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Would more blueline scoring help fix the Preds’ season?

The Predators have disappointed this season. Is it because of a drop in scoring from the back end?

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

Last season we were all riveted by Roman Josi who, by scoring 96 points in a single season, became the highest scoring defender since Phil Housely in 1992-93. This year, however, Josi leads a defense core that is not setting the world on fire with its offense. In fact, last Thursday night I was informed by the Tampa Bay announcers that the Predators’ defenders were ranked 31st in the league in offensive production. To me, this warranted a larger investigation, so I gathered data about offensive production by defenders in the league to try to figure out what is going on and how much it might matter.

The Bigger Picture

Last season, Vezina-caliber goaltending in combination with several players’ career-year performances set expectations high. The offseason acquisitions of Ryan McDonagh and Nino Niederreiter were viewed as positive moves as well. But a third of the way through the season, the Nashville Predators have fallen quite short of preseason expectations and are sitting in 23rd place in the league standings, five points out of the last wild card spot in the Western Conference.

Could the Predators’ disappointing start to the season be the result of the underperformance of the D-corps? How many additional games could the Preds have won if their defenders had an offensive performance more like last season?

In attempting to answer these questions, I pulled data from the NHL stats page for this season and last season through December 7th. I found that by this date last season, the Predators D-corps had 11 goals and 48 points, ranking 21st in the league, compared to 9 goals and 41 points this year.

Lighting the Lamp

San Jose Sharks v Ottawa Senators Photo by Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

Scoring is up 13.8% across the league this year. This is also true for defenders, who are scoring 10% more goals and 4.6% more points than last year. They are led by Erik Karlsson (San Jose Sharks), who currently has 11 goals and 35 points. If he sustains that pace for the remainder of the season, Karlsson will score 99 points and surpass Josi’s impressive performance of just a season ago. Hot on Karlsson’s tail is Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo Sabres), who despite missing two games this season is on track for 97 points, and Adam Fox (New York Rangers) who is projected for 89 points.

By contrast, the Predators’ defense has seen their scoring fall 14.6% compared to this time last season. This has taken them from a lower mid-league scoring D-corps to having only an abysmal Chicago team between them and the bottom of the barrel.

What Could Have Been

So, if the Predators defenders were actually living up to their prior reputation, how big of a difference could that have made this season?

Defensive scoring is up league-wide, but a closer look at the data reveals an interesting pattern. As you can see by the snippet of data in the table below, the least offensive D-corps are scoring more, but the most offensive ones are actually contributing fewer points to their teams than they did last season.

Offensive Production by D-Corps as of Dec. 7th

Team Rank 2021-22 2022-23
Team Rank 2021-22 2022-23
1st 25-58-83 (COL) 14-58-72 (SJS)
2nd 17-57-74 (MIN) 9-58-67 (VGK)
3rd 12-62-74 (FLA) 17-49-66 (FLA)
30th 6-30-36 (CHI) 11-31-42 (OTT)
31st 11-24-35 (BOS) 9-32-41 (NSH)
32nd 2-20-22 (NYI) 8-31-39 (CHI)

Looking at this graphically makes the pattern even clearer. The boxplot below shows the distribution of league D-corps scoring this year (red) and last year (blue). For those of us who don’t look at a lot of boxplots, here’s a quick primer. The box itself shows the middle 50% of the distribution. You can look at the top and bottom bounds to see how most of the league is performing. The whiskers extending above or below the box indicate the maximum and minimum values (excluding outliers). In 2021 COL was an outlier and its scoring is indicated by the dot at the top of the 2021 plot.

Boxplot of League Scoring by D-Corps

What this boxplot shows is that the league is much more even in terms of defensive scoring this year than it was last year. At the higher end, scoring is down, but at the lower end, it’s way up, grouping teams much more tightly together.

In this context, even if the Predators’ blueliners were scoring at last year’s pace they would still only place 25th in the league. An improvement, but not exactly world-changing.

So what might have happened if the Preds D-corps had contributed 7 extra points in the first 24 games this season (0.30 P/GP)? To think about this, we need to examine the Predators’ record more closely.

Win, Blow Out, or Draw

As of December 7th, when I pulled my data, the Preds had lost 12 games this year. Two of those were lost in OT or the shootout. But the remaining 10 were lost by two or more goals, with an average goal spread of 2.9. Looking more closely, we find that in 6 of those games the Preds allowed an empty-net goal, but in only one of those six games were the Preds within one goal when going to the empty net (a 3-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on November 20th). That and the post-regulation losses are the only games where it seems likely that those extra points could have made a difference. So, at most, we’re looking at a couple of standings points, which would still leave the Predators outside the playoff picture.

Given the recent injuries on the Preds blueline, this pattern probably won’t turn around soon. More investigation is needed to thoroughly understand what is going on with the Preds D-corps. But the evidence so far suggests that defensive scoring is not the source of the Predators’ early woes. Given that scoring has always been an issue for the Predators forwards and that team scoring is down 8%, there is clearly a larger systemic or talent problem. Or perhaps we just need half the team to decide to have a career season, again.