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Grading the Nashville Predators’ First 20 Games

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Judging hockey teams based on a suspiciously small amount of games. It’s what we do best around here.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

And so we’ve reached the first notable benchmark of a hockey season: Thanksgiving!

By the time a team has reached 20 games—which usually occurs on or around Thanksgiving—we’ve seen mostly what they are capable of. The forwards have generated some shots on goal, the defense has had to do some defending, the goalies have faced both high and low quality shots, and the coaching staff has had the chance to tinker with the lineups a few times.

By this point, you should know what you have on your team. The path of your team’s season is more or less laid out in front of you.

Since the Predators just finished their 20th game, Monday’s 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets, let’s see how the team has looked so far.

Offense

When we’re discussing offense, we’re not just discussing forwards. We are discussing goals. How many and how often. That’s relevant to point out because we are fans of the Nashville Defensators Predators.

The Predators have put up 3.20 goals per game so far this season, which is good for 10th in the NHL. For as much hand-wringing over James Neal’s absence, the worry over Ryan Johansen not scoring, and the troubling lack of secondary goal scoring, that’s pretty good.

Here’s how it breaks down by position:

  • Forwards: 46
  • Defense: 18
  • Total: 64

Almost 30% of the goal scoring is coming from the blue line, which is fantastic. And the forwards, at least the higher paid ones, are doing their job for the most part.

Filip Forsberg (9 goals) Viktor Arvidsson (8 goals), and Craig Smith (7 goals) are leading the way in goal scoring. All three have been shooting well all season, but they’ve also been working extremely hard in the offensive zone to create chances for their teammates. Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala—guys we expected to be at the top of the scoring list most of the year—only just recently scored their first couple goals of the year. Better late than never, I guess, but they haven’t been playing poorly: both have double digit assists on the year.

Then there is the blue line. Roman Josi (5 goals) and P.K. Subban (4 goals) have led the way most of the season and are doing so with relatively modest shooting percentages. But Mattias Ekholm has also scored five goals, already beating last year’s total of three. The defense is doing it’s job to help out in the offensive zone and we’ve still yet to see last year’s defensive goal scoring leader Ryan Ellis.

It’s important to point out that goal scoring is up across the league overall. As Andrew Berkshire points out, the league is scoring about half a goal more per game this year over last year. While some of that is because power play goal scoring is up (due to more penalty calls for slashing and such), most of it is happening at even strength.

This is not the case for the Predators. The Preds have only scored 43 goals at even strength, which is 17th in the league. Their 19 power play goals ranks 2nd best in the league. Forsberg leads the way with five power play goals. He only had three all of last year.

So the Preds are taking advantage of some great special teams play, while simultaneously their even strength play has been underwhelming. It’s an interesting shift from last year’s narrative.

However!

The Preds just recently made a trade to help improve those even strength scoring numbers. The addition of Kyle Turris has been a god-send.

That was on Saturday. Turris added a pair of points on Monday against the Jets, as did Fiala.

Turris has lit the 2nd line on fire. Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala look like they’ve been shot out of a cannon almost every shift. It’s really exciting to watch and I imagine that line will only get better as the season rolls along.

Grading the offense so far is tough. We are basically grading 15 games of a below average even strength team that scored a ton on the power play, and then five games of a really promising new lineup.

Let’s give them 4 (out of 5) Flying Arvys

Defense

The Preds are holding teams to 2.95 goals per game, which is 17th in the league. Not terrible, not great. Pekka Rinne obviously plays a big part in the defensive performance, but we will get to him in a minute.

Here’s a breakdown of the Preds’ goals allowed per game so far (note: these tallies subtract the “added goal” in a shootout loss... this is looking at actual goals allowed in games)

  • Shutouts: 1
  • 1 goal allowed: 4
  • 2 goals allowed: 3
  • 3 goals allowed: 4
  • 4 goals allowed: 5
  • 5 goals allowed: 1
  • 6 goals allowed: 2

Giving up around three goals per game, in a league with increased scoring, may just have to be the new normal. We’d certainly like to see more shutouts and less games with really bad results (those two six goal performances stick out), but I’m not sure that’s in the cards.

The Preds also allow 31.1 shots per game, good for 13th in the league. Not bad, but could be better. They allow 58.1 shot attempts per sixty minutes (from Natural Stat Trick), good for 14th in the league. Same thing—not bad, but could be better. And the same thing with high danger shot attempts, they sit at 15th in the league.

When you adjust for score, time, and venue, the Preds numbers slide a little bit—the “turtle effect” we’ve all seen—which is concerning. Hopefully that changes.

