59 games into the season, the Predators are 33-21-5. With 71 points, they sit four points behind Winnipeg, who have played two fewer games, and are second overall in the Central Division. They have a +28 goal differential and are all but a lock for the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the air around Bridgestone Arena is not one of excitement, but rather one of anxiety. As well-built as the Predators are, the sense is that they are underperforming, that they have been for a while, and that they have not made any progress. The numerous injuries to both their defense and forwards certainly have hampered the ability to make adjustments but, with everyone back in the fold, the Predators were expected to begin progressing. They have not.
These issues surrounding the Predators are well-documented, namely their inability to protect the area of ice right in front of Pekka Rinne, the imbalance of their forward lines, and their power play, which is currently last in the NHL. While the power play has been problematic since about this time last season, the erosion of their defensive zone play should sound the loudest of alarms. For a team touted as having the best defensive core in hockey, one of the Predators’ greatest strengths has mutated into an Achilles’ heel.
As a result of the Predators’ inability to address their problems internally, it feels like every forward mentioned ahead of the coming trade deadline is connected to the Predators. Be it Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, or nearly everyone else, Nashville is mentioned as a potential landing spot. Yet, General Manager David Poile is known for making the subtle move around the deadline. Accordingly, the Predators are at an odd point where they are a Stanley Cup contender, have major flaws, and are unlikely to make major changes.
This all leads up to our premises: is it time to worry about the Predators? Well, let’s take a look at some of these issues more closely.
First and foremost, the Predators have battled through numerous injuries this season. P.K. Subban, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg have all missed significant time due to injury. Second line center Kyle Turris just returned to the roster after last having played on December 27th. Prior to Turris’ return on February 7th, the Predators had not have their top-two lines completely healthy since October 30th. Even considering how brutal the NHL can be, that’s a remarkably long stretch of time to not have one’s top lines healthy. For the Predators to still be near the top of the NHL after shuffling lines as much as they have is a testament to how good the Predators are in the areas they excel: breakouts, zone entry, and protecting the red line.
A boon of all the injuries this season is that the Predators discovered a little bit more of what lies in the pipeline, including the emergence of Rocco Grimaldi. To put into perspective how dominating he is on the Predators’ fourth line, he is spotting a corsi-for percentage of a jaw-dropping 59.2%. His hustle and responsible play with the puck has solidified the fourth line of the Predators and has reinforced the idea of them being a shut-down line by simply denying opponents the puck.
Additionally, further responsibilities fell to Colton Sissons who, with 24 points in 52 games, is only three points away from besting his total from last season. In fact, he already has set a career high in goals this season. He may not be the most flashy or noticeable player, but with all the injuries to the Predators, Sissons has taken the next step in his development.
However, because the Predators have sustained so many injuries to key players, our ability to know how deep some of the issues plaguing the Predators really cut is hampered. This is particularly true when evaluating their imbalance of lines. While the criticisms that the forwards are a first line and three third lines, the truth is that the second line hasn’t been together since Turris suffered his undisclosed injury. His wingers Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala have played with a variety of centers since Turris’s injury. Additionally, the lines were not the epitome of consistency even before the injury bug hit Turris.
The chart above does shuffle lines a little bit depending on playing time, but it should still be abundantly clear that consistency has not been a hallmark of the Predators’ lines this season. It makes sense to be confused as to whether or not the Predators need another top-six forward because they have lacked one due to injury for so long, and simultaneously because the second line has had little time to gel this season.
The second issue plaguing the Predators is their defensive zone play, namely their inability to protect the slot. The slot, the ice in front of Rinne, has been open territory for the Predators' opponents all season long. Sometimes it looks like the centers and defenders just lose track of their opponents, instead drifting off in the direction of the puck while leaving bodies open back door or right in front of the net. The Predators are middle of the road in terms of their high danger chance share, having earned merely two more high danger chances than their opponents over the course of the season. A team challenging for the Stanley Cup should be dominating this category, yet the Predators are uninspiringly pedestrian. It is not as if they lack talent—P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis are all elite players—so what could be going on?
