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A Tale of Two Camps: Observations from the Predators and Coyotes’ Training Camps

What have lines and pairings looked like, what are coaches working on, and who can we expect to see on the ice?

Nashville Predators v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the biggest questions heading into any playoff series is always what the opposition is up to. Shaun, who attended the Preds’ training camp for us, connected with goalie expert Cat Silverman to talk about the Coyotes.

Are there any players back from injury who wouldn’t have been able to participate in the playoffs if they’d started in April?

Cat: The biggest two would be winger Conor Garland and defender Jakob Chychrun, who were both out when the season went on hiatus and needed the covid-inspired break to return to full health.

Garland has been one of the biggest driving forces of the team’s offense over the last year and a half, bringing a tenacity and physical edge to what was once a flashy, offense-driven but one-dimensional game. Once Garland, who was a 2015 late-round pick for Arizona, learned to play away from the puck as well as he did with it, he became a force to be reckoned with even as an undersized forward. He served as one of the biggest offensive drivers when paired on a line with Taylor Hall early on in the Hall trade. The pair clicked almost immediately and gelled well with two-way center Christian Dvorak, forming arguably the team’s most productive line in all situations. Getting him back will be huge for the team, even if other forwards like Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller get their own scoring touches back.

On the back end, Jakob Chychrun still isn’t the team’s top defender — but he gets closer seemingly every day, and his absence was stark and palpable during each of his injuries over the last three years. He was one of the rare blue liners who managed to comfortably jump into NHL action at age 18, and didn’t seem to lose out on any necessary development by skipping over those extra OHL years or by logging AHL minutes. The team has enough muscle on their defensive corps that without him, they still have strong players; Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jason Demers are a formidable duo, and Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson still have plenty left in the tank. But he makes a big enough impact that without him, the rest of the corps gets stretched just a little bit too thin, and it became apparent during his absences as the other defenders had to log higher minutes in his absence. His return gives a chance to truly roll the defensive pairings, giving everyone fresher legs and a better chance at playing the stingy defense Arizona likes to be known for.

Shaun: Dan Hamhuis was out with an LBI at the time of the pause and Calle Järnkrok was in and out of the locker room during the Predators’ final game against the Montreal Canadiens. Neither one of those issues seemed to be anything that would have kept them from the playoffs, though. Both guys are back, fully healthy, and participated in practice every day.

Were there any injuries/incidents during camp?

Cat: The Coyotes briefly saw captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson get banged up during a scrimmage, but he seems to be fine now. And Derek Stepan and Michael Grabner both spent time on the “unfit to play” list, although Grabner’s was a case where he had considered opting out and made a late decision to join the team. Once he went through testing protocol, he was fine and joined the club with no incident. For the most part, training camp was incident-free.

Arizona Coyotes v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

Shaun: Yakov Trenin started camp listed as “unfit to play”, but was on the ice by the third day of camp. Rocco Grimaldi missed two days of practicing with the main group, but there was no mention of any “unfit to play” status. Another reporter asked Head Coach John Hynes for an update and he simply stated that they wouldn’t be commenting on players that didn’t skate with the main group.

At one point in practice, Ryan Ellis took a puck to the lower leg on a shot from Ryan Johansen. He went down to his knees for a moment and skated over to the bench. He laughed it off and talked to the team trainers, but they didn’t seem concerned. There were only a few minutes left on the clock when it happened, so he went to the locker room with the rest of the team when time expired and returned when the next period started. He didn’t seem any slower and didn’t favor either side when skating.

If I’m being honest, and I should probably knock on wood as I write this, it was a very incident-free training camp.

What does the goalie situation look like?

Cat: The Coyotes are bringing their normal tandem — Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper — with prospect Adin Hill as their third-stringer and potential call-up. The expectation is that, barring injury, we’ll see Raanta and Kuemper in the game lineup while Hill sits in the press box (or whatever the quarantine bubble equivalent is going to be).

NHL: JUL 13 Coyotes Training Camp Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Of course, there’s a big asterisk by ‘barring injury’ for the Coyotes goaltenders. While Raanta has developed a much more injury-prone reputation, neither goaltender has been the picture of health over the last two years; they’ve both missed substantial time with injuries here and there, and there’s a very real chance (especially given the expectation that players will jump right from a mini training camp to playoff hockey) that one of the two might tweak something.

