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A 2017-18 Nashville Predators Autopsy: What Didn’t Work

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Time to pay our debts.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we visited the “things that worked” this season for the Nashville Predators. There were a lot of them! You can read about them here.

It’s true, the Predators had unprecedented success this season, including their first ever Presidents’ Trophy win, but this team was not without its flaws.

Here’s what didn’t work for the 2017-18 Preds.

The Return of Mike Fisher

I’ll start with probably the most unpopular take in this post.

I’m not sure what most fans were expecting when the team announced that Mike Fisher was returning from retirement to play one final half-season. I know I wasn’t expecting much.

Turns out “not much” is exactly what we got.

For as much noise as the Predators made about Fisher’s return, he went through large stretches of hockey with very little impact on anything. In 16 regular season games, Fisher put up four points, including two goals. In the playoffs, he had one point in 12 games (a goal in the 7-4 Game 3 loss in Winnipeg), then he tore his meniscus in Game 6.

Nashville Predators v Colorado Avalanche - Game Three
Were fans expecting more than five points in 28 games from Mike Fisher? I would hope so.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It’s not that Fisher was bad per se—in fact his possession numbers in the playoffs were quite good. He finished 4th on the team in Corsi-For percentage with a 55.9% and he did that with a pathetic 22% offensive zone start rate. He did help fortify the depth of the team, which is what he was brought in to do, but his lack of offensive punch was noticeable.

What if he hadn’t returned? Would the lineup have been better? It’s hard to say.

With injuries to Calle Jarnkrok and Austin Watson, it’s not like they didn’t need Fisher to be in the rotation, but you do wonder what someone like Frederick Gaudreau—the darkhorse hero of the 2017 playoffs—might have done in that role. Gaudreau is certainly the faster of the two, and his defensive and offensive skills are certainly Stanley Cup playoff caliber. As Eric talked about here, Gaudreau had a very productive year in Milwaukee. He was the bright spot in a bleak year for the Admirals.

Sure, Fisher has leadership. He has grit. He has experience. But I just wonder what might have happened with a bit more speed on that 4th line. Like, what about these 4th line options (these are assuming a 3rd line of Sissons, Bonino, Watson):

  • Salomaki - Jarnkrok - Hartman
  • Salomaki - Gaudreau - Jarnkrok
  • Gaudreau - Jarnkrok - Hartman
  • Hartman - Gaudreau - Jarnkrok

Would these options have been... bad? Good? Worse than Fisher? Better than Fisher? They’d all have more speed than Fisher, that’s for sure.

Mike Fisher wasn’t the reason the Preds got knocked out by the Jets. But he certainly wasn’t a difference maker either.

To put it another way: you spent the better part of a year acquiring forward depth, building a cupboard of players that bring different skill sets. Some of those players had more skill than grit, some of those players had more grit than skill. It seems that one of those traits (grit) earned more of a concrete roster spot, and I’m not sure the Preds were a better team because of it.

(The Frequency Of) Special Teams

A couple years ago, I wrote about special teams and their importance in the playoffs, looking at both the power play and the penalty kill. I wrote this a month or so after the Predators lost in Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks, but it had been brewing for a while.

If you remember, the Predators had a dreadful special teams performance during that 2016 playoff run. They went 4-for-46 on the power play (8.7%) and 34-for-46 on the penalty kill (73.9%). They were largely the better team at even strength against the Ducks and Sharks, but special teams were their Achilles heel.

My research into the special teams performances of “final four” teams since 1990 led to these conclusions:

So how did the Predators fare in the playoffs? Actually, when you look at the rates, pretty good. Both the penalty kill and the power play performed right around the same rates from the regular season:

  • PP (regular season): 58 for 273 (21.2%)
  • PP (playoffs): 8 for 37 (21.6%)
  • PK (regular season): 54 for 299 (81.9%)
  • PK (playoffs): 7 for 39 (82.0%)

So their special teams performance in the playoffs—where the stage is bigger and every mistake is magnified—was on par with how they’ve performed all season. The power play and the penalty kill, in their performance alone, did fine. And while we can argue about whether having the 14th best power play and the 6th best penalty kill denotes some sort of special teams deficiency, it would be hard say it was the thing that held them back all year.

