Much like Public Enemy, the Nashville Predators are counting down the days deservin’ until they can get to Arizona.
If you missed any league happenings in the past week, the Predators, who would occupy the sixth seed in the West, and Coyotes, the 11th seed, are slated to compete in a best-of-5 series at a neutral site. The winner would move on to compete in a more “traditional” Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the loser would become part of the NHL’s Draft Lottery process. (If you’re a little confused by that process — or if you’ve been out of the hockey loop this week — you can click here to see a straight-forwardish layout of the league’s plan.)
This would be only the second time the two franchises have faced each other in the postseason. The first, back in 2012, ended with one of Nashville’s more embarrassing playoff exits — a 4-1 series loss in the second round that was marred by leading scorers Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn being spotted at a bar at 5 A.M. the morning of Game 2, leading to each being benched for two games.
This series in particular has the potential to be one of the more intriguing matchups across the league. The Coyotes and Predators have been fairly evenly matched over the past handful of seasons (Nashville is 5-5-1 against Arizona since the start of the 2016-2017 season). This year, the two played twice. The Coyotes won the first game back in October 5-2 (a game in which the Preds gave up three power play goals). The Predators got their revenge at Bridgestone Arena two months later, defeating the Yotes 3-2.
So, let’s take a closer look at how this series could shake out.
The Offensive Breakdown
The Predators and Coyotes are in the same boat when it comes to offense. Both teams have invested significant dollars and assets into revamping their forward corps over the past two seasons. And the results? Meh.
Both teams rank in the middle of the pack for a handful of key offensive statistical categories. The Predators rank 16th in the league in goals per 60 minutes with 3.02, while the Coyotes sit 23rd with 2.68. As far as expected goals scored — which measures how many goals a team should score based on the quality and quantity of chances — the Predators actually rank as the ninth-best team. That gives us the indication that the Predators’ offense has been performing a little better than the box scores lead you to believe.
For the Predators, it’s a defender who’s been responsible for the lion’s share of the offense. Roman Josi finished the year with 65 points, the most ever by a Predators defender in a single season, and most by ANY Predators skater since 2009. Most of the offense will run through the Preds’ captain. However, he’ll need more help in the postseason from some of the team’s other big names.
Filip Forsberg, who led the team with 21 goals during the regular season, seemed to be breaking out of a long slump right before the stoppage, adding five points (3 G, 2 A) in the final four games. He found chemistry with linemates Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund down the stretch, and that combination will likely be coach John Hynes’s go-to during the playoffs.
The Coyotes made one of the biggest moves of the season by bringing in Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils. Hall has certainly made an impact, with 10 goals and 17 assists since the trade right before Christmas. But the Coyotes have struggled to find firepower outside of Hall, and that’ll need to change if they want to advance in the postseason. Phil Kessel (14 G, 24 A) is on pace for his worst offensive season since 2008, but as Preds fans unfortunately know all too well, he has a reputation for cranking his game up a notch in the playoffs. The Coyotes could also benefit from one of their up-and-comers — like Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, or Connor Garland — stepping into a more prominent role.
Defense and Goaltending
The story for the Preds this season has been (generally) great defense undone by shaky goaltending. Well in Arizona, we can go full Missy Elliott and flip that situation and reverse it.
Statistically, the Coyotes tend to give up a high number of scoring chances each game (they rank 19th in expected goals against.) But the saving grace this season has been the play of goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The 30-year-old had a Vezina-worthy season, finishing third in the league in save percentage (.928%) and third in GSAA, which is basically a “saves above replacement” stat.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Predators have put together their best defensive metrics since 2016. And yet, they rank 19th in goals allowed per 60 minutes (3.02), their WORST showing in years.
That, of course, has put goaltending under the microscope throughout the season. The major headline has been the emergence of Juuse Saros, who seemingly took over the starting role from Pekka Rinne after the New Year. Saros was in the midst of the best stretch of his career when the league stopped play, which included back-to-back shutouts against Dallas in the final week of the season.
As for the blueliners playing in front of the goalies, this is a spot where Nashville seemingly has a sizable advantage. Josi’s career offensive season has somewhat overshadowed his career defensive season, while the return of a healthy Ryan Ellis has given the Predators one of the best shutdown top pairings in the NHL. The second pair of Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro slowly improved down the stretch as the latter adjusted to his first full NHL season.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been perhaps the league’s most underrated defender over his career. But his play in his own zone hasn’t been as strong this season as it has in years past. Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson, while still serviceable, have shown their age a little bit this season. One bright spot this year has been the rise of Jakob Chychrun. The 22-year-old has emerged as one of the Coyotes’ most reliable defensive players, and, if he continues to grow his game, should be an anchor on Arizona’s top pair for years to come.
The Special Teams
*Nervous laughter* Yeahhhh, about those special teams...
There’s no way to sugar coat it. The Predators, from a statistical standpoint at least, probably have one of the worst all-around units of any playoff team. This has been headlined by the abysmal penalty killing during the season. While this is typically the Preds’ strong suit, the team ranked 28th in PK% this season (a mere 76.1%), finishing tied with Ottawa and ahead of only Buffalo and Detroit. In fairness, the Preds DID end the season having successfully killed 15-straight power plays, so if you need a silver lining — there ya go.
The Coyotes don’t need a silver lining. They’ve been one of the league’s best short-handed teams all season long. Their 82.7 PK% was fifth-best in the league. While Kuemper’s play is a big reason why, the Coyotes have also gotten great contributions from forwards Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson, and Michael Grabner while shorthanded.
As for the power play, both teams rank in the bottom half of the league. The Coyotes scored on 19.4% of their power plays during the regular season, 18th-best in the league. The Predators, meanwhile, scored on 17.3%, putting them 24th in the league.
Today, the NHL confirmed that teams will be allowed to carry 28 total skaters and an unlimited number of goalies for the duration of this 24-team playoff. This is a departure from the typical service of black aces during usual times and determining which players will populate this expanded roster must take into account any players which choose to sit out due to health concerns.
Right now, Nashville’s roster sits at 21 total skaters (13 forwards and eight defenders) leaving room for seven additions via Milwaukee or elsewhere. The team’s options can be conveniently broken down into three categories: useful players, veteran experience, and young wild cards.
In projecting what the team could likely do, these skaters are almost certain to be added to the roster and could feasibly contribute: Yakov Trenin, Daniel Carr and Alexandre Carrier.
The roster would now sit at 15 forwards and nine defenders.
These players may or may not be useful in an NHL playoff, but their experience on this stage could lead the team to include them on the roster: Frédérick Gaudreau, Matt Donovan and Steven Santini — all players who have had legitimate showings in Nashville, for better or worse.
The roster would now sit at 16 forwards and 11 defenders.
Young Wild Cards
With one roster spot remaining, tough decisions will have to be made. I know some are clamoring for first-round pick Phil Tomasino to be included, but that begs the question: would the team exclude players who finished the season hot like Eeli Tolvanen or Rem Pitlick? Or two defenders who played well in Milwaukee all season like Jérémy Davies or Frédéric Allard? It’s hard to anticipate, but for me, history doesn’t point to Tomasino being included.
Teams can carry unlimited goalies, and Nashville will likely go with four or five. Outside of Rinne and Saros, Connor Ingram is a certainty. The organization will then either just include Troy Grosenick, or go back to their typical playoff extra, Niclas Westerholm, or call up both to the expanded roster.