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Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets: Win A Peg

The Jets are in town.

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

The Nashville Predators return home to face the Winnipeg Jets tonight. After a 1-0-2 road trip in California, including a big win at San Jose on Saturday, the Preds need to keep the point streak going.

The Jets are a dangerous team, mostly because of rookie phenom Patrik Laine. While they may be sitting nearly 10 points clear of a playoff spot, they’ve scored more goals than most teams in the West, including the Predators.

The Preds will need to bring their best tonight.

The Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have had a bummer of a season. While they’ve had some stretches of nice play, they haven’t been able to turn that play into points in the standings very often. They’ve been at or below a .500 winning percentage all season and rarely held a playoff position for very long.

That’s a shame because they have some incredible talent on this team. There’s the aforementioned Laine, who has 32 goals and should definitely win the Calder Trophy. There’s Mark Scheifele, who leads the team with 68 points, improving upon last year’s already impressive 61 point total. There’s also second year winger Nikolaj Ehlers with 22 goals and 32 assists.

The problem is the lack of defense. They allow 3.16 goals per game, which puts them 27th worst in the league. Connor Hellebuyck, the presumed future in goal for the Jets, has been pretty bad this year. He has an overall save percentage of 90.8%, which is not very good. He also ranks 34th in the league among semi-regular starters in 5v5 save percentage at 91.7%, which is just not going to cut it. He rarely gives the Jets a chance to win games.

Still, the Jets are a dangerous team. Any team with the offensive punch they have should not be taken lightly, regardless of how well they can stop the puck.

The last time the Preds faced the Jets was that strange home-and-home matchup where the Preds won on Friday 5-1 and then lost on the road on Sunday 0-3. That was back in November. No doubt both teams are quite different than when they last played over three months ago.

The Nashville Predators

What’s going on with the bottom pairing?

Last week against the Kings, for a brief moment, it looked like Yannick Weber was going to be scratched for the first time this season. Then Ryan Ellis re-aggravated a lower body injury in warmups and Weber ended up playing. Then on Saturday, Matt Irwin was scratched while Weber played. It was Irwin’s first scratch of the season, and he was replaced in the lineup by Anthony Bitetto. Bitetto has only played in 21 games this season and has been a healthy scratch for most of his time on the active roster. And then there’s Brad Hunt, the great mystery of the universe.

So what is happening here?

There seems to be some tinkering going on by the coaching staff, but it’s unclear what that tinkering is aimed at achieving. Who of that group is underachieving? Who needs to be out there and in what role? How can the bottom pairing be most effectively staffed? Who is Brad Hunt anyway?

First, let’s get this out of the way, I have no clue about the Brad Hunt situation. It makes zero sense for them to have a guy on the roster who sits every night. At least give the guy some work. If the goal is to have a guy that can step in during an emergency situation in the playoffs, surely they won’t go with Hunt, a guy who has not played in a professional hockey game since January 10th.

So let’s look at the other three guys. Here is a rundown of the three guys that have been employed on the bottom pairing this year. One of these is Yannick Weber, one is Anthony Bitetto, and one is Matt Irwin.

It’s a sortable table, so do some analysis yourself before you read on. Who would be your top two?

Bottom Pairing Defense Stats

Player Pts/Game PIM/Game CF% SCF% HDCF%
Player Pts/Game PIM/Game CF% SCF% HDCF%
Player A 0.14 1.00 44.5 39.0 39.7
Player B 0.12 0.34 47.3 43.0 41.0
Player C 0.21 0.36 50.8 50.0 54.2

It seems pretty clear that Player C has out-performed the other two. He generates more offense, doesn’t hurt the team on defense, and is generally a good possession player. He isn’t Ryan Ellis or P.K. Subban, but he doesn’t need to be. Player C is an excellent option for a bottom pairing defensemen and should definitely be playing.

Player B is serviceable, but not great. Not a lot of offense to go with some questionable possession stats, but he doesn’t commit a lot of penalties and is about par for the course when it comes to that final 6th defenseman. A decent, if not amazing, option.

Player A, on the other hand, has not been very good at all. The worst possession stats of the group, the least amount of offense, and entirely too many penalties. This guy needs to be scratched if the other two are healthy, right?

This is, admittedly, a bit over simplistic. There are lots of factors to consider when playing certain players over others, like playing style, handedness, opponent matchups, etc. It’s not always about stats. I get it.

But, if we just look at the stats here for a moment, they speak volumes about these players. And the coaching staff has been deploying the final defense pairing almost exactly as those stats suggest they should, for most of the season. That is, until recently.

Player C is Matt Irwin. He’s exceeded expectations, for sure. So much that he has transcended the bottom pairing role and been slotted in a top four role when the Preds have had defensive injuries. Could his numbers be influenced by having opportunities to play with Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm? Sure. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played well. Why scratch him?

Player B, otherwise known as Yannick Weber, is no top four defensemen, but when compared with Player A, Anthony Bitetto, he’s been just fine. There really is no reason to go with Bitetto over Weber at this point, unless you want a more physical defensemen in the lineup. And when you consider that Irwin plays mostly on the left side and Weber plays mostly on the right side, the final pairing seems to be set.

So what happened on Thursday and Saturday? My guess is that it was about matchups, choosing to play Bitetto against physical teams in the Kings and Sharks. For what it’s worth, Bitetto committed two interference penalties against the Sharks on Saturday, while Weber was plus-1 with a shot on goal. I guess we will see tonight if there is any more tinkering to that pairing, but I’m hoping we see Irwin and Weber out there again.

Lord knows we won’t see Brad Hunt.

Reasons to Watch

  • Miikka Salomaki was recalled on Sunday, so we might get to see him in the lineup for the first time in a long time. What does he bring to the lineup? Among other qualities, this:

I would like to think that this is true as well:

  • Ryan Johansen had a nice goal on Saturday. It would be great for him to start scoring more, but don’t forget that he has been a huge part of the Predators offense this season. In fact, his 41 assists are only 13 behind the franchise record for most assists in a season. Paul Kariya had 54 assists back in 2005-06. It wouldn’t be too crazy for Joey to get 13 assists in the final 14 games of the year, considering his linemates.
  • Watch to see if Colin Wilson can continue to play well. He’s got eight points (5 goals, 3 assists) in his last 12 games, with six of those points coming at even strength. Playoffs are just around the corner, Willy.

Pre-Game Entertainment

Filip Forsberg has gone without a point in his last two games. I guess he’s human after all.

The Important Details

7:00 PM puck drop. TV: FS-TN, Radio: 102.5 The Game