[Editorials are pieces that reflect the opinion of the writer, and may not represent the stance of On The Forecheck as a whole.]
To say that this season has been a disaster for Kyle Turris would be a gross understatement.
Scratched for the last four consecutive games, the six-million-dollar center has been unable to find a spot on the Predators’ roster. The former Wisconsin Badger has 9 points in 19 games this season. Many thought he was primed for a step forward after a poor 2018-19 season, during which he battled through injuries and only posted 23 points in 55 games. His performance for Team Canada in the World Championships only boosted this thought, with him being named captain of the team and centering their first line all the way to a silver medal.
Just as things started looking up for Kyle Turris, the Predators signed Matt Duchene and suddenly Turris’s spot in the lineup was uncertain. Surely he was going to play somewhere, but on what line? Where would he go? Rumors even floated that he could shift into a winger role this season.
In a small 19-game sample size, Turris has bounced up and down the bottom two lines for the Predators before head coach Peter Laviolette scratched him for four straight games. The injuries to the top six have not made building chemistry any easier: Watson, Sissons, Duchene, Granlund, and Grimaldi have all split significant time playing with Kyle Turris this season. Nonetheless, that also means that Turris was given the opportunity to play on a line with Duchene and Granlund and, even if chemistry isn’t there, one has to make the most of the opportunities given when you reach the NHL. Turris failed to make a strong enough impression, and dropped back to his bottom-six roles before everyone was healthy, with Laviolette opting for Calle Järnkrok to play over Turris in the top-six.
Now, with Laviolette scratching $6M of salary every night in the twilight of Pekka Rinne’s career, many fans have begun demanding answers, which Laviolette refuses to provide. With the pitchforks and torches ready, many of the Smashville faithful demand the head of Laviolette and for new, fresh blood to take the reins of this team. There are feelings more than justified. The Predators were supposed to be contenders this season and, in acquiring Matt Duchene, it feels that David Poile pressed all the right buttons.
Yet the Predators find themselves near the cellar of the Central Division. Two wins over the St. Louis Blues this last weekend helped but, as of the writing of this article, the Predators are still outside of a playoff spot.
Additionally, those fans feeling that Kyle Turris deserves better are justified. Turris has shown that he can be a serviceable second-line center in the NHL. Prior to last season, Turris posted three straight seasons of over 50 points. Moreover, he was a key contributor to Team Canada at the World Championships. His injuries last season lingering were largely responsible for his poor performance, but this season he’s still only on pace for 38.8 points were he to play a full 82-game schedule. Regardless of one’s feelings about Laviolette, Turris is not generating the offensive results he proved to be capable of just months ago at the World Championships.
Is the lack of offense why Peter Laviolette has scratched Kyle Turris? We don’t know. Laviolette has been short in answering the media’s questions on Turris. It’s reasonable for one to infer that the drop in production has been the cause, but then people point to Craig Smith having an abysmal season with 7 points in 23 games and toss their hands in the air in frustration. Of course, that’s not to say Smith hasn’t been doing the same: his shooting percentage is a jaw-droppingly low 3.6% this season, which has to improve sooner or later for the career 9.3% shooter.
But then, why is Laviolette playing people like Grimaldi, Watson, or more recently Daniel Carr over Turris? Is there a character issue? Nobody should assume that a captain for a Team Canada World Championship Team has character issues. There are more than enough players ready and able to take that mantle and, in Alain Vigneault’s eyes, Turris earned—not deserved—that honor. Moreover, while in this unfortunate situation, Turris has handled himself with grace towards the media and in any words he has shared.
Hockey is a game of chess, but one where the pieces have their own autonomy. A coach won’t score a goal, but a coach puts the pieces in place for players to do so. While Peter Laviolette is playing the coaching game, he cannot control everything that happens. Some responsibility does, in almost every instance, fall to the players.
Therefore, as a change of pace, let’s step into Peter Laviolette’s shoes and try to see why Turris is not playing for the Predators.
