Bet you didn’t expect to hear that weeks ago with a scuffling offense?
But it’s true. Nashville has won five straight, and to everyone’s surprise, the Preds haven’t solely relied on Pekka Rinne to get the job done. Instead, they have totaled no less than three goals in the five victories, including 10 since the acquisition of Kyle Turris, and they are perhaps unexpectedly viewed as one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL moving forward.
Here’s how we got here:
Turris looks good in gold
On Saturday night against the Penguins, we watched Turris make his Nashville debut. Instantly, you could see the difference of adding another playmaker to the lineup.
Turris wasn’t spectacular, but on a team with this much depth, he doesn't have to be. He did score his first goal in gold - a wide-open look from the slot in the second period. - and it’s certainly promising to see a top six Nashville center score considering Ryan Johansen has been a pass-first player with no goals in 2017. Turris was just as good in last night’s blowout win over the Caps, as well.
When Turris was acquired, the community praised him as being a really good two-way center. He certainly is. Can we also give Turris props for his scoring prowess? Among true centers last season (using positions listed on HockeyDB.com) Turris finished 10th in 5-on-5 goals with 17. That’s more than Joe Pavelski, John Tavares, and Tyler Seguin, to name a few.
Johansen had seven goals.
Turris is already proving to be a scoring threat with the Preds:
And his ability to fit passes into tight angles:
Watch how he splits two Pittsburgh players to find Craig Smith.
This Fiala-Turris-Smith line has loads of potential moving forward. I’ll go more in detail on Fiala and Smith below, but as for Turris, he’s already solidified an advanced role after just one dress rehearsal. Expect Turris to lead all Nashville centers in TOI moving forward, and even though working on the power play isn’t his specialty (15 PP points last season), maybe Peter Laviolette gives him a go with the first unit if Johansen continues to struggle.
Commence the Fiala Breakout
(Note: this was written prior to last night’s game... it still fits, even though Fiala got his first goal against the Caps)
We know Kevin Fiala is a streaky player - we’ve seen his tendency to become silent offensively if things aren’t clicking - but when he’s actively controlling the puck and flashing his speed, Fiala is one of the great young skaters in the league. What helped Fiala come into his own last season was being on a line centered by Mike Ribeiro - a player who made a career in the NHL with his passing ability. Three of Fiala’s first five goals scored last season came via an assist credited to Ribeiro.
Primarily, it was Fiala-Ribeiro-Smith in 2016 before Ribeiro was shipped off. That group owned a 59.13 Corsi For Percentage. And when Filip Forsberg was inserted in for Smith, the line’s Corsi rose to 62.39% (best on the team) with a 62.40 Expected Goals For Percentage at 5-on-5.
In Kyle Turris, Fiala again has another above average playmaker to play alongside.
Since his awful game in Anaheim (11.54 CF%, 5.30 xGF%), Fiala has seen his numbers improve. Two of his next three games produced Corsi numbers above 50%, plus the kid had an impressive 81.40 xGF% vs. Columbus. He was also on the ice for eight even strength scoring chances, which led the team.
Sixteen games into 2017, Smith is one goal away from reaching the halfway point of last season’s 12 goal total.
In particular, Smith has been dynamite on the power play this year, with four of his eight shots taken resulting in goals. That’s a ridiculous shooting percentage, which is sure to regress, but on the flip side, his 5-on-5 numbers are bound to come up.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Smith possesses a 4.55 shooting clip at 5-on-5 - producing just one goal in 22 shots. The average NHL player owns an eight percent SH%, so we can expect Smitty to improve in that area.
It’s his speed which will take him there.
Smith was great against the Penguins, flashing a 62.99 xGF% number at 5-on-5. Similar to Fiala, Smith is the type of player who can excel playing with Turris.
Defending the interchanging Blue Jackets
A trend the Blue Jackets utilized in their offensive zone last Tuesday night was tons of movement. Columbus ranks second in the league with 43 goals at 5-on-5, and aside from P.K. Subban’s giveaway which led to Pierre-Luc Dubois’ goal, the Predators played sound defense against a young, fast team.
