Predators Prowl: Struggles in the Pacific Northwest

The Predators may have had a light week in terms of games played since last Tuesday, but their two games were anything but easy matchups. They embarked on a brief, two-game road trip through the Pacific Northwest with games against the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames and lost both.

They lost their game against the Canucks 5-3 after they went down 2-0 in the first period and 4-1 after the second. Goals from Ryan Hartman, Colton Sissons, and Matt Irwin made the game close, but a Canucks power play goal and a successful Elias Pettersson penalty shot put the game out of reach. The Canucks outshot the Predators 30-29 in this one, but Nashville did control at least 50 percent of five-on-five metrics. However, it didn’t matter as Pekka Rinne allowed four goals on 25 shots and was pulled after two periods.

Related: Last Week’s Predators Prowl

Two nights later, they were in Calgary to face the Flames, a game they also dropped, this time by a 5-2 score. Another goal from Sissons and one by Craig Smith helped the Predators twice tie the game, but it wasn’t enough. They outshot the Flames 27-25, but controlled less than 50 percent of high danger scoring chances at five-on-five. Juuse Saros made his first start since Nov. 23 against the St. Louis Blues and allowed four goals on 24 shots with all four coming on high danger shots.

Predators goalie Juuse Saros
Against the Flames, Juuse Saros made his first start since Nov. 23. He struggled with four allowed goals on 24 shots. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

As always, 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.

Will Tolvanen Stay in the NHL?

After a great season debut on Dec. 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks in which he had a goal and an assist, Eeli Tolvanen has slowed down in recent games. In the two games since his debut, he has no points and hasn’t attempted any shots. He was a healthy scratch against the Flames, although it’s unclear if that decision was performance-based or if head coach Peter Laviolette wanted a bigger, more physical lineup by going with Zac Rinaldo over Tolvanen.

There’s merit for the latter being the reason as the decision came after Tolvanen played a season-high 14:52 of five-on-five ice time versus the Canucks. He has received plenty of opportunity so far, with over one minute on the man advantage against the Canucks and is averaging 1:34 per game on the power play this season.

He is clearly talented enough to stick in the NHL and plays a strong two-way game, something most young players struggle with, but the Predators need him to produce while injuries provide him an opportunity. The lack of shots is somewhat alarming and are not representative of his line as Calle Jarnkrok had five shot attempts the past two games and Smith had three.

Does Tolvanen make the Predators better? Yes, he is clearly good enough to generate offense at the NHL level. But whether that means he should stay in the NHL is a different story. When Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, and Kyle Turris come back, Tolvanen will have to prove he deserves to stay in Nashville.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
Eeli Tolvanen (on ice) had a great debut against the Blackhawks on Dec. 1 but hasn’t scored in his two games since. How he produces with several Predators injured will go a long way to determining whether he stays in the NHL. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Laviolette said when the team sent him to the AHL during training camp that there was no reason for Tolvanen to be in the NHL and playing a fourth line role or being a healthy scratch. If he doesn’t start generating offense more consistently, he will be back in the AHL when teammates return from injury.

Slow Starts Holding Them Back

Against the Canucks, the Predators didn’t score a goal until 7:21 of the second period. However, they gave up an Alexander Edler power play goal at 7:48 of the first period and an even strength goal at 19:33 to close out the period. It was a similar story in their game against the Flames. They allowed their first goal 1:12 into the game and didn’t net one until 19:07 of the first.

It’s hard to determine exactly what’s behind their slow starts, but this is a team that thrives on quick starts, fast tempo, and puck control to win games. For starters, against a Bill Peters-coached team like the Flames, controlling play is a difficult task as his teams have had positive five-on-five shot metrics every year, including 2018-19. His teams have also ranked in the league’s top-10 in the category three of his five seasons behind the bench.

Alex Edler
The Predators got off to a slow start against the Canucks when Alexander Edler scored a power play goal 7:48 into the game.  (Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another reason for their slow starts is their injury situation. Three of their top-six forwards and their top defenseman are on injured reserve, including two-thirds of a top line that has controlled 63.2 percent of goals and 57.9 percent of high danger chances at five-on-five. In total, the Predators have 29 goals and 63 points on injured reserve among the four players.