The problem? Too many penalties.

Winnipeg Jets v Nashville Predators - Game Five
Austin Watson logged 23:09 on the PK during the playoffs to lead all Preds forwards.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Predators led the league in “times shorthanded” this season (299) and in overall time on the penalty kill (486 minutes). If it wasn’t for the Preds’ top-10 ranked penalty kill all season, this could have been a real problem. Remarkably, the team only allowed 54 goals on the penalty kill, which was 8th highest in the league. This is a testament to the Preds’ penalty kill if there ever was one.

In the playoffs, that trend continued. The Preds had the 2nd most penalty kill time of every team that didn’t make the conference finals (62 minutes) and were shorthanded 39 times in 13 games. The penalty kill unit still only allowed seven power play goals, again, a testament to that unit’s ability.

The problem is that all that time playing shorthanded leads to other problems. Penalty killers get tired, most notably ones that are also quite important in other areas, like Ryan Johansen and Nick Bonino. Also, going on the penalty kill can disrupt your offensive game plan and slam the brakes on game’s pace. Need to get off to hot start? Trying to push the tempo? Penalties won’t help here.

Plus, when your top penalty takers are also your top penalty killers (Watson, Ekholm, and Subban all had over five penalties) you’ve got a lot of tired understudies out there, who then need a rest before their first after-penalty shift.

At the same time, the power play wasn’t getting nearly the chances in the playoffs that it was in the regular season. The Preds averaged 5:21 power play time per game in the regular season (6th in the league) and only 4:35 in the playoffs (13th among playoff teams). Nearly 50 seconds less power play time per game is huge.

So the special teams problem that plagued the Predators this season was not about the units themselves, but in how frequently they were needed.

[Ok, “the power play is actually bad” crowd, I hear you. It wasn’t as efficient as it could be and they still didn’t get enough chances in dangerous areas. They need to improve that, for sure. But let’s not act like a top 15 power play—which was a top 10 power play much of the season—had major, unforgivable flaws. It was fine.]

Adding Alexei Emelin To A Good Defense

The news hit us like a fever dream.

We acquired another defenseman? After just signing Weber and Irwin to extensions? And we traded a 3rd round pick to get him? And he’s still costing us $3 million? And also he’s not good?

When it happened, we were much like Alexei Emelin himself trying to play hockey: we didn’t know what the hell was going on.

The theories on the extent of Ryan Ellis’ injury grew. Soon we would learn Ellis would be out for half the season, but it still made no sense. Why not just roll with the guys you just signed and who just went on a deep run in the playoffs?

Then, even after after Ryan Ellis returned, we were hopeful that this meant the end of the infamous Alexei Emelin era.

But of course it didn’t.

Somehow Emelin wasn’t suspended for that hit and somehow Marc Staal is still alive.

The Predators continued to give ice time to a defenseman with no real positive impact on the game other than occasionally hitting guys. But Emelin doesn’t hit guys the way Austin Watson or Mattias Ekholm hit guys, where they actually try to win the puck back. No, Emelin, just throws his frame around, just looking to make some noise. The puck is an afterthought.

Emelin skated 1156 even strength minutes in the regular season. He finished with a 46.3% shot attempts for percentage (2nd worst defenseman on the team) and a 46.2% shots for percentage (3rd worst).

He was also the worst defenseman on the team in high danger for percentage with a 42.9%, mostly because he never did anything close to generating offense, but also because when all you do is hit guys as they enter the zone, many of them will get by you and generate dangerous chances.

Here’s what that looks like in living color:

God, I am so tired of Emelin being a Nashville Predator, please tell me this will all end s—

Thank you.

All statistics courtesy of naturalstattrick.com, hockeyviz.com, and hockey-reference.com