The conclusion here is that the Predators have been ok defensively. Not great, not terrible. Just ok.

When you picture this visually, here’s what you get. (in this chart, red is bad and blue is good)

So there are spots of concern—the right circle on Rinne’s blocker side and the goal crease— and spots of strength—the whole left side and most of the slot. Nothing stands out as particularly problematic, but nothing is under complete lockdown either.

We’ll give them 3 Blue Line Cowboys

Goaltending

Pekka Rinne has been key component of the first 20 games for the Preds. He’s shown plenty of “very good Rinne,” occasionally some “sensational Rinne,” and then of course some “very bad Rinne,” all of which adds up to a slightly above average goalie for most of the year.

In 16 games, Rinne has an overall save percentage of 92.1%, which is 25th among all 72 goalies that have started a game so far this year. When you compare him against goalies with at least 600 minutes TOI (24 goalies), his situational numbers are right where you’d expect a “slightly above average” goalie to be (courtesy of Corsica Hockey):

  • Sv% (all situations): 92.1% (10th)
  • Sv% (5v5): 92.8% (12th)
  • Sv% (5v5—High Danger): 80.0% (17th)
  • Sv% (5v5—Medium Danger): 91.4% (14th)
  • Sv% (5v5—Low Danger): 98.8% (4th)

To add to this, Rinne is one of seven goalies with at least 100 minutes on the penalty kill. He ranks 4th among them with an 89.4% save percentage.

So there you have it. Rinne has been a slightly above average goalie all season long. We’ve seen some really bad starts (at least two of them) and some very, very good ones (probably three of those) and then a whole lot of very reasonable goalie play.

Then there’s poor Juuse.

Juuse Saros has not been good this year, which is disappointing. I think we all expected Saros to take a step forward this year, and he has not done that. The good news is that his most recent start—a 4-3 overtime win in Los Angeles—was his best start so far. He stopped 36 of 39 shots and certainly seemed more comfortable.

His brief time in Milwaukee over the last week didn’t look all that great (allowed seven goals in two starts) but I like his chances to bounce back once he’s surrounded by quality NHL players who can play defense and such.

The goalies get 2.5 Finnish Snow Angels

Coaching

This is where things get weird.

There aren’t advanced stats for coaches, just wins and losses. By that measurement alone, the coaching staff probably should get a good grade. The team sits in 3rd in the Central, has accumulated a decent amount of points in the standings so far, and all the players seem pretty happy in their roles.

But then there’s this:

  • They insist on playing a guy who isn’t good at hockey. Even if it’s only 6+ minutes a night and even if he spends most of his time in the penalty box, it still doesn’t make much sense. I’m frankly tired of talking about Cody McLeod at this point, so I will stop here.
  • The blown leads. Definitely not all on the coaches, but like, can you maybe call a timeout every now and then?
  • The 3-on-3 game is still awful. Losses to the Blackhawks and Flames in overtime could have been prevented with even mediocre play during the overtime period. However, they’ve done a good job of avoiding overtime so far and hey! they even won two of them! So why do they still look completely clueless whenever the puck drops in OT?
  • The team simply cannot stay out of the box. League leading 94 times shorthanded, league leading 152 minutes on the penalty kill. At some point, coaches have to be responsible for something. Perhaps they underestimated the updated enforcement on slashing calls (and then haven’t addressed it at all in the first 20 games). Perhaps they struggle to convince the players to back the hell off when it is apparent that refs are actually calling stuff. Perhaps they don’t care about penalties at all because they feel some type of way about their special teams tactics. Whatever it is, it’s bad.

The coaching staff gets 2.5 Irate Gestures

Front Office

I was all ready to give David Poile the business on this James Neal crap, but the man just continues to make some of the most brilliant moves you can find in hockey.

First, he locked up Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson over the summer, keeping JOFA alive for at least four more years after this one. This came a few weeks after drafting a wunderkind who is currently lighting the KHL on fire.

Then, he signed Scott Hartnell for a million bucks. Slam dunk of a deal.

After that came the Nick Bonino signing. Eh.... fine, I’ll take it. Especially since...

HE FINALLY GOT US MATT DUCHENE KYLE TURRIS, THE GUY WE’VE ALWAYS WANTED.

The Turris trade may end up being the best trade for any team in this season, especially if Turris continues to put up a point per game and if Craig Smith scores 30 goals because of it.

All of this, plus the top four defensemen are intact.

The front office gets 4.5 Side Eye Poiles