With that in mind, it’s nearly impossible to say with any kind of certainty which goaltender will be in net when they start their five-game series against Nashville; while the honors would likely go to Darcy Kuemper after his impressive performance over the last year and a half, Raanta was both the better goaltender down the last little stretch of the season and has had a slight edge (albeit with the caveat that scrimmages aren’t exactly great indicators of readiness) in terms of goals allowed during team games in Phase 3.

Both Raanta and Kuemper have playoff experience, although neither has been in a starter’s role while in a postseason race at the NHL level. So we could see the team use both before the series is through — whether due to performances, injuries, or simply to make sure neither gets fatigued if it seems like they’ve gained the upper hand in the play-in round.

Shaun: Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are going to be suiting up every night. Milwaukee Admirals netminders Troy Grosenick and Connor Ingram participated in camp and even spent about a period and a half in the crease during the lone full game scrimmage. Grosenick was not on the ice at the last camp session on Saturday while Ingram was present. It was announced that Ingram would be the third goalie traveling with the team.

NHL: FEB 10 Predators at Canucks Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Of course, the burning question isn’t about the third-string goalie: everyone in Nashville wants to know who will be starting in Game 1. Per my observations, Pekka Rinne still looks rusty. Rusty enough that if I were the one calling the shots, Saros would be my starter. Under previous Head Coach Peter Laviolette, sentimentality might get in the way of sound decision making and Rinne might get the start. However, John Hynes doesn’t seem too sentimental and seems like the kind of coach who will play whoever he thinks has the best chance of getting the win.

I believe Saros will be the Game 1 starter. Of course, there’s still time for Rinne to get tuned back up. It’s entirely possible both goalies will play in the scrimmage against the Dallas Stars. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in which goalie starts that game if they both play. Still, I expect Saros to be the starter. Look for Pekka Rinne in the second half of the back-to-back for Game 3.

What were the defensive pairings at camp? Was anything different from the regular season?

Cat:

1st Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Jason Demers

2nd Alex Goligoski - Jakob Chychrun

3rd Niklas Hjalmarsson - Ilya Lyubushkin

4th Jordan Oesterle - Jordan Gross

The team dealt with some injuries throughout the year on the blue line that made the pairings look different at times, but this is largely what was seen during the year as well. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jason Demers, when both are healthy, are some of the team’s most effective two-way defenders when paired against top competition — and Jakob Chychrun and Alex Goligoski were a pleasant surprise this year, with Goligoski getting to shine a bit more with limited ice time and after overcoming some struggles feeling passion for the game. He was open at the start of the year about how he had lost his love for the game during the season prior, and how talking to a sports psychologist helped him get back on track. It certainly showed, and we’ll look to see that pep during a postseason run as well.

Shaun: For the entirety of camp (save for the latter part of the last day) the defensive pairings looked like this:

1st Roman Josi - Ryan Ellis

2nd Mattias Ekholm - Dante Fabbro

Roman Josi is a Norris Trophy finalist. Ryan Ellis is a lights-out defender. I don’t know if I need to say anything else. Ekholm is probably the best-kept secret in the NHL. Fabbro is a rookie, but this will be his second playoff experience. He’s come a long way since last year, but is still learning. Being partnered with Ekholm helps cover a lot of those issues, but I’d rather have him on the second line than any of the other available defenders.

Jarred Tinordi - Korbinian Holzer

Dan Hamhuis - Yannick Weber

There isn’t a huge reason to spend much time discussing the third pairing because they don’t see that much ice time. However, I think the third pairing could be very telling for the type of game the Predators expect to play on any given night. For the longest time during the regular season, the third pairing had been made up of Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, or Matt Irwin with Jarred Tinordi being added to the mix in late December. Tinordi saw more ice time as the result of the injury to Ryan Ellis during the Winter Classic. Eventually, Matt Irwin was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for Korbinian Holzer.

For the last several games, Tinordi held a regular spot on the third pairing with Weber, Hamhuis, and eventually Holzer. Tinordi and Holzer are very tall, physical players. Hamhuis and Weber are more sound technically, but smaller, lighter, and less physical. I had thought that this set up meant that the Hamhuis-Weber pairing would appear in games that were focused on speed while the Tinordi-Holzer pairing would be on the ice for more physical games. In short, Hamhuis-Weber when we’re lovin’, Tinordi-Holzer when we’re hatin’.

About halfway through the last practice session, those pairings were altered and these appeared:

Tinordi - Weber

Holzer - Hamhuis

Realistically, the third pairing will look like one of those options and they won’t be on the ice for very long. Personally, I look at it this way: Holzer and Tinordi have more defensive weaknesses to exploit, but you’ll pay the price physically. Those top two pairs won’t be changing any time soon.

