considering the Panthers were 11 points out of a playoff position entering the game. However, despite dominating play, especially at five-on-five, the Predators were dropped 4-2. Although Juuse Saros allowed four goals, it’s hard to blame any of them on him.

On the first goal, a power-play tally, P.K. Subban failed to clear the front of the net, allowing Saros to be screened. On the second goal, nobody covered Frank Vatrano in the slot and he was given a clean shooting lane. The Panthers’ fourth goal was generated off an errant Mattias Ekholm pass that went off a Panther player and to Vincent Trocheck. Ryan Ellis made a diving attempt to hinder Trocheck, but in doing so allowed him a clear path to the net. On the final goal, Jared McCann out-muscled Roman Josi to get in position for a deflection.

So, after dropping two of three home games, the Predators headed back on the road, this time for a brief two-game trip before the All-Star break and the team’s league-mandated bye week. The trip started with a hard-fought battle with the Colorado Avalanche.

Avalanche and Predators Continue Rivalry

If you watched the opening round of the 2018 Playoffs, you witnessed the Avalanche and Predators square off. The Predators may have won that series 4-2, but they were six hard-fought games. The teams combined for 132 penalty minutes, including two misconduct penalties, both to Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov.

Pekka Rinne
Although things got chippy between the Predators and Avalanche in the first round of the 2018 Playoffs, the Predators won 4-2. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fast-forward to this season, and the two games between the Avalanche and Predators entering Monday’s matchup were pretty tame. In those games, with each team earning a win, they combined for 20 penalty minutes, all two-minute minors. Compared to those early-season matchups, Monday’s game was a different story as their 38 penalty minutes nearly doubled their season total.

The game featured two fights – one between Austin Watson and Zadorov and a second between Matt Irwin and Matt Calvert. Considering the second one occurred near the end of the game, the referees could have given game misconducts to both players, which would have further increased the penalty minute total.

The two teams face each other one more time in the regular season, a Feb. 23 matchup in Nashville. If Monday’s game was any indication, that final meeting should be physical, especially if both are battling for playoff seeding. Then there’s the possibility for a playoff rematch between the two teams in the spring.

Switching the Defense Pairs

Beginning with the game against the Capitals, Laviolette has altered the defense pairs. The top-two pairs of Ellis/Josi and Ekholm/Subban are generally set in stone. Even with being separated the past four games, the Ellis/Josi pair has been together for over 750 five-on-five minutes and the Ekholm/Subban pair over 400 minutes this season, and that includes Subban missing 19 games.

Filip Forsberg celebrates with defenseman Roman Josi, defenseman Ryan Ellis
Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi (sporting the ‘A’) have been a productive defense pair. However, they have been split up in recent games. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

However, with how poorly the team closed out their six-game road trip, and with the defense giving up too many scoring chances, Laviolette made the switch. The new pairs of Josi/Subban and Ekholm/Ellis have had mixed results. Ekholm and Ellis have been great together in 94 five-on-five minutes. With the pair deployed, the team is controlling over 55 percent of five-on-five shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances and goals.

Meanwhile, the Josi/Subban pair hasn’t been as good. In 77 five-on-five minutes, the team is controlling less than 50 percent of five-on-five shots, scoring chances and goals, including 37.5 percent of goals. They are also controlling exactly 50 percent of high-danger chances. While it’s a small sample size and the pairs will take time to develop chemistry, I’m not sold on these being the best pairs long-term.

While the original pairs had struggled, I have concerns about Josi and Subban playing together. Both are offensive-minded defensemen who like to join the rush, especially Josi who often leads the rush. Both are also prone to making mistakes at inopportune times, typically on the breakout or in the offensive zone which lead to odd-man rushes for the opponent. It seems that although the pair could generate a great deal of offense, the amount of scoring chances they’d allow would negate the positives.

I really like the Ekholm/Ellis pair. Both defensemen are used to being the more defensively-responsible partner on a pair, although Ekholm and Subban generally benefited each other. This is particularly true for Ellis, who was often the lone Predator back on opponents’ two-on-one chances when Josi was trapped in the offensive zone. Now together, both Ekholm and Ellis are tapping into their offensive skillsets while still playing mindful defense.

Mattias Ekholm Predators
The new pair of Mattias Ekholm (pictured) and Ryan Ellis has been dominant in four games together. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If handedness wasn’t an issue, my ideal setup would be partnering Ekholm with Josi and Ellis with Subban. This way Josi gets a responsible partner in Ekholm, which Josi needs, and Ellis and Subban can work off each other in terms of pinching and covering for the other. However, handedness is a reality and having one defenseman on each of the top two pairs playing on his off-side would make it difficult for the defense as a whole to thrive. I’m not certain what the ultimate solution, but perhaps it’s making a trade.

Power Play Still Abysmal

In what has been the storyline of the Predators’ season, the power play still isn’t converting. Dating back to Jan. 9, they have gone six games without a goal on the man advantage and have had at least two opportunities in each game. Their struggles have dropped them down the league ranks on the power play, now with a season-long conversion rate of 13.3 percent which ties for 30th.

They generated at least four power play shots in five of the six games and are creating scoring chances. However, the problem is the lack of high-danger chances, with one or fewer in four of the games. Where their shot attempts are generated from is the biggest culprit for the lack of high-danger chances.

In all six games, the majority of the Predators’ power play shot attempts originated from beyond the faceoff dots. The shot-location discrepancy was at its worst in their Jan. 10 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets when all four of their shot attempts were from long distance. Shooting from that distance typically doesn’t lead to high-danger scoring chances because one, accuracy drops as distance increases, and two, penalty killers have more time to clog shooting lanes.

Nashville Predators Filip Forsberg
The Predators haven’t scored on the man advantage since Filip Forsberg netted one against the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 9. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

The Predators may have defensemen with booming slap shots from the point, but those blueliners still don’t generate chances at the rate forwards do. The struggles are likely to remain until the team gets more talent on the power play.

News, Top Performers and the Week Ahead

  • For his antics against Scheifele, Johansen was deservedly suspended two games and is eligible to return against the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 23. The team recalled Colin Blackwell from the AHL to fill in during Johansen’s absence.
  • Bonino scored his 100th career goal on Monday against the Avalanche and is averaging the second-highest goals-per-game rate of his career.
  • Laviolette became the 20th coach in league history to win 600 games. He’s also the second American-born coach to reach the mark.
  • Phillip Di Giuseppe, placed on waivers on Jan. 14, went unclaimed and is currently in the AHL.
  • Zac Rinaldo was placed on injured reserve on Jan. 18 with an undisclosed injury.
  • Josi and Rinne will represent the Predators and the Central Division during All-Star Weekend in San Jose

Top Performers

  • Nick Bonino – 4 goals, 2 assists
  • Viktor Arvidsson – 5 goals, including 2 game-winners and 1 shorthanded tally
  • Austin Watson – 1 goal, 3 assists

The Week Ahead

  • Jan. 23 at Vegas Golden Knights
  • Jan. 25 & 26 – All-Star Weekend

*All stats came from Hockey-Reference, Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz