The Nashville Predators are slogging their way through the worst part of their season so far. Mired in the middle of a four-game losing streak, they have looked out of sorts for even longer than the failing record shows. Up to this point, the team has been one of (if not) the best team in the league, and were seemingly unbeatable. So what's gone wrong, and why?
The what is simple: the Predators are letting the other team dictate the pace of the games, are allowing the first goal too many times, and aren't getting the same type of otherworldly goaltending they were before. The why is a little bit tougher to explain.
So let's look at the what first.
Since about the beginning of February, Nashville's usually impressive defense has been underperforming while their offense has also dipped. The graph below highlights the 10-game moving average for 5on5 CF% (score-adjusted) in black with game-by-game Corsi-for percentages in the background.
As we can see, the biggest dip in CF% was right around the February 5th game against Anaheim. Game-by-game metrics since then can be found below.
Coming into play on the game against the Ducks, Nashville was sixth in the league at score adjusted CF%. They sent 53.8% of the shots towards the opposing goaltender from the beginning of the season until then. As you can see, after that game they started running into a lot of problems. They've now fallen to eighth.
When before the Predators were controlling the pace of the games and pumping shots on the enemy, the tide started to turn. In nine of the 14 games after the loss to Anaheim, Nashville was severely outshot. Four of the games they weren't were against some of the worst teams in the league in New Jersey (x2), Colorado and Buffalo. The one game that doesn't fit either of these molds was a hard-fought battle against Minnesota, but the Predators mounted most of their attack later in the game and were not getting many good chances.
A quick look at 5on5 Corsi-for and Corsi-against per 60 minutes show where Nashville's current troubles are. Simply put, the Predators have been allowing more shots.
They are allowing about 4-5 more shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5on5 time compared to earlier in the season while their offense has actually improved slightly. Furthermore, because they are allowing more shot attempts, their opponents are also piling up more scoring chances than earlier. In fact, they are giving up 4-5 more 5on5 chances per 60 minutes than they were earlier in the year.
As you can imagine, the increase of that much rubber on net is going to result in more goals against, regardless of how well the goaltender is playing. (Nashville's GF% has plummeted to just 50.8 over this stretch.) Now, Pekka Rinne has been playing out of his mind all year and, as we've touched on before, there was potentially going to come a time when that slipped a little. Now, when looking at his season to date performance and comparing that with same time frame listed above, it's evident his numbers have gone down slightly.
|2/5 - 3/3||12||92.74||92.96||31.21||95.89||91.03||88.61|
However, and this is key, those numbers aren't alarming as far as Rinne's individual play goes. He's seeing more shots (+2.35 per 60) than usual, but it's clear Rinne is not the problem especially as shots against totals don't correlate with save percentage. Still, Nashville's overall 5v5 on ice save percentage (3rd in the league) is 92.5% since the beginning of February. That's 11th in the league, which isn't terrible, but it's not what the team is used to, especially when they aren't scoring at the same rate either.
This is where the question of why comes in, and there may not be a concrete answer. It could be that opponents are exploiting something in their system or their recent increase in offense could be creating scoring chances coming back the other way as well. Minnesota was a prime example, causing havoc in the neutral zone and not allowing the Predators to use their speed to gain access into the offensive zone and set up.
Losing Ryan Ellis certainly didn't do them any favors. Ellis is the best possession driver on the team and not having him on the ice hurts. In the first three games after his initial injury, the Preds rode some high percentages to three wins. Though eventually they righted the ship. (You can also see that decline around 1/8/2015 in the 5v5CF% chart at the top.) Is one player's absence to blame? Certainly not, but we know that Nashville performs better with Ellis in the lineup.
As far as the acquisition of Cody Franson to bolster the blue line, he hasn't been a detriment to the team though there has certainly been an adjustment period. You would think that the more he plays (and practices) the more comfortable he's going to be, which will only benefit the team whenever Ellis returns.
And, of course, the Mike Fisher line is the only one is clicking right now. It may be because of the constant line shuffling, but more than likely it's a mix of bad luck and other team's shutting down the main guys. James Neal, Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro and Colin Wilson have only 4 combined points in their last 7 games. Given how top heavy Nashville has been all season, it was only a matter of time before it started to haunt them a little.
A bit of a downslide was expected this season. It happens to every team. The bad news is this isn't just a problem of percentages crashing or bounces not going the Predators' way... they are just playing worse hockey than they were earlier in the year. The good news is they are still a virtual lock to make the playoffs, and still have a great chance to win the division, and even the President's trophy.
Peter Laviolette has about a month to make adjustments and right the ship which, at this point in the season, seems like enough and not enough time at once. If Nashville can stop playing from behind so early in the game, and get back to dictating the pace of the game rather than reacting to it, this skid will be just a bad memory from an otherwise fantastic season. But if it continues and causes a drop in the standings and a first-round match up against the Blues or the Blackhawks... hoo boy.
1. 10-game moving averages are used in each graph.
2. None of the graphs have a y-axis that starts at 0.
3. All graph data utilizes 5on5, score-adjusted metrics from War On Ice.