By somegeekintn [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When it came to the top of teams who “lucked their way to success” last season, the topic that was most scrutinized by the hockey stats community was the Minnesota Wild’s hot start. However, there was another team who probably fit that category a little better and that team was the Nashville Predators.
But wait, how can a team who finished the year second in the Central Division with 104 points and a +27 goal differential possibly “luck” their way into the post-season? While it might be harsh to say that their success was completely due to good fortune, it’s hard not to get a little skeptical about their success when you see that they were the second worst team in the league at controlling even strength shot attempts in close game situations. Some eyebrows also begin to raise when you see that they had the third highest shooting percentage in the league during 5-on-5 play, a top 10 5-on-5 save percentage and the highest 5-on-4 shooting percentage in the league.
The Preds were able to ride a wave of high shooting percentage and great goaltending to the post-season but it’s tough to believe that they will be able to have a similar run this season. Nashville already plays in the toughest division in the NHL and are significantly weaker on defense than they were last season with the loss of Ryan Suter.
Can the Predators overcome this loss along with their weak possession game and find their way back to the post-season?
A Brief Look at 2011-12
Before we go into previewing the upcoming season for the Preds (assuming there is a season…), let’s take a look at what made them such a weak territorial team at even strength. They were not bad in this department in the two previous years and were even a borderline positive team in 2010-11 as early as two years ago. What caused such a decline?
When looking at their microstats and some of the roster changes that were made, most of it comes down to a lack of depth and some role changes that didn’t turn out so well. Up front, the Preds lost both Joel Ward and Marcel Goc to free agency and while those are two replaceable players, they are each very solid defensive forwards and Ward played a very big role on the Preds’ checking line before he left for Washington.
An asterik indicates that this player was not on the team for the entire year.
One of the reasons why the Preds were able to be a decent team at even strength this year is because they had guys like Ward, Erat, Goc and Legwand who could take tough draws and manage to come out relatively unscathed despite that. At first glance, it might be easy to say that these two were replaceable, especially with Nashville having a lot of forwards at their disposal and while that might be true, things didn’t quite work out as planned.
To make up for Ward leaving, the Preds gave Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn the majority of tough assignments and you can easily there here that none of them were up to it. All there were able to turn in decent season going by their boxcar numbers but it’s hard to deny that they were run over at even strength. This was the case for most of the Preds forwards, though as only a few were able to keep their heads above water when it came to winning the shot battle, and only two of them were on the team for the entire season.
It also didn’t help that their defense could be summed up as “Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and everyone else” and while that might not sound like a problem since Suter & Weber are two elite defensemen, the Preds had very little depth on their blue line. There is no doubt that this affected their ability to control possession because aside from those two and Ryan Ellis, just about everyone on the Preds blue line was getting mauled during even strength play.
Yet, despite all of these issues, the Preds managed to have a great season and make it all the way to the conference semi-finals for the second year in a row. Expectations are high in Nashville but if the Preds continue to be powered by high shooting & save percentages while getting hammered at even strength, making the playoffs could be very difficult.
Life Without Suter
By Dan4th Nicholas from Cambridge, MA, USA (20100206 Ryan Suter-1 Uploaded by Spyder_Monkey) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Nashville was able to get Shea Weber locked up by way of an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers but they still lost the other half of their top defense pairing with Ryan Suter signing a 13-year, $98 million contract with the Minnesota Wild. The good news is that the Preds still have one of the best defensemen on the league on their roster but replacing Suter will be no easy task.
Weber is obviously good enough to handle the majority of the tough assignments on Nashville’s blue-line but Suter played just as many minutes at even strength, on the powerplay and on the PK as Weber did and there really isn’t anyone else on their roster who can take over the minutes and workload that Suter left behind. The enormous drop-off in time on ice per game after Suter & Weber should indicate that.
Some good news for Nashville is that they have quite a few young defensemen in their system and most of them are NHL-ready. Between Jonathan Blum, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi, the future of the Preds blue-line should be in good hands but things could get very ugly in the short-term. Defensemen usually take quite some time to develop and there are going to be some growing pains with most of these players. Both Josi and Blum went through that last season as both struggled mightily to keep the puck out of their own zone. Blum ended the year in the minors while Josi managed to be a +1 thanks to the Preds goalies stopping .930 of the 5-on-5 shots they faced when he was on the ice.
