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Turris’s Injury Adds to Mounting Forward Depth Issues for Preds

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A look at how the Predators might try to compensate up front with two top-six forwards gone.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

This morning, the Nashville Predators placed center Kyle Turris on injured reserve and recalled Rocco Grimaldi from the Milwaukee Admirals. Turris, who exited Friday’s game against the St. Louis Blues after a cross-check sent him awkwardly into the boards, joins Viktor Arvidsson (broken thumb) and P.K. Subban (unknown) among the players unavailable to the team at the moment.

Turris will be eligible to return after three games, in time for next Saturday’s game against the Blackhawks, but depending on the nature of his injury—which didn’t look good—he may need to miss more time than that. Arvidsson is projected to miss at least another month, while Subban is able to return as soon as he’s well enough to.

This is a lot of talent to be missing all at once, and it means a lot of players are being asked to step up and play larger roles. We’ve had to see the defense play without Subban before, and at least Dan Hamhuis seems to be more capable than Alexei Emelin, but the forward struggles are new.

Viktor Arvidsson: The Littlest Engine That Could

Arvidsson leads the Predators roster in points per hour both 5v5 (4.2 to Ryan Johansen’s 2.8 and Filip Forsberg’s 2.5) and in all situations (3.3 to Johansen’s 2.8 and Forsberg’s 2.7). In raw terms, in the 13 games Arvidsson has played, he has 12 5v5 points and 13 total points. Some of that is due to a very high shooting percentage, and I wouldn’t expect him to keep up that pace over a full season, but it can’t be denied that he was producing when he was healthy.

One of the things the Preds have struggled with this season is pace of play—they’ve been slowing games down at both ends of the ice, which benefits bad teams but is a silly way for good teams to play. Arvidsson is pretty bad defensively, but he creates a lot more than he destroys. This season, according to Natural Stat Trick, the Preds have created more across the board at 5v5 while Arvidsson on the ice than any other player, from total shots at goal per hour all the way in to high-danger chances per hour. Or, if you prefer images to words:

Left: the Preds with Arvidsson. Right: the Preds without Arvidsson. Red means lots of shots are happening, which is the kind of thing you like to see in the offensive zone; blue means few shots are happening, which is the kind of thing you’d prefer to see in the defensive zone.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Arvidsson helps drive the offense by the simple means of relentlessly, consistently, trying to make the puck go into the other net. It’s not a fancy strategy; you don’t have to get out a chart to explain it (though you can). He takes a lot of shots, but he’s not unwilling to pass.

He’s also a great example of why “grit” and “tenacity” shouldn’t be dismissed as meaningless clichés or coded insults. Arvidsson, who is listed at 5’9” and 180 lbs, is on the small side for a NHL player, but is still willing to go to the front of the net and get himself involved in puck battles.

What’s more, something about his style—maybe his speed, maybe his general relentlessness, maybe something else entirely—helps catalyze Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. That line has been consistently better than the sum of its parts, and although Arvidsson is probably only the third-best player on that line, he makes it work.

Left: JOFA forever. Right: Johansen and Forsberg playing with all their other, non-Arvidsson, wingers.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

What can the Predators do without Arvidsson?

Kevin Fiala seemed to be settling in okay on the top line over the last couple of games, but Friday’s game against the Blues was apparently so bad that Laviolette is going for the nuclear option.

Even setting all concerns about Austin Watson as a human aside, I don’t think that giving Austin Watson as a hockey player first-line minutes is what the Predators need right now—he’s been productive in a very limited number of games this year, but there’s no indication that he’s going to be able to keep that up. Some players who might more reasonably be expected to step up and fill in for Arvidsson are Fiala, Craig Smith, or Ryan Hartman.

Smith, like Arvidsson, is a mobile player who takes a lot of shots. Minute for minute he’s been more productive at 5v5 than any regular Preds forward not already on the top line, so giving him more ice time might be a good start.

Fiala has shown flashes of real skill and it’d be great if better linemates helped him do that on a more consistent basis. He’s been only a little bit less productive than Smith in the 5v5 time he’s gotten, and he’s been making chances for himself.

Hartman, acquired last trade deadline from Chicago for a bundle, has some serious potential but hasn’t lived up to it so far in Nashville. This could be because he’s spent most of the season stapled to Nick Bonino, where offense goes to die. Letting Hartman play in the top six would be giving a forward with a history of production—even this season, where he’s just barely behind Fiala in 5v5 points per minute—get some more time to produce.

Kyle Turris: Better Than You Think

The three-way trade that brought Turris to Nashville; Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators; and Samuel Girard, the freefalling Senators’ first-round pick, and about fifty other pieces to the Colorado Avalanche was, obviously, a great deal for the Avs. It’s easy to lament David Poile’s role in making it happen.