Here’s one of the sequences I’m referring to:
Nashville manages to mark each player once they receive the puck, and this clip showcases their excellent rotations. Jarnkrok serves as the quarterback in this situation, his skates in the slot while he points out directions, then leaves his area in order to track down Brandon Dubinsky.
Jarnkrok leads this excellent shift
Jarnkrok did his part for the Preds before the need of another center issue became resolved. Now he has suddenly found his scoring groove, including two last week vs. Columbus and Pittsburgh.
He also provides Nashville with strengths you can’t always find on paper. Check out this shift he leads against the Jackets.
As soon as Jarnkrok steps foot on the ice, he’s shot out of a cannon. Quickly, he’s forechecking Seth Jones, and does so expertly by easily jarring the puck away with an active stick. Even as he gets checked into the boards, Jarnkrok still gives his team a chance to score with the score knotted at 1-1 in the third. Fiala tries to jar it from within close, but settles for possession as he steals the disk and flicks a pass to Mattias Ekholm who is able to challenge the goaltender. Another Nashville skater gets in on the play as Miikka Salomaki retains and gives it back to Fiala. Awaiting Fiala’s cross ice deflecting pass is Roman Josi, who fires a promising strike from the circle.
This is the type of shift you want to see, especially from the third line.
Salomaki deserves a section in this week’s article, and no highlights are needed to describe why. You’ve probably seen them.
In addition to scoring his first goal since March 2016 against the Kings, his 2017 success also includes three assists last week. I want to revisit two of those - one in Columbus and one vs. Pittsburgh - because his passing was brilliant. The first came as Salomaki carried the puck into the zone from the right side, then centered a pass which bounced off the goalie’s pad and went straight to Jarnkrok for the goal. He then dished out the assist for Turris to register his debut goal - a beauty of a pass into the slot after drifting away into the half wall.
In case you need a refresher, Salomaki missed all but five games last season due to injuries. Well, he now leads the Predators in 5-on-5 CF% at 54.85%.
Pontus Aberg was pegged to potentially be the next emerging winger for Nashville, but he soon entered Laviolette’s doghouse and where is he now? Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Salomaki has embraced his newfound role on this year’s squad, and it’s a great story to watch unfold.
Neutral zone giveaway leads to Pens goal
The Predators jumped ahead 3-1 on the Penguins Saturday night before the defending Cup champions began chipping away before evening the score early in the third period.
It’s been a trend this season for Nashville. Four times this season the Preds have let two-plus goal leads slip away (see Philadelphia, Calgary, Los Angeles and now Pittsburgh). Only one of those outings can fall on Juuse Saros, so there’s more to this than poor goaltending.
One likely reason is Nashville adjusting their playing style when granted a large lead. However, there’s also little plays like this one which can instantly flip the momentum:
Josi controls the puck into the neutral zone, but his pass to Fiala is too late. If he plays that earlier, he 1) avoids offsides, and 2) the young forward is likely off to the races. Instead, Kris Letang makes a nice play to poke it away. Moments later, the Penguins regroup in their own end and Phil Kessel makes it 3-2.
Improved power play passing
The Predators tallied two power play goals last week (and one last night), and while both occurred against Pittsburgh, we started to see the special teams unit turn the corner days earlier in Ohio.
Early in the season, Nashville leaned too heavily on blasts from the point by P.K. Subban and company when on the man advantage. It had its moments thanks to Scott Hartnell’s net front presence, but overall, we can all agree the Preds needed to revert back to quick, diagonal passing.
Here Ekholm elects not to play dump and chase as he banks it around to Viktor Arvidsson. Fiala is there for the ensuing pass before threading it back to Arvi who actually gets a good look at the net from a difficult angle.
Emelin good, Emelin not so good
Here it is, the weekly Alexei Emelin segment.
Before the negative, here’s a positive defensive play the Russian defenseman made:
And to be fair, I thought Emelin played solid vs. Pittsburgh with a 46.67 CF% and 52.53 adjusted xGF% at even strength.
But his final possession numbers vs. Columbus were horrific with a 20.00 CF%.
Look, I’m all for giving up your body to make a saving play, especially these circumstances (3:30 remaining and your opponent on the power play). But this failed dive nearly cost the Preds in a big way. Thankfully, Zach Werenski completely whiffed on the shot.