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Predators vs. Coyotes Preview: Matchup Overview

A final look at the first step of these extended playoffs as Nashville looks to take either a step towards the Cup, or a chance in the Alexis Lafrenière sweepstakes.

Arizona Coyotes v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The Skinny:

Nashville ended the season with a record of 35-26-8 for a total of 78 points with a 56.5% points percentage—enough to rank Nashville sixth in the Western Conference, fourth in the Central Division. The Arizona Coyotes finished at 33-29-8, for 74 points and a 52.9% points percentage. Despite the four-point difference, Arizona ranked 11th overall in the Western Conference, and only fifth in the Pacific Division.

Prior to the season being put on pause, Nashville had earned 13 points in their last 10 games with a record of 6-3-1, the final three games all being wins. Arizona posted only a slightly worse final ten-game record of 5-5-0, earning ten points, and goes into the qualifying round on a two-game losing streak.

In their exhibition games on Thursday, the Predators defeated the Dallas Stars by a score of 2-0, whereas the Arizona Coyotes fell to the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1.


Statistical Leaders

Goals: Nashville’s leading goal scorer was Filip Forsberg, whose 21 goals had him tied for 65th in the NHL. Arizona’s Conor Garland finished with just one more at 22, tied for 53rd.

Points: Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators finished the season with 65 points, tying him at 24th in the NHL with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler. Josi finished as the second-highest scoring defender, behind only Washington’s John Carlson and his 75 points. For Arizona, Taylor Hall’s combined 52 points between his time with the New Jersey Devils and Coyotes put him in a tie for 64th in the NHL.

Goaltending - Save Percentage: The Arizona Coyotes had two netminders finish in the top 10 of the NHL for save percentage—Darcy Kuemper at third with a 92.8% and Antti Raanta at eighth with 92.1%. The Predators’ usual vaunted goaltending tandem suffered a bit this season. Juuse Saros finished 24th with a save percentage of 91.4%, while the former Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne finished at 52nd with 89.5%—the third-worst overall save percentage in the NHL (among goaltenders with at least 24 games played).


The Forward Lines:

Note: I will be projecting both forward lines and defensive pairings based on common combinations during the regular season, as well as the lineups seen in Thursday’s exhibition matchups.

The Top Lines:

Nashville: Filip Forsberg - Ryan Johansen - Viktor Arvidsson

Arizona: Taylor Hall - Christian Dvorak - Conor Garland

Looking at the isolates from Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz.com, we can see that the now-reunited JOFA line regressed heavily from their performance in the 2018-19 season.(Note: for offensive isolates, a positive percentage is good, since it indicates they were creating quality shots better than league average. For defensive isolates, a negative percentage is good—they are allowing fewer quality shots against than league average.)

Nashville’s first line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Nashville’s first line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

The JOFA line was merely pedestrian in what little time they had together on offense, especially compared to a +54% in the 2018-19 season. Defensively, things were a disaster—while the unit was on the ice, opponents were creating 24% more quality than league average. However, the unit’s performance against Dallas does inspire some hope that Arvidsson has recovered from his injury and we could see the JOFA of old.


Arizona’s first line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Arizona’s first line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

On the other hand, Arizona’s first line was outright dominant at creating quality on offense, doing so at a rate 40% better than league average. The unit was on ice for 15 goals at 5 on 5, compared to the JOFA line’s 8. Defensively, the line was below average, but still much better than their counterparts on the Predators. However, Arizona did allow 14 goals while the unit was on the ice, whereas the JOFA line allowed only 5, with half of the time on ice and arguably worse goaltending.

Still, right now Nashville fans can only go on hope that Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson can go back to their usual ways. Advantage: Arizona


The Second Lines

Nashville: Turris - Duchene - Granlund

Arizona: Kessel - Richardson* - Söderberg (*Richardson in place of injured Schmaltz)

Nashville’s (partial) second line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Nashville’s (partial) second line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

The two projected second lines are a bit harder to analyze, as both Nashville and Arizona will be playing units that have very little time together (Turris-Duchene-Granland have by far the most with 70 minutes, but the drop off is very steep after that). Instead, I wanted to look at the two linemates with an abundance of 5 on 5 TOI, so we could compare a larger sample size of work.

Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund spent a lot of time together on the second line this season, with a large chunk of that being alongside Filip Forsberg. But even with Forsberg’s return to the JOFA line, the duo was pretty effective together. Matt Duchene, at first glance, had a disappointing debut season in Nashville, with his goal scoring being down from previous years—however, Duchene emerged as one of the best transition skaters in the league this season, as shown by Corey Sznajder’s tracking project:

Individual 5v5 Transitional Play - Nashville and Arizona
Corey Sznajder

Duchene guiding the puck into and out of the neutral zone will be key to the Preds establishing possession in the offensive zone in front of Arizona’s 1-3-1 defense. Granlund came on late in the season with clutch goals late in games, including the game-tying and game-winning goals against Calgary. The addition of Kyle Turris moving to wing will bring some flexibility to the line. While Turris cannot reproduce Forsberg’s playmaking ability, his awareness for finding the open man for a shot on the point is very good, and he has thrived in a top-six role when he was given the chance this season.


Arizona’s (partial) second line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Arizona’s (partial) second line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

As you can tell, there’s quite a discrepancy between the two lines, and this isn’t accounting for the likely loss of Nick Schmaltz, injured in Thursday’s exhibition game. The combination of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg struggled to create offense, and was well below league average on defense. While both lines are replacing a player, Nashville has a middle-six player slotting in, while Arizona has a likely fourth-line player in Richardson. Advantage: Nashville


The Third Lines

Nashville: Grimaldi - Bonino - Smith

Arizona: Keller - Stepan - Crouse

Arizona’s (partial) third line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Arizona’s (partial) third line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

The Coyotes’ projected third line has promise, for sure, but they only played 24 minutes together this season, so instead we’ll look at the duo of Clayton Keller and Derek Stepan. While they appear to be the very definition of league average in offense and defense, Clayton Keller is an extremely talented young player, and while the line will likely miss Phil Kessel’s presence, they absolutely can still provide playmaking ability.


Nashville’s third line - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Nashville’s third line - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

What more can be said about the third line of Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Bonino and Craig Smith? They finished the season as a top-five line in the entire NHL in terms of quality chances and goal scoring, and boast a shot quality creation that is 37% better than league average. The speedy Rocco Grimaldi is a wizard in transition, often entering the zone and carrying the puck all the way to the goal off the rush. Bonino has remained a steady two-way player, with exceptional defensive abilities, and a skilled passer as well. Craig Smith has always been (but especially so this season) a high-volume shot producer, and is a great counter-balance to Grimaldi. This unit is extremely dangerous on offense, and often draws favorable matchups in the “checking line” role so prevalent across the NHL. The answer here is clear. Advantage: Nashville


The Fourth Lines

Nashville: Järnkrok - Sissons - Watson

Arizona: Hinostroza - Fischer - Grabner

Both teams will likely be icing fourth lines that will both be players with little time together or have players rotating in and out throughout the series, so isolates are pretty much non-descriptive here. For Nashville, Austin Watson was a healthy scratch towards the end of the season, being replaced by Colin Blackwell. Blackwell, while a rookie, shows incredible vision and skill and his growth in both Milwaukee and in Nashville from last season has been sensational to watch. I would not be surprised if Watson receives the start based on experience to start the series, but I expect to see Blackwell in this series in some capability. The line is built with defense in mind, and likely won’t be much of a scoring threat throughout the series.

It is much the same for Arizona, as Michael Grabner may fill in for Brad Richardson in Nick Schmaltz’s absence. Grabner was a healthy scratch much of the season, and Vinnie Hinostroza and Christian Fischer were serviceable in limited minutes together, slightly below league average.

While the entire unit did not spend much time together as a trio, Sissons shared considerable minutes with both Järnkrok and Watson this season, and the combinations were very strong defensively. Advantage: Nashville


The Defenders

Nashville:

Josi - Ellis

Ekholm - Fabbro

Hamhuis - Tinordi

Nashville’s first pairing - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Nashville first pairing - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

While the second pair of Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro have been aggressively average this season, they still break even for the most part. The third pair will likely be a combination of Dan Hamhuis, Jarred Tinordi and Yannick Weber, and while there’s no world in which any of those are good by any measure, Hamhuis has silently been at least serviceable in keeping the others afloat.

