Sure, most outlets would wait until 20 games to review their team's progress, but since the Preds are heading out to play three Eastern Conference teams this week, I thought folks in those cities might be curious about their upcoming visitors. So with that in mind, let's take a look at how the Nashville Predators have fared in these opening weeks of the 2010-11 regular season. We've seen some highs, we've seen some lows, and quite a bit of in-between...
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Overall Nashville Predators Results
With a 7-5-3 record, the Preds have picked up points at a reasonable pace, especially considering the injuries which have stricken core members of the team. After starting the season 5-0-3, they went through a mini-tailspin during the worst of the injury stretch, dropping 5 straight games before rebounding with shootout victories against St. Louis and Chicago in their last two outings.
The Predators were built to compete with three well-rounded forward lines, but that plan was derailed when Matthew Lombardi suffered a concussion at Chicago in Game 2, an injury from which he is still a long way from recovering. In Game 5, at home vs. Calgary, it was Ryan Suter's turn, as Cory Sarich hit him along the boards, injuring his left knee. Suter missed nine games before returning Saturday night against the Blackhawks. Martin Erat has been hobbled by back spasms ever since training camp, and even Pekka Rinne missed a couple games after he got run in the opener against Anaheim.
| 5-on-4 PP
| 4-on-5 PK
All data in the table above are from Behind the Net. Don't pay much attention to the defensive side of the PP, or the offensive side of the PK (both in italics), as those are relatively insignificant aspects of the game. What we do see here is a team that is getting out-shot at even-strength, and remains mediocre on special teams. The oft-cited mantra for curing the power play, "put the puck on net", appears to be taken to heart, but the results haven't shown up yet on the scoreboard. Again, given the absence of some of the team's higher-end talent, that's not entirely unexpected.
For the Predators to compete over the long haul, however, they'll need to get that balance in order, with the priority being the Shots Against at even-strength. Suter's return to duty is the best hope for improvement on that front.
Preds fans got a huge scare when Pekka Rinne had to miss a few games early on, but Anders Lindback surprised by stepping into the gap admirably. Since coming back, Rinne hasn't shown the same form, however. Occasional soft goals and loose rebounds have been countered by fine play in two recent shootouts; over the last two seasons Rinne has put in superior performances in the shootout, and over the course of the season, he may be able to steal a few extra points in the standings for Nashville if he can keep that up.
The story on the blueline so far is Cody Franson, who is making the most of his relatively limited ice time (15:54 per game, lowest among the regular D) to pile up the points.
Let's take a gander at the Behind the Net numbers as well (5-on-5 play):
| Alexander Sulzer
| Cody Franson
| Francis Bouillon
| Kevin Klein
| Ryan Suter
| Shane O'Brien
| Shea Weber
The columns here are ice time, Shots For and Against per 60 minutes, Relative Corsi (how much that player's on-ice presence tipped the Total Shots For/Against balance per 60), Quality of Competition, Quality of Teammates, and Points per 60 minutes.
As you can see, Sulzer & Franson get sheltered somewhat in 5-on-5 work, but they are delivering solid results while doing so, which is great news. The Preds are geared towards winning the battle in the lower half of the roster each night, so they're doing their job. Bouillon and Klein are facing some tough sledding, playing against quality opponents while usually having 3rd- or 4th-line Preds on the ice with them. During Suter's absence, Bouillon has been asked at times to take a step up the depth chart, as has O'Brien. Hopefully things can settle back down in the coming days, because more than anybody, perhaps Shea Weber has missed his defense partner the most. Suter provides the safety net defensively, and the puck-moving skills offensively, which free up Weber to make his most sensational plays.
I'll be honest, I had my doubts as to whether Cal O'Reilly was going to step up and contribute as a scoring line center in the NHL this year, but he has taken full advantage of the opening left by Lombardi's injury. His line with Sullivan & Hornqvist is pretty much the only unit we've seen stick together so far, and the 5-on-5 Behind the Net numbers below show something even more impressive:
| David Legwand
| Cal O'Reilly
| Patric Hornqvist
| Steve Sullivan
| Joel Ward
| Jordin Tootoo
| Marcel Goc
| Martin Erat
| Colin Wilson
| J.P. Dumont
| Jerred Smithson
| Sergei Kostitsyn
| Nick Spaling
I added Shots/60 here to the columns already used above.
Since the originally-planned top line of Wilson-Lombardi-Erat has failed to materialize due to all the injuries, the O'Reilly line has had to carry a tougher burden in terms of opposition (high Qual Comp ratings), and they're managing to tread water. As should be no surprise, note how hungry Patric Hornqvist is to put the puck on net compared to the rest of this group.
The other thing that jumps out at me is that with all the holes to fill offensively, it's odd to see J.P. Dumont getting relatively little ice time, spending it either with Legwand and Ward facing the other team's top unit, or banging away on the 4th line.
For those who might ask, yes, Wade Belak is still on this team, but he's played less than 15 minutes across 4 games.
Battered & Bruised, but still battling
All in all, 17 points in 15 games is a decent result considering the adversity this team has faced in the opening weeks of the season. Over the next few days we'll have to see how close Suter & Erat are to 100%, which should help get the forward lines and D pairings looking a little more "normal", and over the longer term, we'll have to monitor the Matthew Lombardi situation. With concussions, the timetable is rarely certain, and the latest update from The Tennessean uses only hopeful language that he can even resume exercising soon.
What the Predators have learned, however, is that they have a backup goaltender who can fill in as needed, and depth players they can call upon to play that stubborn, disciplined game which Barry Trotz demands; making safe plays at the bluelines, battling along the boards, and staying out of the penalty box.
The hope is that as the lineup fills back up with the regulars, that this will turn out to be a winning combination.
Be sure to take advantage of the OtF discount to save money on Nashville Predators tickets for any home game.