What did the forward lines look like? Was anything different from the regular season?

Cat: The team’s lines looked fairly similar to what they did during the height of the regular season, before the offense forgot how to score and pairings were thrown into the blender:

Taylor Hall - Christian Dvorak - Conor Garland

Phil Kessel - Nick Schmaltz - Carl Söderberg

Clayton Keller - Derek Stepan - Lawson Crouse/Barrett Hayton

Vinnie Hinostroza - Brad Richardson - Christian Fischer/Michael Grabner

Michael Grabner is an interesting name to consider, because he spent a big chunk of the regular season as a healthy scratch (a shock after his surprising resurgence last season pre-eye injury). One would assume that he’d be a healthy scratch during postseason and play-in hockey games, but it’s worth noting that he was strongly debating opting out and decided to join the team three days into training camp. It’s hard to see a player who is on the fence about participating during a pandemic choosing to do so when they have no guarantee that they’ll at least be given a good, fair look by the coach.

Washington Capitals v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

The line of Hall-Dvorak-Garland was the team’s most impressive to watch during much of the regular season, but don’t discount the line with Clayton Keller, Derek Stepan, and Lawson Crouse. When Keller is on his game, he looks exactly like the pick that earned John Chayka so much praise when it was made, and Lawson Crouse is a bit of an unsung hero for the team. He does all the right things and makes a lot of defensively responsible plays, even if there’s no chance of him getting rewarded for it on the scoresheet. He does a fantastic job of setting up the offensive zone for Keller to work his magic, and they were one of the highest-scoring lines during intra-squad scrimmages. If they play the way they do when Keller is on his game, that’s an impressive trio to consider.

Shaun: After suffering through a half season of what Predators fans had learned to lovingly call the “Laviolette Line Blender”, John Hynes had started working with his forward unit to give clear expectations for play. Kyle Turris, under Laviolette, had spent about two weeks as a nightly healthy scratch back in the fall, and it seemed unclear as to the reason why this was happening or how Turris could fix it.

Hynes seems to have the approach that when someone wasn’t performing the way he expected them to, he would tell them exactly what they needed to fix, give them action steps to do so, and check in with them on a regular basis to monitor their progress. Kyle Turris found his way out of the doghouse, but Austin Watson found his way in.

After the pause, it’s all different...but it’s all the same. Let me explain. Lines looked like this in practice:

Filip Forsberg - Ryan Johansen - Viktor Arvidsson

Kyle Turris - Matt Duchene - Mikael Granlund

Rocco Grimaldi - Nick Bonino - Craig Smith

Calle Järnkrok - Colton Sissons - Austin Watson

The first line, affectionately known as “JOFA”, has been reunited under Hynes after some time apart. It has since been revealed that Arvidsson had been nursing a leg injury throughout the season, which explained the absence of his speed and the lack of offensive production. Ryan Johansen, who also found his way into the Hynes doghouse, seems to be reinvigorated after the break and has come back with a different mentality, something both he and Coach Hynes mentioned they had conversations about. Filip Forsberg is, well, Filip Forsberg. With Arvidsson’s injury healed, his speed is back—and very evidently so, based on some of the breakaways he’s had on display in camp. Johansen seems to be aggressively making plays and playing both ways. When you add this to the massive skillset of Forsberg (who is excited to be back with his old linemates) this line can be lethal. In camp, they have been incredibly effective at entering the zone quickly and uncontested. Once in, look for Forsberg to make silky smooth slot passes to Arvidsson, waiting at the back door. Forsberg also has a nasty shot from the top of the left faceoff circle. Look for the Predators to pull the Coyotes away from him and feed him for a clean shot at the net.

The second line is another line that has been reunited from the beginning of the season. When this group performs at its best, they are hard to touch. Matt Duchene’s transitional play is second to none. He’s aware of every look he has on the ice at any given time and has lightning-quick reactions as the play evolves. Turris and Granlund are highly-skilled puck handlers with a nose for the net. Once they find a weakness, they will exploit it.

The third line is something of an enigma. I’m not going to get into numbers and stats because that’s not what this is about, but Grimaldi and Smith are fast and give Bonino lots of space to work with. They get into the zone quickly and wreak havoc once they’re in. Bonino has a knack for net-front redirects and none of them give up on a puck. Bonino is also incredibly strong defensively, Grimaldi is a tenacious forechecker. Craig Smith can be unlucky with wide open nets, but still managed to be one of the leading scorers on the team this year.

