(This post was written on the 2nd of March, and accidentally never posted. Accidentally, because it was never finished.)
On January 1st of this year, the Nashville Predators woke up to a new year and an old predicament. Expected to be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup this season, and coached by the popular Peter Laviolette, who had been given a two-year extension early in the season, the team was on the wrong side of the post-season line.
The Preds sat with 38 points after 36 games. Dallas with 39, Winnipeg with 37, all were on the outside looking in, as Calgary (42) and Los Angeles (40) were “in” as wild card teams in the West.
James Neal was leading the team in goals with 14. Ryan Johansen had 27 points to pace the team, but only 13 of those points came at even strength. Viktor Arvidsson was the team’s first half revelation with 10 goals (besting his full season rookie total of 8) and 24 points, and Filip Forsberg, who had just two goals in October and November, added 6 in December to move towards respectability though seemed a longshot to best or even reach his 2015-16 total of 33 (when he only had ONE goal in October and November.)
On the blueline, Roman Josi had 19 points, but was an uncharacteristic -4. His 2016-17 partner Ryan Ellis had 12 points and was +6. P.K. Subban, out with an injury had played 29 of the team’s first 36 games, and despite a -11, had 7 goals and 18 points to pace all Predator rearguards.
In goal, Pekka Rinne was 13-10-5 with a 2.53 GAA and a .915 save pctg. Juuse Saros came up from Milwaukee and established himself as both the first legitimate backup to Pekka in quite some time, and an early revelation with his effective and efficient play. Saros’ first six games gave him a rather unremarkable 3-2-1 record, but had a spectacular 1.16 GAA and an unworldly .957 save percentage. Third goaltender Marek Mazanec had a couple of unspectacular starts and was 0-2, 4.73 and .839
Some team stats: Goals For: 101 (ranked 16th), Goals Against: 97 (ranked 14th), Shots For: 1156, Against: 1068. Power Play: 20.3 (ranked 10th), Penalty Kill: 81.3 (ranked 16th)
It was time for some balls to drop and to scream HAPPY NEW YEAR!
January and February were months that saw the Preds right the ship and turn things in a direction that led to more stable waters.
What this meant was some stability that led to the Preds gathering points and cementing themselves into a post-season berth, with a pretty strong foothold on the 3rd seed in the Central Division.)
The team took advantage of being the fifth highest scoring ream in Jan/Feb to move into the 8th spot in the NHL for the season, averaging 2.95 goals per game. However, with the insurgence of goal scoring came a new, startling lack of detail in the defensive zone, and while the team dropped to 23rd out of the 30 NHL teams in goals given up, for the season this slotted them into the very middle-of-the-pack at 16th, averaging 2.76 goals surrendered. Shots saw similar trends, as the team had the most shots on goal in Jan/Feb (at 840) but gave up 840 as well in the similar period, which was the 3rd most given up in the league. This put them at 5th in shots for the season (at 31.7 per game) but while they were eighth best from the start of the season, through December, their Jan/Feb totals dipped them all the way to fifteenth, giving up 30.3 shots per game.
In contrast, from a shots given up perspective, last year’s Preds team ranked number one in least opponent’s shots on goal allowed at 27.3. The 2014-15 version of the Preds finished sixth, at 28.3, and the 2013-14 team (Trotz’ last season) had them at eleventh with 28.9 allowed. So, to be up over 30 this season is cause for concern when discussing goaltending, and defensive positioning in the defensive zone.
How is the team that was ranked number ONE in shots given up now the number TWENTY EIGHT team in this category over two months worth of games in 2017?
The answer could be held within the loins of the streamlined new goalie pants the NHL has trotted out in mid-season, but more likely it’s in a “Chinese Fire Drill” approach to the transition from offense back to defense that the Predator skaters have enlisted as a substitute to a more sublimated chalkboard system outlined by the coaching staff.
If your name is Matt Irwin, or Yannick Weber, it’s just a matter of time before you are fully exposed. Granted, with the full health of the top four defensemen, you are limited in your exposure, your numbers are trending in the wrong direction. As the trade deadline blew through the NHL on March 1st, few were calling for the Predators, and GM David Poile to grab a defenseman. In fact, Poile himself was on the hot seat as the Colorado Avalanche were looking for Mattias Ekholm as the focus of a package the team was looking for in exchange for star center Matt Duchene. In the end, Poile stood firm in not giving away another of his prized blue-line. Giving up Seth Jones 13 months earlier in the Ryan Johansen deal was the first ding in the armor of a defensive corps that allowed the fewest shots in the NHL. Granted, Johansen was the top line center that the team seemingly needed to bring the offense to the next level, but in losing Jones, the Predators started to expose the lack of depth that the team had in terms of quality NHL defenders. Off-season free agent acquisitions Irwin and Weber were brought in, in addition to veteran Matt Carle in the hopes of patching together a third pairing that would keep the team’s stingy D just as stingy.
The addition of P.A. Parenteau was Poile’s only move on deadline day, but could point to forwards Cody McLeod and Vern Fiddler as fourth line additions that brought grit to the Preds lineup. With the October injury to Miikka Salomaki, and the seemingly ineffective play of veteran Mike Ribeiro (jettisoned to the club’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee) and opening night fourth line winger Cody Bass, the team cycled through a number of options, such as free agent acquisitions Reid Boucher and Derek Grant, and Milwaukee callups, Freddie Gaudreau, Harry Zolnierczyk and Pontus Aberg. None have actually put a lock on the role, despite some gritty efforts by Zolnierczyk, occasional strong play from Colton Sissons, and now the Fiddler-McLeod combination.
(January/February combined stats)
(All season combined stats)
This post was written on the 2nd of March, and accidentally never posted. Accidentally, because it was never finished.
Today this post serves as a calling card to the Predators post-season run. Fact is, it was a very lackluster first half for the team and signs of life showed in January and February. Stability crept in during March and come April it was unclear that the Preds had the goods to do what they’ve done, but they’ve done it. And, they’ve done it losing Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith, Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher for varying lengths of time. Hats off to the Nashville Predators for proving that hockey is a team sport, and that on any given night, any one of the players dressed could be the difference maker. Four more wins and a real difference will have been made.