Predators Weekly: In Need of Hamhuis & Good California Vibes

Predators Weekly is my series on how the Nashville Predators performed the previous week. Generally published on Tuesdays, Predators Weekly isn’t simply a recap of games, but rather my takes on said games and the themes that emerged 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 Weekly

Having a light post-All-Star Break schedule like the Predators have this season has its positives and negatives. The positives are that they should enter the postseason healthier and with more rest than their opponents. The negative is that the long breaks between games can lead to rustiness as players struggle to find rhythm.

If teams can overcome the rust, it can lead to great things when the regular season concludes. However, if they can’t regain the rhythm, it can spell an early exit in the playoffs. So far for the Predators, their light post-All-Star Break schedule has been a negative.

They’ve been starting games sluggishly, and it’s resulted in them going 9-8-1 since their bye week concluded on Feb. 1. It’s been a glaring issue and is something that needs addressed as the regular season comes to an end, especially with a rough schedule that includes a California road trip this week. I’ll discuss that road trip, plus the team’s need for Dan Hamhuis to get healthy and back into the lineup, but first, the week that was.

The Week that Was

The Predators only played two games last week with a three-day break between them. They opened the week with a game against the team that ended the previous week, the Minnesota Wild. This matchup, on March 5, ended the same way the game two days earlier did: a shootout, this time by a 5-4 score. It was déjà vu as Ryan Johansen again scored the shootout-winner in controversial fashion. This time it was reviewed to confirm forward momentum, and the officials ruled he did so despite protest from Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

The Predators may have emerged with the victory, but truthfully, they were lucky to get the victory. They were outshot 33-25 and the Wild never stopped their offensive onslaught. At various points in the game, the Predators were up 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3, but never built more than a one-goal lead. They were even down 3-2 at one point after the Wild scored two straight goals.

Ultimately, the Predators allowed the tying goal with 2:18 left in regulation after the Wild pulled Dubnyk. And, wouldn’t you know it, the goal was scored by none other than former Predator Kevin Fiala in his first game back in Nashville. It was also his second of the game.

Four days later, on March 9, the Predators welcomed the Carolina Hurricanes to town and the visitors brought with them an end to Nashville’s luck. Now, you may or may not remember, but the first time these two teams faced each other, a Jan. 13 matinee, it didn’t end well for the Predators as the Hurricanes blew Nashville’s doors off in a 6-3 rout in Raleigh.

The March 9 game wasn’t any better for the Predators as they fell 5-3. Thankfully, the game concluded the regular-season series between the two teams. There really isn’t much to say about this game. The Predators were never really in this one as they went down 2-0 in the first period. They outshot the Hurricanes 34-32, but it was all for naught.

Anytime they reduced the Hurricanes’ lead to one goal, they quickly gave up a goal. Juuse Saros struggled in net, the team came out flatfooted after their three-day break and immediately dug themselves a hole they couldn’t climb out of. On the bright side, Mikael Granlund scored his first goal with the Predators.

Nashville Predators Mikael Granlund
Mikael Granlund scored his first goal as a Predator against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 9. (David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)

In Need of Hamhuis

I never thought I’d say this, but the Predators desperately need Hamhuis back. When general manager David Poile signed the then-35-year-old blueliner to a two-year contract last offseason, I scoffed at the idea. I mean, how was this stay-at-home defenseman going to fit in on a defense corps that is stacked with two-way, puck-moving blueliners? The answer is quite well, in fact.

With four points in 53 games this season, his stats don’t jump off the page. In the past, he’s had two 30-point seasons and he posted 24 points last season with the Dallas Stars. The difference between those seasons and 2018-19 is that he has averaged over 20 minutes per game in all but one season and he’s averaging 16:16 this season. So yeah, he’s not lighting the lamp or accumulating assists, but the Predators don’t need him to be that type of player. They need him to be a bottom-pairing defensive defenseman who is reliable in his own zone and provides strong penalty killing, and Hamhuis has done both this season.

When he is in the lineup, he provides quality play in a shutdown role and receives some of the least advantageous zone starts. For the season, he averages 10.63 defensive zone starts per-60 minutes at even strength, second-highest among Predators defensemen. He also plays 1:45 per game while shorthanded and has only been on the ice for seven of the 43 power-play goals surrendered by the team.

Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis
Dan Hamhuis has been a surprisingly good addition to the defense this season. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Oh, and despite receiving a majority of his starts in the defensive zone, he still has a 50.3 percent shot share at five-on-five. However, since he went down with a leg injury on Feb. 23 and was placed on injured reserve, the Predators have missed him in a big way.

His absence has meant that the third pair now consists of a combination of Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber and Matt Donovan with the first two playing the most. In 61 five-on-five minutes since Hamhuis’ injury, Weber has a 50 percent shot share. He controls 50 percent of goals and scoring chances while starting in the offensive zone 55.6 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Irwin, in 62 five-on-five minutes, has a 48.4 percent shot share, a 66.7 percent control of goals and a 41.5 percent control of scoring chances while starting in the offensive zone 70 percent.

In the six games since Hamhuis went down, Irwin had a sub-50 percent shot share in four and a sub-50 percent control of scoring chances in three. Weber, on the other hand, has surprisingly strong metrics since Hamhuis’ injury, although only in five games. He had a positive shot share in three games and a plus-50 percent control of scoring chances in three, as well.

Perhaps most alarming about Hamhuis’ absence is the regression of the penalty kill. The Predators had an 80.8 percent kill rate from game one through 64, the game he was injured in. However, since he went down, they are killing off 76.2 percent of penalties, having allowed five goals on 21 opportunities. They allowed a power-play goal in four of six games, including two against the Hurricanes.

Predators defenseman Yannick Weber
Hamhuis’ injury has meant that defensemen like Yannick Weber (pictured) have received more playing time. (Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports)

The Predators need Hamhuis back in the lineup, and soon, because from now until the postseason is a vital time for the team. They’ll want him back and up to game speed for the playoffs. Plus, for the team to be at its peak entering the playoffs, he is a necessity, both at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. In his absence, opposing teams are line-matching against the third pair and having success in doing so. The Predators may have one of the league’s best defenses, but it only works when there’s a serviceable third pair present.

Vital Upcoming California Road Trip

I usually don’t go in-depth with the Predators’ upcoming schedule, but this week I feel it’s necessary. They’ve struggled since their bye week and they need to create momentum through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. Well, this week provides the perfect opportunity to do just that as they embark on a California road trip.

They begin with a game against the Anaheim Ducks and then play the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in successive order with one off-day between each. Considering that the Ducks and Kings are out of playoff contention, both are beatable opponents that the Predators need to take advantage of. Meanwhile, the Sharks lead the Pacific Division and are nine points up on Nashville and will serve as a test for the Predators to see how they match-up against a quality opponent.

Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne
The Predators kick off their California road trip with a game in Anaheim against the Ducks. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Predators have played each team twice this season with varying degrees of success. Against the Ducks, they have a 1-0-1 record. Their first matchup occurred in early November and the Ducks won it 2-1 in a shootout. The second game took place 13 days later and the Predators won it 5-2 on home ice. They controlled play with a 33-19 shot advantage, including 19-15 at five-on-five.

Against the Kings, one of the league’s worst teams, the Predators have had their way with two regulation wins, both in Nashville. The first occurred in mid-November by a 5-3 score after they had a plus-15 shot advantage. Their second meeting took place in late February and concluded with a 2-1 final score. The close score reflected the game’s cadence as the Predators built a 2-0 lead early in the second period and then held on as the Kings made a valiant comeback only for Pekka Rinne to turn aside all but one shot.

Finally, the Sharks, one of the Predators’ nemeses in 2018-19, having dropped both games so far this season, both by 5-4 scores after blowing leads. In the first matchup, in late October, the Predators built a 4-2 lead late in the second period only to allow three straight goals, including one shorthanded goal and one power-play tally.

A few weeks later, in late November, the teams’ second matchup was a back-and-forth affair. The Sharks opened up a three-goal lead in the first period and the Predators responded with four goals of their own to take a lead early in the third. However, two Sharks goals in 13 seconds gave them a lead they didn’t relinquish.

Predators center Kyle Turris
The Predators will look to avenge the two 5-4 losses they suffered earlier in the season to the Sharks. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

The next three games could have serious ramifications for the Predators. Win at least two of them and they could erase the one-point lead the Winnipeg Jets currently have on them and even take a lead in the Central Division. Lose more than one in regulation and the Jets could take a commanding lead in the division if they are able to overcome their own tough schedule this week. But these three games mean more than that.

Winning gets the Predators on the right path for the final portion of their regular-season schedule, one that includes six straight games against teams currently in a playoff position, and that’s after they play the Sharks. Gaining momentum for that portion of the schedule can propel the team on a potential deep postseason run. Losing means stumbling into those games, likely losing at least half of them and hoping to stabilize before the playoffs start. The importance of this part of the schedule cannot be overstated.

News, Top Performers and the Week Ahead

  • On March 5, Roman Josi appeared in his 550th career regular-season game. He is currently third in franchise history in games played for a defenseman. After Tuesday’s game he will 21 away from tying Kimmo Timonen for second all-time.
  • The Predators have three collegiate prospects to pay attention to as the NCAA season winds down. The first is defenseman Dante Fabbro, a junior with Boston University. Rumor has it that he plans to sign his entry-level contract with the Predators when his season ends. B.U. plays in the Hockey East quarterfinals this weekend, and with a mediocre team this season, Fabbro could be a Predator as soon as Sunday.
Dante Fabbro Jeremy Davies
Dante Fabbro (middle) could be a Predator as soon as this weekend. (Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics)
  • The other two prospects play for the University of Minnesota who play in the Big Ten semifinals this weekend. The prospects are senior Tommy Novak and junior Rem Pitlick. If Novak doesn’t sign with Nashville, he becomes a free agent and will be free to sign with any team. Novak is a good prospect but Pitlick is the better of the two. As the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer, Pitlick has the skillset to develop into a productive NHL-er. As a junior, now is the time for Poile to make a strong push to sign him.

Top Performers

  • Viktor Arvidsson – 1 goal, 2 assists
  • Brian Boyle, Ryan Ellis, Rocco Grimaldi, Roman Josi and Craig Smith – 2 points each

The Week Ahead

  • March 12 – at Anaheim Ducks
  • March 14 – at Los Angeles Kings
  • March 16 – at San Jose Sharks

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