St Louis Blues v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The fourth line is the line that has the best chance to change, but I’ll get to that in the next section. Watson can play gritty, physical hockey, but still has a great shot. Colton Sissons is a responsible center and a highly underrated defensive forward. Calle Järnkrok is defensively sound, plays quite a bit on the penalty kill, and has good offensive streaks from time to time.

Which Black Aces look like they have the best chance of seeing the ice in Edmonton?

Cat: I’ve already talked a bit about the Coyotes goaltending situation, which is…well, it is what it is. Both Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper have shown an alarming tendency to get banged up, which means that the first black ace I’d be willing to put money on showing up is Adin Hill.

The team already had a robust offering with seven defenders and an extra forward in Barrett Hayton, who I would anticipate getting a look before any of the black aces. But if any of them do, I would anticipate it being on defense first—even with only one extra forward in the main group and two extra defenders.

The first that could see a look is Kyle Capobianco. Nephew of former pro goalie (and current owner of Phoenix-area pro shops) Randy Exelby, Capobianco has taken some fairly legitimate criticisms of his defensive game since getting drafted and worked to flesh out his skill set while down in Tucson. The team has been incredibly pleased with the way he’s combined skating and offensive vision with major progress on the defensive front, and if there arises a need to put him into a postseason game I think he could potentially be rewarded for his hard work.

Chicago Blackhawks v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s hard to discount how high the team has been on 2019 first round pick Victor Söderstrom, though. The Swedish-born defender looked confident during his season overseas this year, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him get rewarded with ice time either. But just like with Capobianco, it would likely take something going wrong with the players who are currently in the active lineup in order to see him get a glimpse.

Shaun: Colin Blackwell and Yakov Trenin were the extra forwards that skated with the main group throughout camp. I’m not sure I’d exactly consider them black aces since they have spent a decent amount of time with the Predators this season, but I’d look for them to be moved in and out of the fourth line depending on needs. Blackwell is fast, physical, and smart. Trenin is strong, willing to be a nuisance in front of the net, and possesses a solid shot. He also hit Zdeno Chara in the mouth hard enough (with his fist) that Chara had to take a game off. I don’t want that to overshadow the rest of his abilities, but having a giant-killer around can’t be a bad thing.

NHL: JAN 04 Predators at Kings Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sports

Beyond these two players, Eeli Tolvanen looked great in camp. I think he has the best chance to find his way to the roster, especially if something happens to a guy that places a critical role on the power play. Alexandre Carrier has been solid in camp as well. Carrier is a solid defender. I had honestly thought Jérémy Davies looked a little more offensive-minded than Carrier, but the circumstances that would lead to Carrier being on the roster would probably place him on the third pairing. And, of course, Davies didn’t travel with the team to Edmonton.

How has the team changed in terms of strategy since March?

Cat: This is a nearly impossible question to answer, because we’ve seen a ton of conditioning from the team just like we’d expect — but it’s difficult to compare strategy, because they weren’t implementing any kind of strategy at all through February and March. The team was in a near-total free-fall offensively, struggling to keep up their stingy defense while conservatively scoring a goal a night.

Based on what I saw at training camp, though, it seems that the team’s strategy has been to take what worked when they were sparking — pairing Taylor Hall with the fast and tenacious Conor Garland, giving Jakob Chychrun a chance to secure the defensive zone while Alex Goligoski gets a chance to try driving offensive play again, and giving Clayton Keller some truly selfless two-way muscle in Lawson Crouse — and give all of those lines a chance to gel in training camp. They’ve tried to give the lines that showed the most promise a chance to really re-discover their chemistry, which shows that head coach Rick Tocchet is really trying to show some patience and let the lines prove themselves before he throws everything in a blender.

As far as goaltending goes, they’ve been giving both Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper a chance to have fun at camp, splitting them up the ice and keeping things easy and light rather than trying to wear either of them down. Once again, that’s not exactly a new strategy for the team, but does show that they might be operating on a little more faith than they had in the past.

Shaun: I have seen the following things happen in camp:

  • Huge emphasis on speed, especially exiting and entering the zone—with special attention paid to doing both cleanly.
  • Major focus on smooth line changes. Line changes, for some reason, have always plagued the team. Moving beyond the dreaded “too many men on the ice” penalty, the team worked on timing changes effectively so fresh defensive legs could join the rush. The Predators want to limit needless mistakes that could cause them to go on the penalty kill, as that has bitten them against the Coyotes in the first matchup this season.
  • Top two pairs of defenders focused heavily on high-danger shot suppression while the third pairing focused on doling out physical retribution to anyone who dared stand in front of the net.
  • Filip Forsberg has grown a mustache. I believe it gives him power.