But the Preds really did need a second legitimate top-six center, and Kyle Turris really is perfectly fine for the role the Preds desperately needed him to fill. He’s not the shutdown center that some people said he was—it’s great that he went up against Sidney Crosby in the playoffs but I can’t imagine that worked out for the Senators—and he can’t win faceoffs, but he plays a well-rounded offensive game, he makes good passes, and he knows how to score on the power play and in the shootout.

Yeah, I know, I thought scoring on the power play was forbidden too.

Turris has quietly inched his way up to third on the team in points, with five goals and eleven assists. In 5v5 production, he’s seventh among regular forwards in points per hour; looking at all-situations production, his 2.6 points/hour put him behind only Arvidsson, Johansen, and Forsberg.

Among the Predators’ power-play regulars (Arvidsson, Johansen, Forsberg, Roman Josi, Subban, Smith, Ryan Ellis, Turris, Fiala, and Bonino), Turris leads the bunch, with 4.6 points per hour to Johansen’s 4.4. This is an even bigger concern because Subban has also been a key producer on the power play—with both of them out, the Preds are really going to need other players to step up, or else have to hope that no penalties occur.

The thing that really makes Turris stand out among the Preds’ forwards is the versatility of his passing. The passing data I have here is from last year, not this year, and Ryan Johansen has found another level this season, but the rest of the centers have not.

Passing profile for Kyle Turris. Blue means good things are happening; dark blue means really good things are happening.
Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

No other Predators center did anything like this last season. Turris regularly made the cross-crease passes and plays from behind the goal line that make it so hard for opposing goalies to track the play and get situated, while Ryan Johansen focused on passing up to the points for the defenders to shoot and the rest of the centers didn’t really pass that much to anywhere.

Johansen, as I said, is doing worlds better this season, but that doesn’t help any line but the first.

This compares Turris to Järnkrok across a wide variety of fields, using mostly hand-tracked data. The color scale is percentile-based—the redder it is, the worse the player is compared to his peers, and the bluer it is, the better.
Data: Ryan Stimson/@RK_Stimp and Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: Ryan Stimson.

Calle Järnkrok looks like he’ll be filling in for Turris on the second line tonight. It’s not a great substitution. Järnkrok takes a few more one-timer shots per hour and is expected to score slightly more goals per hour than Turris, while being a little better defensively, but in every other way he’s worse.

Don’t like Järnkrok? What about Bonino?

...Oh. Yeah, uh, never mind.
Data: Ryan Stimson/@RK_Stimp and Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: Ryan Stimson.

Colton Sissons is, if anything, worse overall. He’s better defensively than Bonino, but 2C Sissons isn’t going to go that much better than 1C Sissons did in 2017.

What Can the Predators Do Without Turris?

Calle Järnkrok really seems like the best available option. He’s going to be more of a stopgap than anything else, because none of the available options are great ones, but without going out and making a trade I really don’t see a better option available. He hasn’t been great at taking faceoffs, which we know the coaching staff considers, but he’s still been better than Turris. As for the rest...here’s hoping.

Järnkrok had a career season last year in offensive production, and if he’s actually managed to develop a new element of his game in his mid-twenties then more power to him. Even if he hasn’t, with the right linemates he should be adequate—it won’t hurt the Predators to have a center who actually believes in scoring goals, just to keep opposing goalies honest.

Also, if you like small sample sizes, Järnkrok’s two points in under sixteen minutes on the power play (7.7 points/hour) give him the best production rate on the team. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but at least we know that he, too, believes that scoring on the power play is not forbidden. He’s actually been pretty solid there over the last few seasons, so it could work out.

Final Thoughts:

The biggest problem facing the Predators as they stare down an unknown length of time without two top-six players is that their bottom six has just been bad. Järnkrok is an okay third-line player, but I don’t think I’d put him any higher over the long term, and a team that could afford to put him on the fourth line would be in a great spot. Hartman is probably a solid middle-six guy, but it’s hard to say with the usage he’s seen whether he can really hold his own on the second line, or even on the first in emergencies.

The rest of the bottom six—Bonino, Sissons, Miikka Salomäki, Frederick Gaudreau, and Zac Rinaldo—have not been inspiring at all. In extremely limited minutes, Rocco Grimaldi has also played badly, while Austin Watson has played well.

Today’s NHL is increasingly moving towards a top-nine/bottom-three kind of model, where teams that succeed have skilled players throughout the lineup. The Predators have players who are doing things, and players who aren’t.

Chart showing Preds forwards, and the rest of the NHL, in terms of how much they’re producing with the time they have.
Data: corsica.hockey. Viz: Sean Tierney/@ChartingHockey

There are no hidden gems putting up a lot of points in very little time, at least among the forwards. Anthony Bitetto, who was the seventh defender in practice this morning, leads all Preds defenders and a substantial portion of the league in points per hour 5v5, but I don’t think moving him to wing (again) is really the solution either.

If help is going to come, one of the players already on the NHL roster will have to switch into a new gear, or else one of the prospects will have to step up.