Should the Predators be playing Kyle Turris at wing?

Turris has been playing on a line across from Viktor Arvidsson and centered by Ryan Johansen as the Preds get ready for the season. Is that the right move?

With the Predators’ offseason signing of the much-anticipated Matt Duchene, they faced the problem, for the first time in a long time, of having too many centers who are at the very least pretty good at hockey.

It’s quite a journey for a team that, four years ago, had the approximate center depth of a donut. A little over two years ago, they were in the Stanley Cup Final with Colton Sissons as the first-line center and Calle Järnkrok behind him on the second line. I’m not actually sure who the fourth-line center was at that point; it might have been Gnash.

Now, the Predators have Ryan Johansen (neither of whose legs has exploded recently), Matt Duchene (not in Colorado Ottawa Columbus anymore), Kyle Turris (whose report card is coming later today), and Nick Bonino (two-time Stanley Cup champion, I guess), as well as the defensively fantastic depth player Sissons and the cerebral but sometimes underwhelming Järnkrok.

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You don’t want Colton Sissons as your 1C in the Cup Final—even though he did score in that Game 6—but I’d take him anchoring a shutdown fourth line with a little bit of counter-punching potential all day any day. You don’t want to rely on Calle Järnkrok to make plays, or use him on the penalty kill, but he plays suffocating defense to go with his lack of offense, and I’ve seen him manage to draw bench minors. More than once, even!

The Preds’ acquisitions at center over the last couple of years—Bonino in free agency, Turris in a weird three-way trade with the Avalanche and Senators that moved Duchene to the “wrong” team, and then Duchene himself in free agency—mean that there are several more layers of insurance between fourth-line players and that top-line spot, but it also means that the Predators have a lot of money and resources tied up in three centers.

Johansen and Duchene both make $8M/year against cap, while Turris has an AAV of $6M. Nick Bonino makes a reasonable 3C but a costly 4C at $4.1M, and Järnkrok was protected in the Vegas expansion draft. Sissons, meanwhile, probably has a better long-term outlook than either Bonino or Järnkrok, and signed a lengthy and reasonably cheap extension of his own this offseason. That leaves the Predators with a few options:

  1. Play Bonino at 3C, where his cap hit makes more sense, and figure out how to arrange Duchene, Johansen, and Turris in the top six. (I arranged them alphabetically here, but that’s probably not the best way to do a NHL roster.)
  2. Play Bonino at 4C, with Turris as 3C and Duchene and Johansen in the top six.
  3. Play Bonino at 3C and Turris—who struggled in 2018-19—at 4C, with Duchene and Johansen as the top two centers.
  4. Move on from either Bonino or Turris, play the other at 3C, and play Sissons at 4C, with Duchene and Johansen...yeah, you know the drill.

I’ve talked about the possibility of the Preds trading Turris and why I think it would be a bad idea before. The short version is that they’d be selling very low on Turris and would probably have to send out additional assets and/or take (only) a bad contract back and/or retain salary, while they’d be selling high on Bonino. Still, it’s possible that we see one of this group of centers move on, and it’ll probably depend on whether Turris bounces back from last season and when Bonino’s PDO bubble pops.

Playing Turris at 4C is a way to pretty much guarantee that he won’t perform in Nashville and won’t have any value in a trade, either. His defense isn’t great and his offense relies on having skilled wingers to get the puck into the net. If he were on the Preds’ fourth line, he’d be asked to shut down the opponent, throw some hits, and pass to noted goalscorers like Miikka Salomäki and Frédérick Gaudreau (actually, some of Gaudreau’s goals were pretty noteworthy). That’s an awful fit for Turris.

What I’d like to see is Turris centering a scoring third line, with young skilled wingers like Eeli Tolvanen and maybe Rem Pitlick. It wouldn’t be a defensively-reliable line, but Peter Laviolette could give them sheltered zone starts and matchups at home, and try to play them with the defensively brilliant pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis (if we see Ekholm-Ellis again this season, as I hope we do) as much as possible. In the offensive zone they might be able to do some work.

However, that’s not what we’re going to see either.