Anytime that much production, which equals $25.25 million in cap hit, slow starts and offensive regression are to be expected. Therefore, it’s simply time to take a deep breath, relax, and recognize it will get better when players return to the lineup.

Defense Starting to Crack

The Predators have what is widely considered to be the NHL’s best defense with each of their top-four blueliners a number one on most teams. Yet the biggest, and perhaps the only reason they rate that well is due to their offensive abilities as they’ve combined for a league-leading 80 points this season. Having the puck on your stick is a great way to control play and, by default, defend, but when it comes to playing defense in a traditional sense like Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Niklas Hjalmarsson do, the Predators struggle.

In their two games this past week, these defensive deficiencies emerged with 13 and 14 five-on-five high danger chances allowed, their most since Nov. 23. Against the Canucks, on Bo Horvat’s goal that made it 2-0, Ryan Ellis pinched in the offensive zone, leaving Roman Josi and Ryan Johansen to defend, which allowed Horvat to be open for an easy goal. On another Vancouver goal, it was a similar situation. This time, Ellis was left as the only blueliner to defend, giving the Canucks a two-on-one that they converted.

Predators defenseman Roman Josi
Roman Josi struggled against the Canucks as he and Ryan Ellis left their goaltenders out to dry multiple times. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY)

It was a rough game for the Predators’ top pair of Ellis and Josi as they were on the ice for four Canucks goals. All of Vancouver’s even strength goals came from below the faceoff dots, giving Rinne and Saros little time to react.

In the game against the Flames, it was a different pair in the spotlight; this time, Mattias Ekholm and Dan Hamhuis. Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington scored the first goal after he was left alone in the slot and Saros had no chance to make the save. On the Flames’ next goal, Sean Monahan was able to skate in on Saros and lift a backhander past the netminder as Ekholm played the pass. In total, Ekholm was on the ice for all four of the Flames’ non-empty net goals.

It’s clear the Predators need P.K. Subban back as he’s their best defenseman and the one most adept at playing the toughest situations. While he’s not Vlasic or Hjalmarsson, he is sufficient in one-on-one situations and plays the most difficult minutes of any Predators blueliner. Josi is often mentioned among the league’s best defensemen, and with 50-plus points in three of the past four seasons, it’s easy to see why.

Related: Seven Things About P.K. Subban

However, he often plays like a winger, leading rushes and playing deep in the offensive zone. That may lead to scoring chances, but it also puts unnecessary pressure on Ellis, whose metrics suffer as a result. In the past, I’ve criticized Ellis and how he takes too many chances. More recently, though, I have come around on him and view Josi as the cause of many of Ellis’ problems.

News, Top Performers, and the Week Ahead

With the Predators needing Subban to return to bolster their blue line, positive news may be on the horizon. While he didn’t travel with the team on their road trip, GM David Poile recently mentioned that “one or two of the four could return soon after this trip ends” (from “Is P.K. Subban Close to Returning From IR?” Tennessean-12/6/18). With Arvidsson, Forsberg, and Turris out longer-term, it seems like a safe assumption that Subban will be the first to return. Could it be as early as the Predators’ next game on Dec. 11? If so, that would be great news.

PK Subban Predators
Recent rumors of P.K. Subban’s return from injury couldn’t come at a better time with the team and defense struggling in recent games. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The next piece of news is the alarmingly poor state of the team’s farm system that I wrote about last week. This was after two of the team’s prospects received invites to World Junior selection camps, Jáchym Kondelík of the Czech Republic and Vladislav Yeryomenko of Belarus. Tolvanen could still receive an invite if he is returned to the AHL, but the two current invites is just sad.

Top Performers

  • Colton Sissons – 2 goals, 1 assist
  • Yannick Weber – 2 assists
  • Miikka Salomaki – 2 assists
  • Roman Josi – 2 assists, at least 24 minutes of ice time in both games

The Week Ahead

  • Dec. 11 – vs. Ottawa Senators
  • Dec. 13 – vs. Vancouver Canucks
  • Dec. 15 – vs. New Jersey Devils
  • Dec. 17 – at Ottawa Senators

*All stats came from Hockey-Reference