Just like the Preds, we're thrilled here at OTF to gear up for the stretch drive by making our own acquisition - Sam Page (of Predsblog, and SB Nation's Amazin' Avenue) joins the writing crew, bringing his stats savvy, snark, and Sergei Kostitsyn fetish to the main stage here on the site. You can follow him on Twitter at @Predsblog. Welcome aboard, Sam! - Dirk
Conventional wisdom holds that the Predators are a good defensive team. And if you consider defense the sum of a team's goaltending, penalty-killing, and shot-prevention--i.e. its Goals Allowed ranking--the Preds seem great. As a defensive unit, however, excluding the Finnish last-line-of-defense, Nashville is exactly average--tied for 15th in Shots Allowed/Game. Many fans resist the idea that a team's defense can be expressed as simply as its Shots Allowed, but in the span of a season, shot quality largely evens out. Good chances may win the night, but in the aggregate, shot volume distinguishes the great defenses from the rest. The Predators' defense is simply not that good.
Defense isn't making Pekka Rinne historically good. After all, Rinne is not a very high maintenance goal tender. He rarely surrenders rebounds and sees the puck extremely well, even through heavy traffic. The difference between the old Peks and the one who is single-handedly propelling the Predators to the playoffs lies between the ears, not the pipes. Rinne has always had the physical tools to save any shot, but not the composure. Really, the only lacking aspect of his game now is moving the puck out the defensive zone. But therein lies the problem.
The Predators' defense features the absolute best top line in hockey. The third pairing of Cody Franson and Shane O'Brien are a capable, underrated offensive weapon, when reserved for the right match-ups. In between, there should be a shut-down pairing, but there isn't. Behind Weber and Suter is a collection of varied, but lacking third-pairing defenders. Each excels in certain, very specific respects, but lacks the overall game, a la Dan Hamhuis, to perform the basic task of the shutdown defender: change possession and move the puck up ice.
Kevin Klein blocks shots, cuts off angles, and is increasingly better one-on-one--all of which make him a good penalty-killer. He's a panicked passer, though, and loves to defer the responsibility of skating the puck up ice to his partner. Francis Bouillon endeared himself to the team with his grit, hard-hitting, and leadership qualities, but he simply can't match-up physically with top competition. The combination of the two players leads to prolonged shifts running around the defensive zone, not making the obviously horrible turnovers of the Hamhuis-Klein pairing, but allowing arguably more harmful shooting galleries for the other team.
Fans looked to Klein and Bouillon's good plus/minus ratings early in the year and evidence for some incredible chemistry, but it was a pretty easily explainable sample-size fluke, caused by extremely high shooting% when they were on the ice.
The even-strength shooting stats pretty clearly reflect their weaknesses:
The stats, left to right, are Corsi number (the average shot +/- when the player is on the ice, expressed per 60 minutes), the average Corsi number of that player's competition, and the percentage of the faceoffs that player takes in the offensive, as opposed to defensive, zone.
Suter and Weber put up great Corsi ratings, while facing top competition, on a team that is routinely out-shot. Few players can do all that, but that's why they're otherworldly superstars. Franson actually has the second best Corsi rating behind Suter, but that's due to Trotz using him against weak competition and on offensive face-offs. He's an offensive defenseman and he's used like one.
Kevin Klein takes the toughest match-ups on the team, but his results are accordingly mediocre. Bouillon faces moderately tough competition, but with equally unimpressive numbers. Whereas Klein is more underrated for his massive responsibility, Bouillon seems more over-matched.
Surprisingly, it's Alexander Sulzer that comes closest to matching the production of Weber-Suter. While Trotz has definitely babied him, getting him in on so many offensive-zone face-offs, he's produced as Klein's partner on the shutdown-line in Bouillon's absence. In fact after the Red Wings game, Sulzer actually leads the team in QualComp.*
Many fans perceive support for Sulzer as a him vs. Klein issue, but wanting Sulzer to start is wanting what's best for Klein. Whereas Klein was consistently in the red with Bouillon, through Tuesday, he +.022 Corsi with Sulzer. Alex comes out even better from the partnership at +3.43.
*All stats were compiled before Klein and Sulzer got slaughtered, shooting-wise, by the Red Wings. Still, Klein comes out noticeably better than before (-4 vs. -7 corsi). And more importantly, Sulzer is still significantly better than Bouillon on the season (+0.8 relCorsi vs. -11.2 for Bouillon). Besides, it really wasn't their fault; the checking line was getting tooled.
Sulzer and Klein succeed as a partnership, simply because Sulzer can skate and puck-handle. He's not especially physical, but he can track down defenders, dislodge the puck, and actually get it up ice. It's easy to underrate him because he doesn't profile as either an "offensive" or "defensive" defenseman. But neither did Dan Hamhuis. The crux of his game is getting the puck from zone to zone better most, which serves both purposes.
Can he hit harder than Bouillon? No. Is he as tough on the boards as O’Brien? No. Does he shoot as well as Franson? No. But the sum of the parts—the skating, shooting, discipline and technique—make him better than the players Trotz plays over him.
Two related arguments exist for Bouillon over Sulzer. First, Sulzer's numbers are inflated for the time he spent filling in on the third line, during Suter's injury and O'Brien's suspension. By now, however, Sulzer has played most of his time with Klein on the second line, adding to his TOI with PK and PP usage:
The second, related argument is that Sulzer's been babied. And to an extent, that's true and does partly explain his numbers. Suter, Weber and Klein have taken on a tiny bit more responsibility each, in order to ease Sulzer into the shut-down role. That, however, is only an argument explaining why his numbers are so much better than Bouillon's. It doesn't refute that the current defense paradigm, with Sulzer in place of Bouillon, produces better results.
If the Predators biggest defensive failing is the failure of the shutdown-line, why not spread around the shut-down responsibility? The fact that Franson-Sulzer works better as a power-play and offensive-zone unit than Franson-O'Brien is anything but a reason to bench Sulzer.
Benching Sulzer now would be like taking a pitcher out of the starting rotation, after he went 5-0, to re-insert a guy with an 8.00 ERA. Until Sulzer has a string of poor games like the last, against Detroit, he's second-line. They compliment too well--finally a player that will move the puck for Klein, a Suter to his Weber.
Besides, Francis Bouillon has a concussion, the last injury to rush back. The Predators don't need him right now. Bouillon makes the team tougher, more experienced, and more physical...but not better. Not even close.