First off, the top six, when healthy, is set. Turris is not breaking into that group. Smith is snakebitten with that 3.6% shooting percentage, but so is Mikael Granlund, who is a career 10.0% shooter but has only shot at 4.7% since joining the Predators. Terrible luck is not going to knock either of those two out of the top six if they are also being responsible in their own end. Granlund is second on the team forwards in blocked shots at even strength with 12 and has 10 hits this season. While Smith only has 6 blocked shots, he has 20 hits this season. Meanwhile, Kyle Turris has just 2 hits and 2 blocked shots this season.
When looking at what has lead to the benching of Kyle Turris, these numbers point to the underlying reason why Turris is not playing. With a corsi-for % at 5-on-5 of 50.5%, it is not as if Turris’ numbers here are low because he’s not spending time in his own zone. In fact, there really is not a great explanation for these numbers compared to his teammates. Out of the opening night roster, Turris has the fewest hits and blocked shots compared to anyone else. Heck, even Daniel Carr already has more hits in just four games played.
What these stats indicate is, while Turris may not be a selfish player in the offensive zone, this underlying reason may be that he plays like one in the defensive zone. Additionally, if he only has two hits all season, he certainly is not forechecking with vigor, but then again the Predators as a whole seem to have an issue finishing checks. And I believe that it’s this coupled with his lack of production (Duchene only has 5 blocked shots and 7 hits, but he also has 17 points) and yet another issue that has lead to his benching, and that other issue is that the top six is not a tough, heavy group.
Now, why does the composition of the top six also cause problems for Kyle Turris’ playing time? The Predators have a skilled group of players, but they really lack a heavy body. While Filip Forsberg is good for a bone-crushing butt-check twice a year, there is not a power forward in that group. The players in that group play, relative to the rest of the league, a weak physical game. The Minnesota Wild are the only team in the Central with a worse physical game from their top-six. Therefore, to compensate for the physically weak play, Laviolette has to try and get balance from his bottom six. In my ideal hockey vacuum, the top six is physically strong enough so that the bottom six can be full of guys who can be power play specialists (remember that amazing Hartnell-Sedlak-Gagner 4th line that the Blue Jackets had in 2016-17?), but Peter Laviolette doesn’t have that luxury. Therefore, he has to settle playing heavier bodies in the bottom six.
If this lineup issue seems familiar to you in how it keeps out skilled players, you’re absolutely correct. It’s one of the same issues that Eeli Tolvanen has faced so far. Essentially, to be effective, both Tolvanen and Turris really need to be in a top-two line role. Neither player is going to get anything out of playing 13 minutes alongside Austin Watson and Colton Sissons, because neither Tolvanen or Turris are elite enough to make those around them better players. One of two things happens when Tolvanen and Turris play on the bottom lines: either they fail to fulfill their role of generating offense because their linemates cannot keep up with them, or they are tasked with the role of being a heavy, defensive player when they could never possibly succeed in that role.
See, there are more than a few reasons why Turris is being scratched and, while the lack of scoring and unwillingness to make tough defensive plays are two of them, the other huge reason is that he really can never succeed in the Predators’ lineup with the players in the bottom six. And, because he failed to take advantage of his time in the top six, Laviolette is not going to give him future opportunities. With Viktor Arvidsson out for four to six weeks, it sure seems like there are more opportunities for Turris, but Laviolette is not going to give opportunities to a player who has failed to earn them. Through his failures, both individually and systematically, Turris has proven himself to Laviolette as a player who is not going to give the Predators their best chance to win.
Honestly, the best solution is probably to simply trade Kyle Turris, but it feels too late for that now. The optimal time for a trade would have been right after his tremendous World Championships performance, but that has come and gone.
Really, Turris’ situation is similar to that of James Neal’s last season with the Calgary Flames. After an atrocious season for Neal that saw him as a healthy scratch, he now already has 17 goals for the Edmonton Oilers. Now, it’s not as if the Flames were a poorly coached team; they won the Western Conference. Sometimes, things just don’t work out for a given player on a team, and they succeed in a new enviornment (although playing with Connor McDavid certainly doesn’t hurt either).
Turris is still a player who can provide offense in the right environment and with the right linemates, but there just is not space on the Predators’ roster in its current form for a player like Turris, who is good but not great, to succeed. Additionally, when given opportunities, Kyle Turris has consistently failed to take advantage. Coupled with his unwillingness to play tough in the defensive zone, and it is no coincidence that Kyle Turris finds himself in his current situation.