In the month of December, the Nashville Predators have been destroyed on both sides of the special teams coin.
The Preds have allowed eight power-play goals in six games to begin the month, and their own power play hasn’t been much better than their penalty kill. Aside from a rare two-goal performance in a win over the Islanders, Nashville has been held off the scoreboard when up a man.
Nashville’s issues and relationship with mediocrity run deep, but special teams haven’t been a walk in the park for the team, either. The Predators are just 29th on the power play and 21st on the penalty kill. With the issues Nashville has faced at even strength this year, some success on special teams would help, but that hasn’t been the case.
Nashville’s power play is a tough nut to crack.
On the surface, it’s easy to see what the problem is: The Preds simply don’t score enough with the man advantage. They own one of the worst power plays in the league, and the advanced stats don’t flatter them, either.
Technically, the Predators might be due for some positive regression. They’ve scored just 15 goals on nearly 18.5 expected goals (unadjusted), per Natural Stat Trick. Natural Stat Trick also lists Nashville as having the third-lowest shooting percentage with the man advantage (10.56%). Additionally, Nashville is drawing the sixth-most penalties per 60 minutes, so it’s getting plenty of opportunities.
But even if the Predators regress back to the mean, they would still find themselves toward the back of the pack on the power play. Their expected goals per 60 minutes with the man advantage is 26th in the league, according to Natural Stat Trick. They simply aren’t producing enough quality chances.
One of the few positives with the unit is Roman Josi. The Swiss defender leads the team in power-play goals with four and is tied for the lead in points (10) with Filip Forsberg. Among defenders, Josi is also in a five-way tie for the league lead for power-play goals and is by far the leader in shots with 39.
However, is Josi shooting the puck too much? Nashville’s main problem on the power play is it isn’t producing enough chances directly in front of the opposing goaltender. As good as Josi’s shot is, blasting shots from the point isn’t producing enough dangerous chances for the Predators to take advantage of. Take a look at this chart from Micah Blake McCurdy from hockeyviz.com.
In general, you’ll see plenty of analytics folks debate the merits of point shots. They don’t produce goals that often and, worse, can lead to opportunities on the rush going the other way if blocked. For example, here’s a Josi shot from Monday night’s game against the Blues that went horribly wrong for the Preds.
Josi obviously has a unique skillset the Preds can and should take advantage of. However, Nashville arguably should be doing more to take advantage of having an extra man on the ice and the additional space to create more favorable chances.
Also, the wide chasm in front of the net and on the left wing seems like it’s just screaming Forsberg’s name. When the Preds inked Forsberg to a new eight-year deal worth an average annual value of $8.5 million, they probably weren’t expecting him to only have two power-play goals a couple of weeks before Christmas, especially after scoring 10 last year.
So what’s the deal with Forsberg? After all, he does seem to be the answer to Nashville’s power-play woes.
First, Forsberg has regularly outscored his expected goal totals on the power play, but not this year. His two power-play markers have underperformed compared to 2.85 expected goals (unadjusted), per Natural Stat Trick.
But it’s not for a lack of opportunities. Per Natural Stat Trick, Forsberg is second on the team in shots and individual shot attempts on the power play behind Josi. He’s actually generated the third-highest individual expected-goals rate on the power play of his career, but Forsberg hasn’t found the back of the net as expected. And he’s certainly not overachieving like Nashville fans have grown accustomed to.
Forsberg’s not alone, either. Ryan Johansen and Mikael Granlund are both underperforming compared to their expected goals totals with the man advantage.
But even if everyone was scoring as expected, that still wouldn’t change Nashville’s issues to create goal-scoring opportunities. With the talent Nashville has on its top unit, that shouldn’t be such a problem.
Penalty kill: Thank goodness for goaltending
Addressing the penalty kill doesn’t seem like an immediate need after looking at the power play, but the Predators still have issues when they’re down a man.
Primarily one issue: inevitably regressing to the mean. Given the unit’s December performance, that might be already happening.
Nashville has gotten what can only be described as heroic goaltending on the penalty kill, which seems fairly impossible for a unit ranked 21st in the league through Tuesday’s games. But there’s also no way to argue that Juuse Saros isn’t saving Nashville’s hide when the Predators are on the penalty kill.
Nashville has allowed 22 goals on the penalty kill this season. Saros was 15th in save percentage while shorthanded this season out of the 29 goaltenders with at least 15 games played through Tuesday, but that’s not accounting for shot quality.
Taking shot quality into account is important for any team, but that’s especially true for Nashville. The Predators owned the worst expected-goals-against rate per 60 minutes in the league on the penalty kill at 9.81 through Tuesday, according to Natural Stat Trick. Not Arizona, not Anaheim, not Philadelphia, not Chicago. Nashville. Somehow, this is the support the Predators’ penalty kill has given Lankinen and Saros.
This is historically bad. Small sample size and all, but Evolving Hockey lists this year’s Predators as having the second-worst penalty kill by expected goals against per 60 minutes since the 2007-08 season. Only this year’s Canadiens are only slightly worse (note: every site has its own expected goals model, so there will be some differences from site to site).
Looking at Evolving Hockey’s goals saved above expected (GSAx) metric, which accounts for shot quality by calculating the difference between a goalie’s expected goals against and his actual goals against, Saros is one of the top goalies in the league on the penalty kill. He’s saved 4.18 goals above expected with Nashville shorthanded, the seventh-best mark in the league ahead of Wednesday’s games.
Nashville shouldn’t need a Vezina-worthy performance from its goaltenders on the penalty kill on a nightly basis, but that’s been the case so far. If something doesn’t change, the Predators are going to be up a creek without a paddle at some point.