Through nine games, it looks like the Predators got exactly what they paid for with Scott Hartnell. This should be a surprise to no one.
Hartnell entered his 17th season a boilerplate power forward in the league. He’s got a knack for gritty goals, a penchant for power play production, and a habit of taking a lot of penalties. He’s not the speediest of wingers, but he makes up for it with physical presence, an underrated passing ability, and a quick release on his shot.
So far he’s racked up three goals and two assists on 19 shots, all while getting around 15 minutes of ice-time per game. He’s 2nd on the team in penalty minutes (20)—again, a surprise to no one—and he’s even reclaimed a portion of the fan favorite capital that Mike Fisher left behind.
For a mere $1 million, I doubt there are many complaints.
Here was Peter Laviolette on Hartnell’s strength in front of the net and his overall skill set (this was after last Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Avalanche):
I’ve known Hartnell for a long time and anyone who watches the game knows that he’s good in that area. He fights for his ice, he’s hard to play against in that area, he has good hand-eye coordination with his stick for tips and rebounds, he gets the shot off quick.
But can the Predators be getting even more out of Hartnell?
It’s early (heard that enough yet?), but it certainly looks like Hartnell’s skill at generating shots from the middle of the ice is still there. He’s among the leaders on the team in individual high danger shot attempts during all strengths:
- Viktor Arvidsson: 13
- Filip Forsberg: 10
- Scott Hartnell: 10
- Craig Smith: 10
- Nick Bonino: 10
But only four of Hartnell’s 10 high danger shot attempts have come during even strength play. Hartnell does most of his damage on the power play—one of the other reasons he was added to the team this summer. He and Forsberg have both been outstanding with the man advantage, even though a few of their combined seven goals with the man advantage came during 5-on-3 power plays.
In fact, if you look at Hartnell’s unblocked shot locations from HockeyViz, it certainly looks like he’s more or less staying on the wing to get his chances.
This doesn’t exactly jive with Hartnell’s career heat map, as indicated here:
So what’s happening here?
Well, one explanation is that it’s too early (still not heard it enough?) to see any real trends. But another could be that Hartnell has been too busy carrying the rest of his line to focus on getting to the front of the net with any consistency.
Hartnell has spent the majority of his ice time with either Calle Jarnkrok or Nick Bonino at center. Here’s how their “with and without Hartnell” shot attempt percentage numbers look:
With Hartnell, both players excel. Without Hartnell, both players struggle. The high danger attempts are especially worrisome.
He’s also been mostly paired with Pontus Aberg and, even though his “with and without” numbers are slightly better, Aberg’s been kind of a train wreck early on this season.
Now time for speculation. My guess is that Jarnkrok and Bonino have been somewhat overwhelmed with their roles in the middle of the ice and Hartnell recognizes that. He knows that if he cheats too much to the middle of the ice, a sudden loss of possession would lead to a wide open outside lane for a quick skater to take advantage of.
The resulting over-correction would lead to chances the other way, bad penalties (of which both Hartnell and Aberg are guilty), and a lack of puck possession. So Hartnell has been largely staying to the outside during 5-on-5 play.
This explanation also makes sense when you consider how effective Hartnell is on the power play. He doesn’t have to worry about defensive mistakes and he can spend all of his time posting up in the crease and scoring goals like this:
You can’t really blame Hartnell for staying to the outside, if that’s what is going on. He’s a smart player, plus he is very strong along the boards, so he knows he will get his chances.
But why not maximize a player like Hartnell’s potential? What would happen if Hartnell had a center that wasn’t an offensive drag net, someone that could create space on his own, allowing Hartnell to venture forth to the front of the net?
A few years ago Hartnell played with a guy named Claude Giroux up in Philadelphia and had some very successful seasons. In 2011-12, under Laviolette, Hartnell scored 37 goals, playing over 800 minutes with Giroux and scoring 16 power play goals. Giroux himself finished with 93 points, including 65 assists.
Yes, that was five years ago. Yes, Hartnell has worn the tread on his tires somewhat. But like I said earlier, his game has been the same throughout his career and it certainly doesn’t look like he’s any different a player now than he’s been over the past five years. So the point remains: get Hartnell a better center and both players improve.
So what’s the solution? The way I see it, there are maybe three options:
- Continue playing Hartnell with Jarnkrok and hope that Jarny can find his game again. Late last season, when Mike Fisher was injured for the millionth time, Jarnkrok stepped into an elevated center role and played well in late March (as did Colton Sissons). Perhaps he can find that level of his game again.
- When he comes back from injury, put Hartnell back with Bonino and hopefully the same thing happens as in option #1. Maybe Bonino finds that HBK magic he had in Pittsburgh.
- Go get another center.
Maybe that last option isn’t just a pipe dream, either. True, there seems to be no movement on the trade front from David Poile, and the Matt Duchene rumors (at least the ones in Nashville) have all but faded, but there are some intriguing options out there.
John Tavares has not re-signed in New York. The pending UFA makes $5.5 million this year and would be an instantaneous upgrade by all accounts. I know, I know... this will never happen.
Alex Galchenyuk has always been a better playmaker at the center position than at the winger position as Andrew Berkshire pointed out. He just signed a three-year deal at $4.9 million per year, but is currently buried on the 4th line on a Claude Julien coached team.
Or what about Frans Nielsen? He has a list of 10 teams on his no-trade clause, so who knows if Nashville is one of them, but he and Kyle Okposo were an incredible duo for the Islanders two seasons ago. He can certainly create space, even if he doesn’t have the shooting ability to go with it.
Then there was a report from Darren Dreger that Kyle Turris and the Senators were “headed for a split” after talks on an extension fell through. He is very likely to be traded... why not to the Predators? A friendly $3.5 million salary for this season and a consistent 50-60 point player.
If the Predators want to maximize their offensive potential—and Scott Hartnell’s—they are probably going to have to make a move.