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The Little Things: Bonino, Bitetto & Backdoors

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

Over the last eight games, the Nashville Predators lead the league in goals with 36. That’s two more than the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals - two of the more potent offensives in years past - have combined, and only 10 behind San Jose’s season total of 46.

The boys in gold are simply on fire offensively.

This week’s article looks at the Washington, Minnesota and Colorado matchups. Here are 10 things which caught my attention.

Bonino’s back

It had been exactly one month since offseason addition Nick Bonino last stepped on the ice before suiting up again vs. Washington, last Tuesday. As expected, it took the veteran center a while to settle in, but did tally his second goal as a Predator.

Bonino entered last week with a team-low .906 PDO, which shows how unlucky he has been this season in limited minutes (1.000 is the average mark for NHL players). And the remaining two games of the week featured several bright spots for Bonino who contributed in multiple facets.

Bonino was great vs. Colorado, finishing with an adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi For Percentage of 71.58 and adjusted Expected Goals For Percentage at 72.29. One area of Bonino’s game which has really benefitted the Preds is his forechecking - asserting himself to deny an Avs rush and regain the puck like this play:

The previous game against the Wild, Bonino again had another strong showing (57.64 adj. CF%), and gave the Predators several scoring opportunities courtesy of attacking the puck.

Bonino comes up with a steal on this play and draws a penalty, which was just one of a few instances where he did so last week, including a second one in this contest. Stay tuned for more on drawing penalties.

Regardless of whether or not Bonino centers the third or fourth line, he brings so much to this team. He plays solid defense, wins face-offs (87.5% vs. Minnesota) and has joined in the offensive explosion.

What more could you ask for out of a bottom six center?

Four defensemen owned a positive xGF% in all three games

One of those was not P.K. Subban.

Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto are the names to total a mark better than 50% in each game at 5-on-5 (I’m cheating a little bit because Ekholm was 45% vs. MIN, but his average is 52% so I’m counting it).

I’ll talk about the Captain, Ekholm and Bitetto later, but let me pose this question to you: What if I told you the Preds would have a greater chance of scoring at even strength with Irwin on the ice rather than Subban?

Well, it’s true thus far. As of Tuesday night, Irwin currently sits at 50.21% xGF; Subban at 43.62%.

I’m in no way saying Subban has been lousy or anything, because P.K. provides a lot with his creativeness and power play usage. The point here is Subban hasn’t been a provider offensively outside of special teams play. You can make the argument Subban doesn’t make his living with his 5-on-5 play, and you would be correct, but last season he led all Preds defensemen in xGF at 55.13%.

The reason for Subban’s drop-off is his lack of chances. In his first season in Nashville, Subban finished with an offensive zone start percentage of 47.56% - not bad, but not nearly as high as his Montreal days. This year, Subban owns a 37.69% mark. If you compare that to all defensemen in the league with at least 18 starts, Subban ranks sixth-worst.

Obviously, the absence of Ryan Ellis has changed the way Peter Laviolette has structured his defense pairings. The way Josi and Ekholm are playing offensively, you can’t change their usage in the offensive zone. Nonetheless, it’s still surprising to see Subban receive this little time.

As for his defensive metrics, the second line pairing of Subban and Alexei Emelin continues to be a weak spot for Nashville. The majority of that can be put on Emelin’s shoulders, but let’s not overlook the fact Subban also has the fourth-worst scoring chances for percentage (39.26%) among all d-men with 18+ games.

Best of Bitetto

Another Predator returned to the ice against the Capitals as Bitetto was reinserted into the lineup following Yannick Weber’s injury.

It seems like every time a defensemen goes down, another steps up his production. You have Ekholm filling the scoring void left by Ellis, and now Bitetto has fulfilled his role on the bottom pairing alongside Irwin. Bitetto isn’t the type of player who will post high possession numbers, but it’s his ability to create offense which has stood out recently.

You can count on Bitetto putting at least one shot on goal per game, and although he isn’t the ideal player you want blasting them, he’s been dangerous - scoring his season’s first goal vs. Colorado. This play above is a simple flip towards the net, but it creates a rebound and Ryan Johansen nearly pokes it home.

There’s also this:

The only defenseman I can recall pulling off a near coast-to-coast like this was Josi, so that’s a strong compliment to Bitetto. In this meeting with the Wild, Tony B owned a 65.45 xGF% which tied Irwin for the team lead that night.

Bitetto has also held his own defensively, posting a team-best 6.45 high danger scoring chances against per 60.

Fiala is so good at drawing penalties

As of this writing, Kevin Fiala is tied for fourth in the NHL in penalties drawn. Here’s one of two he drew last week:

Simply amazing - just one of many things we’ve come to expect out of the kid.