Ekholm and Ellis could be the x-factors for the defense because both are very talented and not much is known about their NHL ability. Ekholm has only two games of NHL experience but he was very good in the Swedish Elite League for the last two years and could turn out into a solid NHL defenseman. Ellis has 32 games of NHL experience and played well in a sheltered role with the Preds last year. More is going to be expected from him this year, though since the loss of Suter is going to increase the workload for everyone in the defense. Ellis was a star in junior hockey, though and he has the most potential out of anyone on the Preds blue-line outside of Weber. It will be interesting to see how these two perform.
The rest of Nashville’s defense corps consists of Kevin Klein, Scott Hannan and Hal Gill, veterans who are probably borderline 3/4 guys at best. Klein is the most relied on of the group as he played over 17 minutes a game at even strength last year and was one of their regular penalty killers, but his game at even strength has its holes. He was beaten pretty badly when it came to controlling shots but also started nearly 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone, which may have contributed to his struggles. Regardless, I could see him as the one who is initially promoted to the first pairing to replace Suter since he has the most experience in the defense. I’m not sure if Gill can handle those minutes and Hannan’s play with the Flames last year showed that his days as a top-four guy are numbered. Klein isn’t an ideal top-pairing defenseman but unless one of the young players steps up, he could be forced into that role.
Weber is good enough to elevate the play of his defense partner, so the Preds top defense pairing could be in good shape. After that, however, things will get dicey.
Scoring by Committee
By Resolute (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One thing that’s remained consistent with the Preds over the years is that they don’t have one big offensive threat and usually rely on a group of players to provide scoring. Last season, they had seven forwards who scored at a top-six rate (1.8 even strength points per 60 minutes or higher) and a couple others who came pretty close to that mark. The only player in the group leaving is Andrei Kostitsyn and he wasn’t on the team for the entire year, the Preds forward corps should be in good shape, right?
Many of Nashville’s top scorers at even strength were getting the benefit of some high shooting percentages and weren’t doing much to drive the play on top of that. Matt Halischuk, Martin Erat, Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn are the guiltiest parties here. Let’s just say that it’s going to be tough for them to continue to score on over 16% of the 5-on-5 shots they take for a second year in a row. It’s going to be even more difficult for Nashville to score on over 10% of their 5-on-5 shots while they are on the ice. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s very unlikely for the Preds to continue to have this kind of shooting luck.
With the exception of Hornqvist and Legwand, Nashville’s forwards are going to need to be much better at controlling the shot battle than they were last season if they want to maintain their scoring depth. If Erat, Kostitsyn and Fisher still struggle to win the battle at even strength and see their shooting percentages decline, then the Predators might want to look at giving these three an easier role while returning the heavy-lifting duties to David Legwand’s line. They might also turn to some of their younger depth forwards for scoring depth as players like Gabriel Bourque, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith who weren’t beaten too badly in the territorial game last year and have a decent amount of potential.
Pekka Leads the Way
Rinne has been Nashville’s starting goalie for the last four seasons and since that time, he has been able to give the Preds above-average to elite goaltending on a yearly basis. His .928 even strength save percentage last season was in the top-10 for starting goaltenders and one of the reasons why the Preds were able to get as far as they did.
Goaltender performance is essentially unpredictable but Nashville feels secure with Rinne in net and they indicated that last off-season by re-signing him to a seven-year contract worth $49 mil. When that decision was made, the general consensus was that Rinne would need to perform at an elite rate to be worth this contract. Something that he was able to do in 2010-11 thanks to a high PK save percentage that crashed back down to Earth this year.
Rinne is a very good goalie but if the Predators possession woes at even strength continue, he may need to repeat 2010-11 for this team to make the playoffs.
Between the questionable underlying numbers, unsustainable shooting percentages and high number of young defensemen in the mix, all signs seem to point towards the Predators having a down season. Things might change if they improve their game at even strength a little but there haven’t been enough roster changes up for me to believe that will happen. Add in the fact that they are in a tough division and it’s hard to see this team making another playoff run but they always seem to be in the mix no matter what they are going through. We’ll see what happens.
Stats courtesy of Behind The Net & Time On Ice