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2018-19 Nashville Predators Position Preview: Centers

“Center depth” just keeps being the name of the game.

Winnipeg Jets v Nashville Predators - Game Five Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The season’s almost here, and it’s time to take a look at what the Predators have to offer. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be looking at the players you can expect to see in gold this year and what they bring to the team.

This year the Predators are starting off with the best center depth they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. David Poile has made multiple aggressive trades to shore up the center depth over the last few years, but seemed content to tinker around the edges of the roster this summer. Whether we’ll be watching the Predators finish the season with the same players they started with, I can’t say, but for now let’s take a look at what we’ve got.

Position Strengths:

Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris, the Predators’ top-six centers, are both strong playmakers—especially Turris. They’re consistent contributors to offense, which is what you want from a top-six forward. Johansen has been improving his play on the penalty kill, while Colton Sissons remains solid defensively at even strength.

Also, none of the centers this year are plummeting towards forty. Even Nick Bonino, who was brought on board for his veteran experience, only just turned thirty earlier this year. I wouldn’t call this a young group, but it’s younger, which should help everyone hold up through the long grind of the regular season and hopefully into the playoffs.

Position Weaknesses:

Have any of these guys ever heard of scoring a goal? Other than Colton “Hat Trick” Sissons, that is.

Johansen passes so much more often than he shoots that he’s starting to become Joe Thornton lite. Gone are the days when he scored 20+ goals in a season, and we might never see those days again unless someone can convince him to pass the puck to the back of the net.

For Bonino and Sissons it’s even worse; neither of them is much of a threat in the offensive zone at all. Sissons has a couple of decent offensive instincts and had a fine year last season, and Bonino was very successful with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin during the Penguins’ 2016 Cup run, but I’m not sure either of them can be relied on to produce too much this year.

Catalyst of the Group:

It’s easy to blame the Predators’ disappointing exit from the 2018 postseason on poor discipline—which definitely played a role—but part of the problem was that the secondary scoring just wasn’t there. Forsberg and Johansen led the team in points with 16 and 14 respectively. Nobody else had more than ten in the thirteen games the Predators played that postseason.

Second-line wingers Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith managed four points each, and Turris only had three. They were among the Preds’ least-productive forwards last postseason. With that line ice cold, the Johansen line was the only real threat. If Turris’s line had been clicking, it could have made a huge difference.

The Predators got outstanding goaltending last season, but it’s not fair or reasonable to demand that Pekka Rinne, who will turn 36 less than a month into the season, keep that up forever. They will need more from the forwards as well. If Kyle Turris can elevate his line consistently, that will help a lot.

Breakout Player:

I’m not sure any of these four have surprises left in them. They’re experienced enough that we can have a reasonable expectation of what we’re going to get.

Ryan Johansen:

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Breakdown:

Ryan Johansen’s second full season with the Nashville Predators was a little bit of a step back. He had 15 goals and 39 assists for a total of 54 points—the first full season of his career that he’d had less than 60. With Johansen on the ice at even strength, the Preds took about 53% of the shots, which is pretty good.

Defensively he had an unusually bad season, but he wasn’t terrible. He also made up for it offensively, helping drive play in the right direction and to the right locations when he was on the ice.

As far as special teams go, Johansen was good on the penalty kill, limiting opponent chances while helping the Predators create shorthanded chances of their own, but not so great on the (very bad) power play. He got more time on the penalty kill than he has before, averaging over a minute per game for the first time.

He also took a lot of bad penalties, which really needs to stop.

What he adds to the mix:

Johansen is a proficient passer who is developing his two-way game. As one of the Preds’ top two centers, he can help make the best opportunities for the talented scoring wingers on the roster to do their thing. The increasing trust he’s getting from the coaching staff allows him to use his skills in a wider variety of situations.

Expectations for the season:

Last summer I optimistically predicted he might challenge Paul Kariya’s franchise record for assists in a single season. That didn’t happen. I still expect him to get back to the 60-point mark and I’d like him to push for 70. I would also like to see him play with more discipline this coming year.

Kyle Turris:

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Breakdown:

Kyle Turris, acquired in November from the Ottawa Senators by way of the Colorado Avalanche, was an exciting addition to the roster. He put together 13 goals and 29 assists, or 42 points, in the 65 games he played with the Predators. Much more striking than his point total are his possession numbers, though. The Fiala–Turris–Smith line set up in the offensive zone all season long. The Predators took over 55% of the shots with Turris on the ice at even strength, which is very good.

