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Special teams play shines a harsh spotlight on Preds’ poor season

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The problem runs deeper than just the games where they give up power-play goals in bunches.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Nashville Predators Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators’ season is off to a horrible start. While most of the OTF staff and fanbase predicted the team would make the playoffs, they’re currently in the cellar of the New Central. They haven’t won a game in regulation since their second game of the season. Even I, one of the only skeptics, didn’t expect them to be this bad this quickly.

But how bad have they really been?

They’ve been outscored 22-18 at 5v5, for a 45% goal share, which isn’t great—it has them in the bottom third of the league. The only two teams in the New Central with a worse 5v5 goal share are the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, who aren’t the company the Preds had wanted to keep going into this season. At even strength, they’ve been outscored 26-23, which includes the two OT gamewinners, for a 47% goal share—still subpar, though better, and now passing the Columbus Blue Jackets as well.

The glaring problem, however, is their special teams.

Scoring for on the power play vs scoring against on the penalty kill for all teams. The Predators are doing their best to overlap the “Bad” quadrant label by neither scoring on the power play nor killing penalties.
HockeyViz.com

The penalty kill is nightmarishly bad

The Preds have given up a league-leading nineteen goals on the penalty kill. The St. Louis Blues are next with 17, and no other team has allowed more than 13. Could the problem be the Preds’ top-ten time spent killing (or failing to kill) penalties? Well...no, because they’re also giving up a league-leading 14.29 goals per hour while shorthanded, almost two goals per hour more than the next team.

They have a bottom-third defensive penalty kill on paper, but where it really fails is in motion—we’ll have an article breaking down exactly what’s going wrong with it shortly. The quick version, though, is that the Predators are needlessly making their lives and their goalies’ lives harder.

Pekka Rinne and especially Juuse Saros are taking the blame. To some extent, a team does need its goalie to be able to stop shots, but the penalty kill itself is brutal. At 5v5, both Preds goalies are performing a little below-average in terms of the shots they’re facing, but the Predators’ defense in front of them has been good enough that that’s still enough for both Rinne and Saros to be at least average this season.

Of the 61 NHL goalies who have played in more than one game this season, Saros’s 5v5 save percentage of .917 is good for 32nd, while Rinne’s .934 is good for 13th. Adjusting for score and venue—which I hate doing for actual goals but thought was worth a look given Rinne’s relief appearances—improves both goalies’ stats as well as their rankings further. But on the season, Rinne’s total sv% is .909, while Saros’s is an eighties-esque .881. Why? Because both of them are allowing goals on more than one of every four shots while their team is shorthanded.

The Preds’ penalty kill is also abysmally, horrendously bad at generating anything to offset what it’s giving up. The Predators have the worst share and rates of total shots, unblocked shots, shots on goal, scoring chances, and expected goals while shorthanded of any NHL team, in almost all cases by a generous margin (less than half that of the next-worst team, with the exception of shots on goal); they are the only team in the NHL yet to manage a single shorthanded high-danger chance.

The power play is inadequate and wrongheaded

That lack of offense on special teams carries over to the power play. While the Nashville Predators’ seven goals with the extra skater lift them out of the bottom third of the league (barely), and their 4.84 goals per hour put them at a mere eighth-worst scoring rate, if your penalty kill is abysmal you need to have a good power play, and vice versa. The Predators...do not have a good power play.

Again, its biggest problems are more apparent in motion than on paper; on paper, unlike the penalty kill, it actually looks like it should be decent. Unfortunately, the Preds’ roster is a bad fit for what they’re doing. They are running their power play like they still have Shea Weber at the left point, ready with a bone-breaking slapshot that inspires universal respect in opponent defenders and goalies.

They haven’t had him available for four and a half years, but any model evaluating threat to score assumes a certain degree of good judgment. Point shots on the power play are generally taken by players who have that hard one-timer, into an inner slot where one or more teammates are waiting to screen the goalie and fight for the rebound. When those factors are missing, “it should work” doesn’t work.

On the danger of having bad power play and penalty kills

In case you missed the significance of those two scoring rates, let me give them to you again: this season, the Predators have given up 14.29 goals per hour while on the penalty kill, and scored 4.84 goals per hour while on the power play. That’s a net loss of 9.45 goals per hour of non-offsetting penalties, or a goal differential of minus-13 so far.

NHL referees like to balance penalty calls. What this means is that if a team draws a lot of penalties, they will also get called for a lot of penalties; if a team takes a lot of penalties, they will also get a lot of chances on the power play. Referees call it “game management”; people who want fair play in sports call it an abnegation of responsibility on the part of the league. The Predators do take a lot of penalties—a discipline issue that’s plagued them all season—and they also draw a lot.

The “dull” quadrant means mostly even-strength play; the “good” quadrant means more time on the power play and less time on the penalty kill; the “bad” quadrant means more time on the penalty kill and less time on the power play; the “fun” quadrant, where the Preds are, means less time at even strength.
HockeyViz.com

League average so far this season is 42 penalties over 12 games; the Predators have drawn 49 and taken 51 over the course of 13 games. They should not want to be doing any of that. Yes, they threaten to score, and actually score, more often on the power play than they do at even strength—but not that often, and it’s not worth the shorthanded time.

