If you grew up in the South, you probably know all about “come-to-Jesus moments.” It’s the old saying used to describe an intervention of sorts: a moment where a boss, your parents, your spouse, etc. sits you down and tells you “look...we still love you, and we still believe in you. But you’ve done messed up a lot lately, and if you don’t clean up your act soon, there are going to be some consequences.”
For the Predators, that moment is now.
“We have to do a little soul searching,” Colton Sissons admitted after Saturday’s 7-2 loss to Chicago. “It’s been a struggle, but teams go through this as we know, and we have the personnel to turn things around in a hurry.”
To be clear, no one’s saying Nashville’s season is going down in flames (it’s November, for goodness's sake). On the contrary, the Predators have shown a lot of things over this first month and half that would AFFIRM they’re still among the contenders in the Western Conference.
Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg are on pace for career seasons, the team’s controlling play in most of their games, and, from a pure analytics standpoint, they’re one of the best teams in the league defensively when it comes to limiting good chances.
And that’s what makes this team’s recent losses so frustrating. They shouldn’t BE happening. Take Saturday night’s game against the Blackhawks, for instance. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Predators had 63 shot attempts to Chicago’s 38. The Predators also had the advantage in expected goals, 2.14 to 1.27. That means, in theory, Nashville should have pulled out a 2-1 or 3-2 type of win.
As we all know, that didn’t happen.
It was a similar situation against Vancouver Tuesday night as well. The Predators had more shot attempts and high-danger chances than the Canucks, and limited them to just 1.69 expected goals, but wound up losing 5-3.
There are a lot of things you can point to when asking “what went wrong.” Goaltending, for one, hasn’t been stellar this season. Pekka Rinne has given up four or more goals in five of his thirteen starts, and the Chicago game saw him pulled for the second time in three games. A handful of those goals, quite frankly, should have never gone in.
But to be fair, there are also a lot of plays you can’t pin on goaltending. The Predators have reached “2007 Britney Spears” levels of breakdowns in the defensive zone this season, and several times, it’s been Rinne bailing out the rest of the team, like on this mishap from Dante Fabbro against Vancouver.
And again, these are outliers to the Predators’ overall defensive game. Because, again, they’re fourth-best in the league when it comes to expected goals against, meaning that throughout the course of a game they’re not giving opponents a ton of chances. They’re playing lights-out for 90% of the game. Problem is, that other 10% consists of catastrophic miscues that lead to easy plays like this one against Chicago.
Captain Roman Josi on defensive responsibilities. pic.twitter.com/7OAkjOtoFj— Streetwise Professor (@SCSOTF) November 17, 2019
We’ve talked about the Predators’ offense being the saving grace this year, but even that too needs some time under the microscope. They’re averaging 3.63 goals per game, second best in the league. But according to NaturalStatTrick, their expected goals are 2.56 per game, 22nd best in the league.
A lot of people might see these stats and say the Preds have been “lucky.” I personally don’t know if I’d go that far, considering some longer-range goals that the metrics might call “weak” could be a result of a well-executed screen or a wacky deflection. But it does tell me the Preds have benefited from some plays unfolding in an uncharacteristically perfect way. And that style of play isn’t sustainable for a whole season.
In simpler terms, it means the Preds can’t keep counting on the offense to “steal wins” as the season progresses.
So... Now What?
Here’s the thing about all the flaws I just brought up. They’re all fixable. As I pointed out earlier, even in some of these bad losses, like Chicago, they’re statistically outplaying their opponents.
The big question becomes “how” to fix them, and that’s why these next handful of games are going to be pivotal for the Predators.
Some will be easier to sort out than others. Rinne’s racked up enough good will to earn the right to play his way out of his slump, and his backup, Juuse Saros, has already put together some good performances after a rough start.
Some issues might require tougher decisions. Do you throw in the towel on Irwin or Weber — who have alternated healthy scratches throughout the year — and see if someone like Frédéric Allard or Jérémy Davies can play better on the bottom pair? Does Laviolette have to tweak his “high volume” offensive system in favor of one that prioritizes higher-chance opportunities? Do we need to bring back the Rally Tavern?
The good news is, the Predators have a long time to sort out these answers. It’s November and no one’s either separating themselves or falling behind the pack completely yet. But these next couple of games should give the team an idea of what needs to change to keep Nashville on the right track once the standings start to matter a bit more.