In brutal honesty, the issue seems to be communication, which should have more than worked itself out by now considering the Predators have not added any outside players to their center and defensive core other than Dan Hamhuis. Even with all the injuries, every player should be on the same page as to who is covering the slot. Sometimes, after such a goal in the slot, one can watch Subban turn towards Ekholm and whichever center is out there, wondering what just happened while he covered the puck carrier, and there are simply no answers. Even after last night’s loss to the Red Wings, Subban candidly remarked “At times we don’t talk enough in our D zone...at times we get too individual and on our own page. We’ve got to get on the same page.”
The defense and centers must communicate with one another because right now, opponents are skating into the slot unchecked, and no team with as much center and defensive talent as the Predators should allow that to happen.
Finally, the power play’s atrocious reputation is backed up by its horrifically low numbers. For as well as the Predators excel in entering the offensive zone, they are unable to generate meaningful offense once they have established control of the puck. Moreover, this is a problem that persists at even strength. The Predators score a bounty of goals off the rush, but their offensive systems prioritize low-danger chances from the point once they enter the offensive zone.
The quality of the Predators’ shots no matter the situation is atrocious. While the easy culprit is pointing to, well, the point shots, it’s the selection of shots taken from the point that is the true infection. Having written every special teams preview for the playoffs the last two seasons, it should be redundant to hear me say that shots from the point should predominantly be low wrist shots that generate rebounds. A one-timer from the circle is going to be a hard, inaccurate shot that will either miss the net or ricochet away from the slot if it hits the goalie or another player. A low, hard, controlled wrist shot is significantly more effective for three reasons. First, a player is able to fire a wrist shot off quicker, so if there is a gap between a defender’s legs and a split-second opening to get the puck to the net, the trigger on a wrist shot can be pulled immediately. Second, wrist shots have the accuracy to weave a puck through a split-second opening. A defender’s chance of blocking a wrist shot as opposed to a slap shot is indubitably lower. If a player from the top of the umbrella fires a slap shot and it gets blocked, odds are that the shorthanded team is getting a 2-on-1 rush the other way. Third and most importantly, a blocked wrist shot is going to stop within the slot, thus opening opportunities for high danger rebound shots that a one-timer or slapshot cannot.
Regardless of the issues plaguing the Predators with their umbrella system power play, we are currently seeing a seismic shift in the hockey world regarding power play formation. For the great majority of hockey’s history, power plays have been “quarterbacked” from the blue line or along the boards in umbrella and overload variants. A new trend differing from the archaic methods of most NHL teams has emerged: running an inverse umbrella from behind the net. While some teams have already introduced elements, Switzerland’s World Juniors team demonstrated its effectiveness this December. What is mind-numbing is the strict adherence that the Predators have to their traditional umbrella, utilizing the defense as if the Canadiens’ legend Boom-Boom Geoffrion was still the model of how to run a power play.
Therefore, is it right to worry about the Predators? It’s hard not to. While injuries and line shuffling have challenged the ability to determine if another top-six forward is needed, one can certainly say that the Predators are too vulnerable to injury without one. While defensive zone communication should improve, the fact that the Predators’ power play has shown no change for well over a year is a greater concern. Despite its finishing 13th in the NHL last season, their ranking was greatly inflated by play in the 2017 half of the season. Since former assistant coach Phil Housley left to take the head coaching job in Buffalo, the power play has shown no innovation, no change, and, since last February, no success.
Ultimately, this is the greatest fear regarding the Predators: that there’s an aura of complacency, that the status quo once worked and will therefore continue to work. In a recent interview with The Tennessean’s Adam Vinigan, Peter Laviolette is quoted as saying “You’ve got to remember that we’ve operated at a fairly high percentage...even last year and in the playoffs.” That is the dangerous rhetoric and mindset that worries me about the Predators. It makes me question whether or not the Predators will actually solve their defensive communication. Do the Predators recognize this issue? Perhaps. Will they make the meaningful adjustments to rectify the problem? One can try and be optimistic, but a magic eight ball has a better chance of finding the answer.
The status quo is failing the Predators. Adding another top-six forward might help, but such a move will not solve the core issues of this team. And this complacency is why I worry about the Nashville Predators.