Even better, he did that by creating offense, and the flood of shots came from excellent locations. Turris wasn’t an improvement for the team defensively and he was a disappointment on the power play, but at even strength he helped make good things happen.

What he adds to the mix:

Turris is probably the best all-around center the Predators have right now in terms of offense. Unlike Johansen and Bonino, he will shoot as well as passing; unlike Järnkrok, he has more than one good offensive year.

The most exciting thing for me about Turris’s playmaking is his creativity. The Predators’ reliance on setting up for the point shot and making static plays is a problem. Turris, so far, hasn’t bought into that.

I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.
Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil. Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine

This viz, using Corey Sznajder’s hand-tracked game data, looks at what kind of passes Turris made last season. He was one of the forwards in the league who made high-danger passes most frequently—a high-danger pass is one that crosses the slot or goes around the back of the net, forcing the goalie to react very quickly or without being able to see the play. This is not something the Preds do as often as I’d like.

Expectations for the season:

I expect to see Turris get more than the 16:06 TOI per game he averaged with Nashville last season. I had to triple-check that figure while I was writing this because it seemed so implausible. He’s a skilled player. Especially going into next season, where the top six may need to be shaken up to give different wingers opportunities, relegating him to so little time on ice is just plain silly. If he does get more icetime and stays healthy, I’d expect to see him get closer to 20 goals, though I’m not certain he’ll reach it.

Nick Bonino:

Nashville Predators v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Nick Bonino was signed in the 2017 offseason to shore up the center depth after Mike Fisher’s first retirement. He played through injury this season, as well as missing a chunk of time near the beginning of the season, which didn’t help him make the best impression. In spite of that, he managed 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points.

Sadly, he spent a lot of his shifts in the wrong end. The Predators managed only 47% of the shots while Bonino was on the ice at even strength and he was one of the worst regular forwards at driving play up the ice.

He was even more disappointing defensively on the penalty kill, but for some reason he was one of Laviolette’s go-to penalty killers all season. Although he rarely took bad penalties of his own, his struggles while shorthanded didn’t help the team handle everyone else’s bad penalties.

What he adds to the mix:

Rings, baby.

Bonino is an experienced shot-blocker and scores at a decent rate at even strength. He also gives Laviolette a left-handed center to take faceoffs. While Bonino’s career average faceoff win percent was just 47.9% prior to this season, he managed to win 54.3% of his faceoffs in 2017-18. If that wasn’t a fluke but the result of a change in technique, the coaching staff will be very pleased.

Expectations for the season:

I’m optimistic about the faceoff technique. I think we’ll probably see another 20-30 point season from Bonino, and that he’ll also continue to do the things that management was looking for when they acquired him.

Colton Sissons:

Nashville Predators v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Colton Sissons stepped in as the Preds’ regular fourth-line center this season. He scored 9 goals and added 18 assists for a total of 27 points. His shooting percentage was less than half what it had been the previous two years, but I don’t think we’re going to see him rebound that far—this is more likely to be closer to the real Sissons than the player who shot 19% in 2016-17 is.

The Predators just about broke even in shot share with Sissons on the ice at even strength, which is pretty good for a fourth-liner. A majority of the shots with Sissons on the ice came from the outside, both for and against the Predators. He did his share defensively and chipped in a little on offense, which isn’t bad.

However, he did take a lot of penalties, adding to the Predators’ penalty troubles last season. He spent much too much time on the power play, where he helped stifle what little netfront offense the Preds had going for them last season.

Left: the Preds’ power play last season without Sissons. Right: the Preds’ power play last season with Sissons.
Micah Blake McCurdy,

What he adds to the mix:

Sissons is a reliable fourth-line player with occasional flashes of offense. He’s not a playmaker, and he’s not a consistent goalscorer, but a player like that is a luxury for any team to have on their fourth line.

Expectations for the season:

I think we do see Sissons’s shooting percentage creep back up a little, but I think he’ll also end up with fewer assists. We might be able to expect 20-30 points from him again if he plays a full season. He’ll probably continue to spend a lot of time on the penalty kill, where he was adequate, and in the defensive zone, where he was pretty decent.