In addition, Nashville has been successful scoring on delayed penalties, with it happening twice last week and once vs. Winnipeg on Monday. Again, it’s been Fiala who has utilized his expert stick handling to control the puck and not let the opponent touch up, as evidenced by this instance:

Double teamed against the boards, Fiala still manages to spin out, and ultimately delivers the shot to set up Craig Smith’s tip-in.

Backdoor is open

A recurrent theme I’m noticing since writing this is Nashville’s lack of awareness when it comes to opposition’s backdoor feeds. Most notably, it happened at Columbus but Zach Werenski completely botched his shot at an open net once the Preds didn’t recognize him approaching the far post.

Luckily, Werenski didn’t tie the game on that occasion, and so far the Predators haven’t paid for their mistakes just yet.

Here’s an example from St. Paul. First make note this is at even strength, whereas Werenski’s chance and the other example below are on the opponent’s power play. Everyone in white drifts to the puck side of the ice, leaving Jared Spurgeon a clear lane to cut. Fortunately, it takes a deflection before reaching the opposite side.

Against the Avs, Nashville held a 3-0 lead with the clock ticking down on the second period. This sequence isn’t as bad as the previous play, given Josi’s positioning. But Colorado still manages to sneak a pass through three defenders with their back turned, giving Gabriel Landeskog a prime chance before the horn.

Puck clearance, or lack there of

There are many factors as to why the Predators are blowing 3-0 leads. There’s the turtle effect, a change in playing style and simply the inability to clear the zone.

The first occurrence I saw last week was against the Capitals. Sharing the entire shift would be too long to fit on video, but basically the fourth line of Cody McLeod, Bonino and Austin Watson along with Bitetto and Irwin were exhausted having been on the ice from the 15:15 mark to 13:32 of the second stanza. The Preds failed to clear, Washington continued to pressure and bang, Alex Chiasson scored.

It became more obvious in Minnesota where the Wild owned the third period as the Predators failed to record a shot on goal in the final 13:40.

At the start of this clip, you see Watson is clearly fatigued with his hands on his knees. He somehow manages to make an incredible blocked shot, but there’s no way he can recover and pick up another Minnesota player as they pull within one.

If there’s an area the Preds need to improve on the most, it’s zone clearance late in games.

Joey’s defense

We all know Johansen ended his scoring drought with a one goal, two assist performance at Minnesota, but let’s analyze his defensive efforts.

I made sure to extend this clip to show where Joey begins on this rush by Washington - at the opposite face-off circle from where the attacking player reaches. While on the power play, Nashville sails a shot wide and leaves them scampering as the Caps create an opportunistic short-handed chance. If Johansen doesn’t sprint back, it’s a promising 2-on-1.

Johansen’s best game of the week clearly game against the Wild, not only because of his three point night, but he also posted his best Corsi numbers since the San Jose trip (62.07%). Watch Johansen defend the slot here - head on a swivel to play passing lanes.

Smitty on the power play

From the start of the season up until the home Pittsburgh game on Nov. 11, the Preds were 16-of-62 (25%) on the man advantage. Scott Hartnell was injured in that contest, and since being replaced by Smith on the top power play unit, Nashville is 5-of-15 (33%).

Through 20 games, Smitty has nearly matched his career-high in PP goals with five already (he only had four in his previous two seasons combined) on just nine shots - a ridiculous 55.56 shooting percentage. That’s obviously going to regress, but let’s not ignore the fact Smith’s promotion has paid off in a big way.

Even without Hartnell, Smith has supplied the net front blinder in front of the goaltender, and is always pouncing on loose pucks which makes him so dangerous.

When you look at Nashville’s power play groups, they are very similar and equally dynamic. Just the fact Josi is on the second unit is crazy in itself, and with Fiala and Ekholm playing out of their minds right now, along with the playmaker Kyle Turris and shielder Colton Sissons, this might be the most balanced special teams unit in the league.

Ups and downs of the third line

Just a quick word about the third line used last week of Calle Jarnkrok, Sissons and Miikka Salomaki.

As the title suggestions, these three can boom or bust on any given night, depending on the matchup. Last Tuesday, they exploited the poor Washington defense and combined for four points.

But in Minnesota, they were torched, with the trio averaging a 16.08 CF% and 8.58 xGF% at 5-on-5.

They bounced back vs. Colorado as Sissons and Salomaki potted goals, but again, it was an exploitable matchup. Obviously, Pontus Aberg now back in the mix will separate this line a bit, but it still doesn’t change the fact this group can be really good or really bad.

Thou shall not pass

If you recall the opening period vs. the Avalanche, it didn’t go well for the Preds as Watson received a major penalty for boarding and Colorado was on the power play for 11 minutes.

This sequence above was near the end of the penalty kill. First time the Avs try to go around Ekholm, denied. They try again. Denied.

They smartly rerouted on the third try.

All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey.