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Quarantine Mailbag: Volume 1—Kevin Fiala’s Hot Hand, Josi’s Power Play Impact, and Fil’s Glorious Mustache

It’s been three months (and counting); let’s answer some questions

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Nashville had won its last game, securing a three-game winning streak as the playoff fight loomed near—the race for a wild card spot was likely to last until the final game of the regular season. Then everything ground to a halt. The 2019-20 NHL season had been one surprise after another for the Nashville Predators, and with the long-awaited addition of Matt Duchene in the offseason, the team was primed for a long postseason run. But one Winter Classic, an injury to Ryan Ellis that lasted months, the firing of Peter Laviolette, and the subsequent hiring of John Hynes later, the Preds head into the month of July with hockey (tentatively) still on the schedule.

We don’t know yet if Nashville will end up facing the Arizona Coyotes in the new playoff format, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t questions that can’t (attempt) to be answered, so I turned to you, the community, for your queries.

The first question I get is about former Nashville Predator Kevin Fiala, who is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in his first full season in Minnesota after the trade that brought Mikael Granlund to Smashville. And I totally get it—Kevin Fiala was a highly-regarded prospect whose potential had fans believing the Swiss winger would be a perennial all-star. An injury sidelined him for the final rounds of the playoffs in the Stanley Cup Final run.

The subsequent struggles were momentarily lifted when Nashville acquired Kyle Turris—the combination of Fiala, Turris and Craig Smith emerged as one of Nashville’s strongest forward groups and helped them secure the Presidents’ Trophy. Consistency, however, was not Fiala’s strong point, and a shaky start to the following season led to his mid-season trade.

Kevin Fiala’s 2017-18 Rate-Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) - The addition of Kyle Turris made Fiala into a strong offensive force that excelled in driving play and creating quality shots | Evolving-Hockey.com
Kevin Fiala’s 2018-19 RAPM with Nashville and Minnesota - Fiala was unable to generate the offense that he had in the prior season, and was struggling defensively as well - fueling his trade to the Wild | Evolving-Hockey.com

After initially being healthy-scratched for a handful of games in Minnesota, Fiala regained his offensive prowess, and while he wasn’t generating quality shots in terms of expected goals for the Wild, he was finding the back of the net often—something that most would agree matters more. His defensive skillset remains below replacement level, but the strong Wild defense corps behind him made up for it, and being free of Nashville’s broken power play system allowed him to be a deadly threat with the skater advantage.

Kevin Fiala’s 2019-20 RAPM with the Minnesota Wild. The talented winger found new life in the Twin Cities, and became a credible scoring threat both at even strength and on special teams | Evolving-Hockey.com
Kevin Fiala’s isolated impact in 2019-20 - his impact on shot generation and quality was an improvement over the team’s lackluster offense without him (-7%), but his ability as a shooter led to 14 of his 23 goals coming in the final 20 games of the season before the hiatus | Hockeyviz.com

A deeper dig into his on-ice impact, though, revealed that Fiala was not necessarily the driving force behind Minnesota’s offense. The winger was mostly average on both sides of the puck in shot generation, but his ability as a shooter was what shone through—his talent as a shooter increased the odds of a shot becoming a goal by 6% more than league average, putting him in elite company.

I’m torn as to how this will translate heading into the best-of-five playoff series against Vancouver. Fiala had caught fire in the month and a half leading up to the season coming to a halt, but there’s no telling if the time off will result in a well-rested and healthy continuation of his hot hand—it is just as likely that the time in quarantine will leave Fiala rusty. He caught fire after Turris was traded to Nashville, but started the next season in a slump. To be fair, the “rust” argument can and will be applied to every NHL player and team in the 24-team playoff, but knowing Fiala’s history can make one skeptical.

The Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild ended only a single point apart in the standings, and a close series should be expected. Vancouver boasts plenty of offensive firepower and while Minnesota has a strong defense (a hallmark of the team as of late), the poor goaltending of Devan Dubnyk was likely the cause for coach Bruce Boudreau’s firing. The Wild will need to match the Canucks goal for goal, and whether or not the series is a high-scoring affair or not, Minnesota comes in at a slight disadvantage due to the uncertainty in net.

Fiala’s lack of shot generation or creating quality chances for the Wild mean that in order for him to “explode in the playoffs”, he will likely need to use that newfound scoring touch to beat the Vancouver defense and goaltending with his shooting alone. I would expect Fiala to lead the Wild in points when the series is said and done, but it will require an extraordinary effort to lead them to a series victory in the qualifying round.

The young Swiss winger will be the key to Minnesota’s success, and while I believe he will show up on the scoresheet, I don’t think it will be enough to overcoming the glaring weakness behind him in goal. If he does anything less than “explode”, his season will go from on hiatus to over in a matter of a week.

I’m a huge fan of Jason’s work—we initially bonded over hockey analytics and a mutual love and longing for P.K. Subban. He consistently produces quality data viz on Twitter and on his website. It was one of his visuals that sparked this question:

Roman Josi’s career season should result in his first Norris Trophy—his incredible offensive and skating ability continued to increase while he became a strong defender as well, something that had been a bit of a weakness in the past.

I’ve mentioned Nashville’s power play already—it stinks. Yet even in a bad situation, Josi managed to score four goals with the advantage, compared to just one in the 2018-19 season, and more than doubled his point production, going from just 10 to 23—with ten of his 23 points coming from primary assists. Roman Josi had a direct influence on nearly two-thirds of Nashville’s 39 goals on the power play.

Roman Josi’s 2018-19 Power Play Isolated Impact - Under Peter Laviolette’s three-forward, two-defender PP system, Josi struggled to make much of an impact with either Ellis or Subban. | Hockeyviz.com
Roman Josi’s 2019-20 Power Play Isolated Impact - Josi’s increased ice-time quarterbacking the power play for Nashville led to obvious success. While he still shot a lot from the blueline, he created a tremendous amount of quality chances for the new four-forward, one-defender unit. | Hockeyviz.com

Free from Peter Laviolette’s insistence of having a three-forward, two-defender PP unit in 2018-19, Roman Josi saw his increased ice-time lead to much, much more success with the extra man. Not only was Josi the quarterback for the unit, his skating ability and unmatched zone-entry ability for a defender led to Nashville being a better threat, even though that meant they improved to mediocre from being just plain bad. Ten of Josi’s assists on the power play came from shots at 20 feet or closer to the net. He was still shooting and scoring mostly from the blue line, but he created extremely high-quality chances for his teammates in high-danger areas.

Roman Josi’s evolution on offense and defense this season was likely a factor in the team’s success on the ice on the power play, but the ability to drive the unit as the lone defender can’t be understated. No longer did he have to contend with another defender taking point shots—all due respect to Ryan Ellis and P.K. Subban—and his otherworldly skating and puckhandling ability allowed Josi the freedom to create scoring opportunities himself and for the other four forwards on the team.

This is a great question, and one that has been discussed many times before. The low-risk trade for Connor Ingram from Tampa Bay proved to be an overwhelming success for General Manager David Poile. Gone were the “team conflicts” that plagued Ingram in the Lightning system, and Ingram was one half of the best goalie tandem in the AHL for the Milwaukee Admirals.

His technical ability in the crease is something to watch and he’s not as small as Juuse Saros either—he appears to be a very good middle ground between veteran Pekka Rinne and the heir-apparent in Juuse Saros. So I’m going to answer a definite yes to the question of “Is Saros-Ingram the future in net?” The goaltending prospects in the Nashville system don’t come close to Connor Ingram in both ability and NHL-readiness, and Ingram being called up to Nashville as a black ace for the playoffs is all but certain.

The second question, however, is a little tougher for me. I’m no student of goaltending, and I’ve watched much less tape of Ingram than I’d hoped as the season progressed, so giving Ingram a nuanced evaluation might be out of my wheelhouse. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t have a strong opinion in Juuse Saros’ favor.

Of course, there is the obvious quality of competition factor—Ingram faced AHL-level opponents all season (as one is wont to do in the AHL), while Saros had yet another slow start. That slow start blossomed into a coming-out party of sorts, as the young Finn began replacing Pekka Rinne in the starting lineup as the season went on. Had the season continued as normal, Juuse Saros’ gap in games played (40 to Rinne’s 36) would have been extended, and he likely would have been the starter if the team qualified for the playoffs.

There’s one factor that, in my mind, separates Juuse Saros not just from Connor Ingram, but from most young goaltenders in the NHL: his technical skill. You’ve heard Chris Mason gush about his ability on broadcasts for two years now, but there’s a reason for that. Juuse Saros is incredibly efficient in his edgework. There is very little wasted motion or movement, and his lack of size means that Saros must work harder to remain structurally sound on his skates in the crease. And he does that superbly—without the physical presence to fall back on when the pucks are flying in, Juuse Saros makes sure that he is in the best possible position to make saves against his opponents.

This has been a defining quality of his game for most of his young career as a professional, and I don’t see that attention to detail and great technique fading with age—in fact, I’d say he’s likely to improve as time goes on. While Connor Ingram has been a welcome surprise and a promising talent for Nashville’s future without Pekka Rinne in net (that’s so weird and heartbreaking to think about), I don’t see him becoming the starter over Juuse Saros anytime in the next few years.

Now let’s get to some less complicated questions, and have a little fun.

Rude.

Joking aside, while there was some upside to Alexei Emelin’s size and physicality, his lack of anything resembling offense or solid quality suppression left the third pairing lacking quite a bit. Sure, there’s an argument that his size is something that gives him an advantage over also-bad defenders in Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber, and (I’m sorry) Anthony Bitetto, but if we’re at this point in the argument, we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. While Nashville really has never upgraded the third pairing, the bar was absurdly low, and I’m not upset that he’s no longer on the roster.

See above. I never thought the words “Nashville has traded Matt Irwin” would bring me disappointment, but the seemingly pointless trade was likely done for the sake of size. He’s made a minimal impact so far, he’s a pending (albeit cheap at $850,000) unrestricted free agent, and at 32 is the second-oldest defender on the team (only Dan Hamhuis and Pekka Rinne are older on the entire roster).

The plan will likely be to see what Nashville is able to do in free agency, or more likely, if they feel Frédéric Allard, Alexandre Carrier, Jérémy Davies or (shudders) Steven Santini can step into a full-time NHL role. I think Holzer only remains on the team for next season if all the above options fall through.

I can’t go too far with this question—I’m a nerd when it comes to music, and assigning the entire team goal songs would turn into a multi-part story all by itself. So I’ll limit it to the ageless one, Dan Hamhuis, owner of the longest active goal-scoring drought in the NHL.

I’d love to tie country music in, obviously, but I don’t listen to it, and honestly, it’s cliché at this point when it comes to hockey in Nashville. Instead, I’ll assign Hamhuis “Chinese Democracy” from Guns N’ Roses’ long-anticipated album of the same name. A band that was phenomenal in their prime, finally coming back with the record we’d heard rumors about for years? But no Slash?

Oh no.

It reminds me a lot of Hamhuis’s return to Nashville. Sure, he’s had a long career that had flashes of greatness, but those days are long, long gone, and no matter what the supporting cast looks like, trying to remember anything—good or otherwise—about that album is one of the few things more difficult than trying to remember Dan Hamhuis’s last goal.

What a ridiculous question. And what an even more ridiculous follow-up question from fellow OTF writer Bobby Misey (I’m linking it, rather than embedding it, because I’m going to spare Bobby the shame of even asking it).

The answer is obvious, but I’ll leave it up to you—can you see anything less than absolute glory coming from something this incredible?

Raise a banner for that thing.


If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, contact me via email (bryan.bastin@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@ProjPatSummitt), and I’ll include them in a future mailbag—I’m hoping to make these a regular feature going forward.

Oh, and sorry Eamon—your question was great, but far too in-depth for this edition. It’s on the list.