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Welcome Back To 2010: The Predators Look Like Themselves Again (And That's Good!)

Jonathan Daniel

Underlying the collective reluctance of the Nashville faithful toward their team drafting a defenseman this year--even the best defenseman prospect to come along in years--were two notions:

1. Drafting in the top 5 is the only surefire way to develop an offensive superstar.

2. The Predators had already tried the two-stellar-defenseman model and it had failed.

While I'll concede the first point, the second one isn't so obviously true. Many fans cite the Preds inability to win a Cup with Suter and Weber as evidence that the team will struggle to win with Weber and Jones. As the theory goes, the Preds were unable to win with Weber, Suter, and Rinne, because they lacked offense. By building around Weber and Jones without acquiring any elite forwards, the Predators are seemingly re-building around a failed model.

A hockey team, though, needs more than one defenseman. The Predators' weak second defense pairing and poor bottom-six forwards have had as much to do with their most recent failures than the lack of premium offense. Would acquiring elite forwards make the team good? Yes, obviously. But there's more than one way to skin a cat; and the Predators teams of late have not been defensive juggernauts. In fact, they've been distinctly uncharacteristic of past Barry Trotz teams.

The most a Nashville team ever exemplified Trotz's system, in my opinion, was the 2009-2010 team, which nearly knocked off the eventual champion Blackhawks in the first round (sorry to dreg up bad memories). That team had depth. Weber, Suter, and Hamhuis ensured that the top two defense pairings would be as good as any in the league. Joel Ward, Jerred Smithson, Marcel Goc, and David Legwand formed an elite group of checkers, who regularly neutralized opponent's top lines. This nucleus of defensive specialists created favorable match-ups for the rest of the team.

In the coming offseasons, David Poile let Hamhuis, Goc, Ward, Arnott, and Dumont leave, hoping to save enough money to re-sign Weber, Suter, and Rinne, and build a more conventional team around them. The Predators just wanted to be normal and to attract conventional offense talent by becoming a destination city.

That plan failed, however, because Poile had to rob Peter to pay Paul (and Pekka). In the process of freeing up all that money, the Predators fundamentally undermined the defensive base that had made their team so dangerous. The Predators of 2010-2012 had Weber, Suter, and Rinne, yes, but the young players forced to fill the shoes of Ward, Hamhuis, et al. floundered spectacularly. And this weaker team just wasn't enticing enough to keep Suter or attract new talent.

Fenwick% is a statistic that measures puck possession. It takes the number of shots a team takes and expresses is it as a percentage. Since that 2009-2010 team, the Predators' puck possession game rapidly declined:

Year Fenwick Rank
12-13 45.9% 25
11-12 46.1% 29
10-11 50.2% 17
09-10 51.7% 6

Why does this matter? Having a Fenwick percentage over 50% correlates extremely highly with making the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup. Simply put: teams that excel in puck possession advance deep into the playoffs. Weak puck possession teams get exposed.

The Nashville Predators had feigned progress by beating a bad puck possession team, the Ducks, in the 2011 playoffs. Then, aided by some KHL mercenaries, they knocked off the Red Wings in 2012. But were either of those teams, which got picked apart in the second round, more dangerous that the 2010 team that was one Martin Erat mental error from putting the Blackhawks on the ropes?

I don't think so. A big reason the Canucks and the Coyotes had such an easy time with the Predators was Nashville's vulnerable second defense pair and poor depth forwards. Would more offense had helped? Yes, but there were other problems.

Since Hamhuis split, the Predators had struggled to replace him, using a series of defenseman, but mostly Kevin Klein as the #3. Klein, more suited as a #4, largely struggled in the role until last season, made to carry a series of rookies and veterans with middling success.

Year Player Fenwick%
12-13 Klein 46.3%
11-12 Klein 45.5%
10-11 Klein 45.4%
09-10 Hamhuis 52.9%

Obviously, the transition in #3 defenseman had much to do with the Preds' decline as one of the league's best puck possession groups. Not surprisingly, the quality of #4 defensemen suffered too:

Year Player Fenwick%
12-13 Josi 48.3%
11-12 Josi 43.8%
10-11 Blum 44.9%
09-10 Klein 49.2%

Josi and Klein have improved greatly. But without a true shutdown defenseman in Hamhuis to anchor the pairing, there was a steep learning curve, and the team suffered their growing pains from 2010-2012. Remember how Poile used to always pledge that the young defenseman would take over, then rush to sign a stopgap veteran? That's how you know things have changed--he's buying out the stop gap veteran this offseason to make room for the teenager.

A similar trend is apparent among the team's checking line forwards. According to behindthenet's Quality of Competition stats, Mike Fisher inherited the toughest minutes on the team from Joel Ward. Ward, who had the benefit of playing with David Legwand in a specialty role, excelled. Fisher is a fine player, but miscast as a first line center, he couldn't do it all offensively and defensively:

Year Player Fenwick%
12-13 Fisher 46.5%
11-12 Fisher 44.5%
10-11 Ward 50.2%
09-10 Ward 49.5%

Fisher has suffered from a lack of depth. Joel Ward was depth. With guys like Legwand and Fisher miscast as top-line players, guys like Brandon Yip and Matt Halischuk crept into the lineup and sported some league-worst possession numbers.

Onlookers have criticized the Predator's free agency strategy as having four third lines, but that's exactly what the Predators had back when they were a dangerous puck possession team. Redundancy is good in hockey: it breeds match-up problems and forces filler out of the lineup.

While it's disappointing the Predators have thus far--in free agency and the draft--failed to acquire a top line forward, defensive depth had also been a major problem these past few seasons. Hopefully, in Seth Jones, they have a player who can provide Hamhuis-esque stability to the second pairing in the short-term and a Scott Niedermayer to Shea Weber's Pronger in the future.

It cost a lot, but the Predators may have very dangerous third and fourth lines. And that's not nothing. Would we all like the 2007 team again? Sure. But until Paul Kariya walks back through that door, I'll take the hugely underrated and dangerous 2010 team over the flashy but fundamentally-flawed 2012 squad any day.