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A 2017-18 Nashville Predators Autopsy: What Worked

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Part one of our autopsy of the 17-18 Preds includes the top forward line, P.K. Subban, and Pekka Rinne.

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

There’s a lot to process when it comes to the 2017-18 Nashville Predators.

In many ways, it was a huge success. The first ever Central Division title, the first ever Presidents’ Trophy win, and likely the first ever Vezina Trophy win. And in one other much more noticeable way, it was a colossal failure, with the Preds losing to the Jets in the 2nd round of the playoffs and unable to make a repeat run to the Stanley Cup Final.

On the heels of last year’s incredible run, the latter feels much more important than the former, even if the former is by some standards more impressive.

Regardless of how you feel about the relative success of this team—for the record, I am in the “it was definitely a success” camp—it’s also important to examine what worked and what didn’t for this team.

Part 2 of this series, what didn’t work, will be later this week. For today, let’s talk about what worked.

The JOFA Line

No matter how you slice it, the Preds’ top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson was the most consistent offensive unit on the team since day one. Despite losing Filip Forsberg for the better part of a month earlier this calendar year, the group played together for 667 even strength minutes in the regular season and playoffs, only two minutes shy of the Turris line for the team lead.

The JOFA line was regularly the team’s most dangerous unit on a nightly basis and it was the most difficult for opponents to prepare for. With Arvy’s speed, Forsberg’s skill, and Joey’s vision, opposing defenses had their hands full.

Both the boxcar numbers and the advanced stats support this. Here’s a look at JOFA’s goal-based and shot-based production compared to other lines for the Preds (these are the top five lines based on even strength time from Corsica.hockey):

2017-18, regular season and playoffs

Consistent puck possession, consistent quality shooting, and consistently putting goals on the board while not allowing too many the other way. That’s what you want out of your top scoring line.

By the way, the JOFA line also put up incredible numbers in crunch time in the playoffs, putting up 10 goals in 148 minutes at even strength. The Turris line? Only two goals in 124 minutes.

Johansen’s line is incredible, and thanks to some fine contract work by David Poile over the last two summers, it’s here for at least four more seasons.

P.K. Subban

It was an odd year for the Predators defense.

Coming in as the clear “best blue line in hockey,” they had to navigate the first half of the season without Ryan Ellis. This shuffled things around quite a bit, forcing players like Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin, and Alexei Emelin to play bigger roles for much of the season. And with Roman Josi balancing his new captaincy role with his rapidly rotating defensive partners (he played at least 29 even strength minutes with six different defensemen), the defense needed a foundation to rest on.

P.K. Subban was that foundation.

No matter who Subban paired with, he was outstanding in his role. If the Predators needed him to take 60% of the defensive zone starts while carrying Alexei Emelin around the ice, Subban managed to turn it into a net positive goal differential and a very respectable 47% Corsi-For percentage. If the Predators needed him to generate more magic with his old buddy Mattias Ekholm, he did that as well, generating a 55% Corsi-For percentage along with a net positive goal differential (albeit with friendlier zone starts).

Subban was deployed consistently regardless of the game situation, too. Whether the team was down a goal and needed a score, or whether they were protecting a lead, they knew Subban was their best bet. This says a lot about how much trust he has with the coaching staff. They knew he was their best defenseman and they used him accordingly.

In HockeyViz’s defender score deployment for the Preds, notice how Subban’s deployment changes very little across the different scenarios. The same can’t be said for the other three top defensemen (Josi and Ellis are especially volatile).

Subban finished with 16 goals and 43 assists in the regular season, then 4 goals and 5 assists in the playoffs. This combined total of 68 points is tied for the highest in his career (2014-15 in Montreal) and earned him his third Norris Trophy finalist nomination.

The Trade For Kyle Turris

We all know about the playoff performance. Turris had only 3 assists in 13 games, while his linemates Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala combined for only 5 goals. At times they looked completely overwhelmed, like they’d never played together before.

But only the most critical of fans would say that the trade for Kyle Turris wasn’t essential to this team’s success this year. Without a doubt, Turris was a difference maker for this team. If David Poile doesn’t acquire Turris in November, there is simply no way the team marches to a Central Division win and a Presidents’ Trophy.

Turris creates space in the offensive zone, much in the way that Johansen does. He has vision with the puck that only a few players have. He can make passes and dekes in tight windows and he has an above average shot. He’s as talented a 2nd line center as the Preds have ever had.

(Yes, I understand that last sentence doesn’t carry much weight, but it’s true nonetheless.)

Having said all that, I’m not a huge fan of his contract. That extension kicks in at a very awkward moment in his career (the man who was an offensive vacuum in the playoffs is set to receive a $2.5 million pay increase next year and become the 5th highest paid member of the team). Also the term carries him until he’s 34. Unless you think Turris will age the way Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin have, that can’t make you feel good.

But the premise of today’s question is about how the acquisition of Turris affected this team and the answer is undoubtedly positive. He flourished on that 2nd line with Fiala and Smith. I look forward to either seeing more of that next year or seeing if he can help Eeli Tolvanen become the next big thing.

Pekka Rinne

It’s impossible to measure this team’s success without also measuring the success of Pekka Rinne. As Rinne goes, so go the Predators. This has been true since, what, 2009?

Once again, Rinne was the backbone of this team for the entire regular season. And it looks like finally he is going to get his due, in the form of this:

Give it to him already.

And though much of us will remember his performance in the playoffs—there is a theme building here isn’t there?—let’s not forget the season he had and why it will land him his first ever Vezina Trophy win.

Here’s a nice overview of Rinne’s regular season, from the Predators release about his Vezina nomination:

Out of goaltenders who played at least 50 games this season, Rinne finished first in save percentage (.927), even-strength save percentage (.938) and goals-against average (2.31). In addition, the Kempele, Finland, native recorded 42 wins to finish third in the League in the category. Rinne tied for first in the NHL in shutouts with eight, a career high.

In addition to all of that, Rinne’s advanced stats suggest his season wasn’t just a result of being on a good team that collected a bunch of wins. He finished 2nd in high danger save percentage (.833), 3rd in total goals saved above average (13.07), and 4th in expected save percentage (.927). Also, as shown here by @ChartingHockey, his rate of GSAA per sixty minutes is among the league’s best, and better than the other two Vezina finalists:

Simply stated: Rinne was an integral part of this team finishing with the most points in the NHL in the regular season. He probably wins the Vezina this year, so yeah... he was huge.

Later this week, I’ll have a depressing list of things that didn’t work.