But how much do the poor special teams matter?

Well...it’s hard to say. There are certainly big problems that aren’t about either one directly—with the roster construction, maybe; with the refusal of John Hynes and/or David Poile to use the young talent in the system, almost certainly; with morale, as far as it’s possible for us to judge; with the offense and defense even 5v5, undoubtedly.

The league average power-play conversion percentage is 21.1% (the Predators’ is 14.29%), while the league average penalty-kill completion percentage is 78.9% (the Predators’ is 62.75%). To simplify that even further, the average NHL team scores on about one out of every five penalties it draws, and allows a goal on about one out of every five penalties it takes. The Predators are scoring on roughly one out of every seven penalties they draw, and allowing a goal on about two out of every five penalties they take.

Just as a thought experiment, I went through the Predators’ thirteen games so far this season, counting off power plays and penalty kills. I assigned a goal on the fifth non-offsetting one of each (I did not touch the short-handed goal they allowed, or attempt to add one for the Predators although the league average is one). Here’s how the revised scores broke down:

Nashville Predators: Average Special Teams Edition

Opponent Outcome Final Score Actual PPG "Average" PPG New Final Score New Outcome
Opponent Outcome Final Score Actual PPG "Average" PPG New Final Score New Outcome
Columbus Blue Jackets W 3-1 0-0 0-0 3-1 W
Columbus Blue Jackets W 5-2 0-0 1-0 6-2 W
Carolina Hurricanes L 2-4 1-1 1-1 2-4 L
Dallas Stars L 0-7 0-5 1-2 1-4 L
Dallas Stars L 2-3 1-3 1-1 2-1 W
Chicago Blackhawks W-OT 3-2 0-1 0-0 2-1 W
Chicago Blackhawks W-SO 2-1 0-0 1-1 3-2 W-SO
Tampa Bay Lightning L 3-4 2-2 1-1 2-3 L
Tampa Bay Lightning L 2-5 0-1 1-1 3-5 L
Florida Panthers W-OT 6-5 2-2 1-1 5-4 W-OT
Florida Panthers L 1-2 0-0 0-0 1-2 L
Tampa Bay Lightning L 1-4 1-1 1-1 1-4 L
Tampa Bay Lightning L 1-6 0-3 1-1 2-4 L

Total goal differential on the season: -4, as opposed to their current -16; zero games where they lost by more than three, instead of two. Record: 6-7-0, with two more regulation wins than they currently have and one fewer point for the Chicago Blackhawks.

It’s still not great. This looks a lot more like a team that could get lucky and go on a bit of a run, or that’s been unlucky and could have that even out for them, but it’s still not a winning team.

There are several obvious flaws in this brute-force method. For one, it doesn’t take into account the differing strengths of the Predators’ opponents’ special teams. For another, there’s no easy way to determine whether goals scored at even strength started on the power play (the Preds have given up several of those) and should also be erased without rewatching every game. For a third, while I’ve kept the empty-net goals scored by and against teams in games where there was empty-net play with a similar score heading up to the last few minutes, I have not tried to account for games where the score was closer than before or a different team was leading in the final minutes of regulation. For a fourth, it’s impossible to account for score effects with a back-of-the-envelope calculation like this.

Finally, it’s also impossible to account for the impact on team morale their inability to make their opponents pay on the scoreboard has had, or whether they might have an easier time at 5v5 with better special teams play. As noted, even at 5v5 they’re a below-average team—but much closer to average. The team’s tendency to crumple at any setback has been apparent since the 2017 Stanley Cup Final where awful refereeing might have cost them two games and the championship; maybe better special teams would help. Maybe they wouldn’t.

Does the problem go deeper than special teams?

It pretty clearly does. However, the special teams play—both the long-running problems with the power play and the atrocious collapse of the penalty kill—are a big thing that jumps out.

It’s easy for team staff to look at a game where the Predators gave up three power-play goals, as they have twice this season, and say, “Well, if we’d scored on another one or two of ours and kept them off the board, we’d have won.” It’s even easier to look at a 0-7 walloping where the Predators gave up five power-play goals, one shorthanded goal, and failed to score on any of their five power plays, and say, “The entire problem here is special teams.”

Peter Laviolette was relieved of his duties as the Preds’ head coach thirteen months ago because of a streak of poor goaltending. Nobody official has identified that as the reason the Predators parted ways with him, but the correlation is clear. What seemed to be the problems with Laviolette’s methods—prioritizing shot volume over shot quality, stripping away offensive creativity from new players, an absolute refusal to even recognize the problems with the power play—had all been apparent for years, but as long as the team was winning just enough, his job was safe.

It’s possible that this season’s poor special teams play may be an excuse for the end of John Hynes’s tenure in Nashville, but the blame doesn’t stop at Hynes. Over the last two seasons there’s been almost a full turnover of coaching staff, and the problems remain. David Poile said he got rid of Laviolette because he couldn’t get rid of twenty players; it’s time to ask whether the whole roster needs to go, or whether the man who assembled it does.


Statistics from naturalstattrick.com and hockey-reference.com; additional background referenced from hockeyviz.com.