And then we come to Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. One of the bigger shames of this season is the fantastic season Ryan Ellis had, which was derailed by a cheap shot from Corey Perry and overshadowed by his partner Josi’s monstrous (and likely Norris-winning) season. Ellis is a tremendous defensive player, can drive the puck well when needed, and is a very good offensive playmaker in his own right. Ryan Ellis ended this regular season as the third-best player in the entire NHL according to the Wins Above Average (WAR) metric on Evolving-Hockey.com (trailing only Artemi Panarin and Elias Pettersson).

NHL Leaders - Goals Above Replacement
Evolving-Hockey.com

He brings a complete and varied skillset to the position and his contract extension last season was a complete bargain for what he brings to the team. Roman Josi, on the other hand, decided this offseason that with a new contract, he would also bring an improvement to his defensive game that was out of this world. Together, the duo was easily one of the best one or two defensive pairings in the league and could be the best two-way pairing in the entire NHL.


Arizona:

Ekman-Larsson - Demers

Goligoski - Chychrun

Hjalmarsson - Lyubushkin

Arizona’s first pairing - Offensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com
Arizona’s first pairing - Defensive Isolate
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

The Coyotes have a pretty decent first pairing in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jason Demers that has very good two-way ability, and has faced top competition throughout much of the season. They (and the remainder of the Arizona defenders) lack the game-breaking ability of their Nashville peers, but the defensive strategy by the Coyotes plays well to support them in both phases of the game. However, if the initial strategy of neutral zone defense does not work, all the defensive pairings are prone to extended time in their defensive zone as they struggle to get rebounds and turnovers.

A perfect example of this is from the Nashville - Arizona game back on December 23rd, where Rocco Grimaldi’s zone entry was the start of a forty-five second possession by the Predators that consisted of multiple high-danger shots on goal and a Filip Forsberg score. Because the Coyotes were not able to stop Grimaldi in the neutral zone, they struggled to keep their heads above water, and their premiere goaltending couldn’t cover for the poor defensive ability and lack of turnovers:

Nashville is a team that has struggled with setting up their offense in the past when held up in the neutral zone, and a stronger effort by the defenders (along with better skating technique to plug up alleys up the ice) could bring those struggles back to this series. Still, the advantage between the two units is extremely clear. Advantage: Nashville


Goaltending

Kate's positional preview of the goaltending in this series is an excellent breakdown of the two units and I'll defer to her on the heavy lifting. But it's clear that Arizona has the advantage with two top-ten goaltenders, and they could likely turn to either one at any point in this series. Nashville saw Juuse Saros establish himself as the team's starter in the latter half of the season, and he will likely start the series in net. Pekka Rinne will probably get time in one of the two back-to-back games, and his play on special teams will be key to Nashville's success in that game.

Unfortunately, while normally the Predators boast one of the best tandems in the league, Rinne and Saros are outclassed by Raanta and Kuemper, and perhaps more than in previous playoffs, the Preds’ goalies will need a top-level effort from the five skaters in front of them. Advantage: Arizona


Conclusion

Nashville has a distinct advantage when it comes to the skaters on the ice. The forward group has more scoring depth than Arizona, and the ability of the top three lines to score should allow them to dominate against the top-heavy Coyotes corps.

The defender advantage is even more slanted towards the Predators, and Roman Josi’s ability to drive the puck will likely be too much for Arizona’s defensive gameplan.

Where the Arizona Coyotes can steal this series are the goaltenders and special teams. Arizona won this season's first matchup 3-2 behind three power play goals, and while it is not up to the previous season's standard, the Coyotes have a unique ability to score short-handed as well. Nashville must keep the aggressive power play they showed on Thursday and rely on quick puck movements to the high danger areas.

I think as long as Juuse Saros continues to be technically sound, Nashville should be able to escape the qualifying round in four games over the Coyotes. The only bad news is that the competition will get much tougher in the next round.

Overall Advantage: Nashville

Bryan's Prediction: Nashville in 4