Team-Specific Questions

Arizona (answered by Cat)

Where do you think Arizona’s strengths and weaknesses match (or don’t match) up well against Nashville?

I think that in theory, Arizona’s biggest strengths—their defense and their goaltending—are huge assets against a team like Nashville. They thrive on being a team that limits quality chances, and that has goaltenders capable of handling the shots that do get through. But then again, Nashville has a reputation of being pretty good defensively too, so it’s going to come down to which team takes advantage of their goaltending a little bit better.

Do you think Arizona will rely heavily on stifling the Nashville fast break (which helped Nashville win the last match up)?

Absolutely. Arizona relies on playing a suffocating defensive game, especially when they’re thriving. They became so good at it, in fact, that it sent certain Edmonton writers into fits and earned them their “boring” moniker when they were at the top of the Pacific.

They started to stray away from their identity a bit later in the season, but they’ve gotten a chance to refocus during the break. Assuming they come out playing the way head coach Rick Tocchet intends them to, they’ll be tough to penetrate in the defensive zone.

Do you think Arizona will try to force a more physical matchup because Nashville has been bad on special teams? The first matchup Arizona scored three on the PP, and then the Predators did better at limiting mistakes in the second game, which helped.

This is a pretty loaded question, because Arizona in theory has a great power play—but was clearly underperforming when they went on pause, both in terms of even-strength offense and on special teams. They racked up a horrific 2-for-24 conversion rate on their power play after the All-Star break, stagnating even with some quality chance generation from a handful of players who are known for driving great chances with the advantage. Add in the fact that the Coyotes don’t have an abundance of physicality on their roster, and pushing Nashville to make unforced errors might be easier said than done.

That being said, the Coyotes might have benefited from their covid re-set in a way that gives them their scoring jump back, and they do have a handful of verbal antagonists that could work their magic and get under Nashville’s skin.

Does being in the desert help since Taylor Hall can’t drive a boat?

God, you’d think so.

Nashville (answered by Shaun)

What do you think is the biggest concern Nashville has coming into this matchup?

I think the Predators have focused heavily on avoiding stupid mistakes that lead to costly penalties. Special teams has been a nightmare for the team for a while and John Hynes seemed to be more focused on eliminating avoidable penalties than trying to address penalty killing during the course of the season. My hope is that while the media didn’t see a lot of special teams work in camp, that they worked on it extensively while the media wasn’t around and will break out a revamped power play that will leave devastation in its path. Hynes, who joined the team in January, never had a chance to lay out his own approach with the team. This camp gave him the chance to do so.

Nashville seemed, to outside observers, just as up-and-down as the Coyotes this year—but while the pause seemed to be a potentially good thing for Arizona (considering how immensely they were struggling in March), could it be seen as a bad thing for Nashville? It seemed as if they were on a bit of a roll.

Juuse Saros was on a roll. Juuse Saros also has been known as a bit of a slow starter that takes a while to get crisp in the crease. My biggest concern with the pause is that Saros may need that time once again and not be able to get it. However, camp has done a lot to dispel those concerns for me. Rinne doesn’t look like a Game 1 starter, but I have no issue with him starting Game 3. If the Predators make it past the Coyotes, I think we would have had enough time to get to where he needs to be to be considered for a starting spot on any given night.

Anaheim Ducks v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

As far as the team being on a bit of a roll, I feel like that had more to do with Hynes being able to get his system more in place. This camp has given him the opportunity to fully implement it. He’s no longer working with an anemic Laviolette framework with Hynes details. This is the Hynes system. Of course, this leads into the next question...

Which player’s performance is the most make-or-break for Nashville, in your opinion (outside of Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros, obviously)?

Ryan Johansen. He has all the tools to be dominant. However, he also has a hefty price tag and tends to be an underperformer. If the JOFA line is going to be successful, they’re going to have to have Johansen in top form. Granted, he started the season in what I would consider to be a bit of a rough place emotionally, was noticeably not living up to the standard of his contract, and found himself in the Hynes doghouse right before the pause. However, Hynes and Johansen have apparently had some very serious discussions and he and Johansen seem to be on the same page. He certainly looked, for lack of a better term, dialed-in during camp. With a healthy and appropriately-motivated Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson became even more deadly. Without him in top form, the first line loses a lot of fire power.