Barry Trotz has often stated that he enjoys the opportunity that an early extended road trip presents, the chance to get his entire team away from the distractions of life at home and have them focus on becoming the closer as a unit. Such an opportunity couldn't come at a better time, then, as the Nashville Predators embark on a 3-game, week-long trip through Western Canada tomorrow night in Edmonton.
The Preds' skaters are struggling right now, and when combined with some of the larger issues hanging over the team, this week could prove to be a critical juncture of this early season. The wins and losses won't even be so important at this point, but establishing a lineup and rotation that delivers consistent competitive play will be.
Follow after the jump as we walk through these issues, and outline some goals for this week...
While the Preds have been able to carve out a couple wins so far, we know that a healthy portion of the credit there goes to Pekka Rinne, saving the team's metaphorical bacon while the skaters have been outplayed.
When it comes to hockey stats analysis, there are the fundamental metrics which correlate strongly with long-term results (shots for & against), and there are those which bounce around wildly based on the whims of the hockey gods (like shooting percentage). It's there where the concerns jump out most readily, even though we're only looking at 4 games worth of data.
Currently the Predators stand 29th in Shots For/60 Minutes in 5-on-5 play, and 29th in Shots Against, too. I don't care how good your goaltender is, that's a formula for losing hockey. Not a single player on the team enjoys a positive Corsi rating, as clear an indication as exists that Nashville is spending too much time chasing the other team and trying to get the puck back.
Yes, the power play has clicked so far, but even if you bank on continued improvement there (and I'm open to that idea, due in part to Colin Wilson's promise there) it's 5-on-5 where almost 75% of the game is played.
Injuries To Key Players
Mike Fisher has yet to play, and we've been told that he won't accompany the team on this road trip. Martin Erat is on Injured Reserve, and his return date is also uncertain. Patric Hornqvist got back in the lineup Saturday night against New Jersey, but didn't appear to be up to full speed.
For a team that already lacks quality depth up front, this is hardly the way you want to start the season, with three of your Top 6 guys hobbled. Those players are much more difficult to replace than your 3rd- or 4th-liners, and where the Predators can really suffer is to have those depth guys exposed against other team's top players. It also places a greater burden on the players whom Trotz trusts with key defensive jobs, such as Jerred Smithson. He's taking an absurd number of defensive-zone faceoffs, and paying the price with 7 Blocked Shots so far, many of the especially painful variety, like the shot to the ribs he took in the second period against New Jersey.
With a guy like Smithson, it's not just that he's taking on even greater defensive responsibilities following Joel Ward's departure, but with the Shots For & Against numbers noted above, the Preds are starting in their own end even more often than usual. No matter how good your checkers are, if you spend too much time in the defensive zone, something bad is going to happen.
Youth Is Not Served
Much has been made about the youth and potential of this Predators team, but in the NHL, too much youth can be a very dangerous thing. Force too many inexperienced players into the lineup at once, and you run into issues of defensive responsibility, which tend to be overlooked in favor of the flashes of brilliance at the other end. Last season, the four youngest teams in the NHL all missed the playoffs, including Colorado and Edmonton, by far the worst two teams in the league (but, at the same time, boasting some of the most promising young talent).
Working in a couple of young guys as part of your nightly lineup is manageable. Currently, however, the Preds have three forwards and two defensemen who came into this season with less than 50 career NHL games, fully a quarter of the team each game.
Those younger players can certainly develop into productive, reliable NHL regulars, but that process takes time. The euphemism used by general manager David Poile is that this team should be better in the second half of the season than in the first half. I call that the "glass will be half-full tomorrow" approach, and while it may come true, it does mean we'll have a bumpy ride for now. The key will be to keep this team within striking distance of the playoffs until they hit their stride.
Judging success on this trip
So, given all those challenges, what would be a reasonable outcome from this road trip? The Preds will face three very different tests in Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, so here's a rough cut of what I'd like to see in each game. Again, wins and losses aren't so important right now as is the general style of play.
Against Edmonton, a team loaded with high-flying young talent up front but a suspect D, Nashville could be in for a shooting match. The key will be to equal the Oilers' energy and get after that blueline consistently. If they get caught back on their heels trying to contain guys like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, it could be a long night.
In Vancouver, the Canucks are off to a middling 2-2-1 start, but they're still the same team which dominated the West last season. This is a team which has the kind of depth which Preds fans can envy, so the task here will be to shorten the game as much as possible, keeping it a low-event affair that gives Pekka Rinne the best chance to steal a victory.
Calgary makes for a particularly good measuring stick, as they could end up competing for one of the final playoff spots in the West alongside Nashville. If there's one game where I'd say victory is especially important, this would be it.
The big question, of course, is how Trotz solves this conundrum with the forwards. Do you load up up a single line with your best players and hope the rest can hold down the fort, or do you spread things out a bit? Is another callup from Milwaukee the answer, asking someone like Gabriel Bourque to play mini-Marty for a few games?
It seems like whenever the Preds head out to Western Canada the stakes are high and the odds slim, but more often than not, they fight through that adversity to come out of the trip a stronger team. Can they do it again this week?
Fire up that coffee pot, folks, we're going to have some late nights...