I don’t think that they should necessarily have to play fourth-line minutes, but if that’s the only role the coach sees for them in the NHL, then it’s certainly better that they do get the chance to star in the AHL.

Instead, both actual preseason games and reports out of camp have Turris playing on Johansen’s wing, across from Viktor Arvidsson, and Duchene centering Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund.

Better Together: An Analytical Look at the JOFA Line - Part I
Better Together: An Analytical Look at the JOFA Line - Part II

That Duchene line, if it works out in the regular season, is very likely to be what you’d call the top or 1A line; Forsberg is fantastic at both ends of the ice and good at finishing plays, Granlund has a very good 199-foot game (he’s had some issues scoring of late), and Duchene is defensively and offensively sound with an excellent shot.

Meanwhile, a Turris-Johansen-Arvidsson line would have some trouble defensively. It’s not Johansen’s strength, and Arvidsson plays wildly eventful hockey at both ends of the ice. That line would leave Turris (who definitely lacks Forsberg’s Selke-slighted talent) as the best-equipped player to try to calm things down in the defensive zone.

They should definitely be getting into the offensive zone, at least—even Arvidsson spends more time taking shots than bleeding them—but then what? Ryan Johansen seems like he’s trying to become Joe Thornton lite, taking shots like he’s rationing the puck and preferring to set up linemates Forsberg and Arvidsson over the last few years. Replacing Forsberg with Turris, another passing center—though to a lesser extent than Johansen—seems risky.

In transition Turris and Forsberg are similar players, both okay on exiting the defensive zone—Turris a little stronger and solidly decent, Forsberg a little weaker—and extremely good at entering the offensive zone—Forsberg excellent, Turris weaker but still a top-quartile player in the league. In the offensive zone, however, they complement each other instead of mirroring each other: Forsberg shoots all the time, and passes less; Turris is a consistent and prolific passer who’s reluctant to shoot the puck.

It’s definitely possible that Forsberg has adapted his game to fit better with his center Johansen’s—it wouldn’t surprise me to see him passing more on a line with Duchene, who’s had multiple 30-goal seasons, including a career high 31 last year in 73 games with Ottawa and Columbus. It would certainly be nice for a line to have three players who are willing to shoot the puck.

The problem is that that leaves Kyle Turris and Ryan Johansen, both of whom prefer to pass, on a line with each other and with Arvidsson. It’s true that Arvidsson’s 34 goals last season finally broke a record that had stood since Jason Arnott was still on the team, but it’s also true that Arvidsson scored 34 goals in 58 games with a fairly outlandish shooting percentage of 17.4%.

There are seven NHL players other than Arvidsson who’ve had at least one season over the last decade where they shot at least 17% over at least 42 games (that is, they played more than half the season), taking at least three shots per game (as Arvidsson has done every year after his rookie year). These are arbitrary cutoffs, but you have to start somewhere. Those players are:

  1. Corey Perry, in 2010-11
  2. John Tavares, in 2012-13
  3. Auston Matthews, in 2017-18
  4. Connor McDavid, in 2018-19
  5. Sidney Crosby, twice, in 2009-10 and 2016-17
  6. Evgeni Malkin, twice, in 2016-17 and 2017-18
  7. Steven Stamkos, three times, in 2009-10, 2011-12, and 2012-13, because Steven Stamkos was an incredible overachiever before his injury.

I’m not confident in putting Arvidsson in a category with just Crosby, Malkin, and Stamkos. That shooting percentage is going to drop.

Even if it weren’t, though, you’d want to see more than one player on a line who’s going to try to get the puck straight into the net. Arvidsson’s directness and determination are his most endearing qualities as a player, and it’s not terribly likely that the Preds would be able to find more players who shoot as persistently as he does, but he’s only one man. We haven’t worked out how to clone him yet.

Forsberg and Duchene have looked excellent together in (very limited) preseason play, spending the comeback overtime victory against the Lightning (’s prospects) on a line with Tolvanen and controlling play while other lines didn’t stand out or stood out for the wrong reasons. If that’s ultimately the decision the Predators make, as the best option available, I could understand that. I’m not sure, though, why a very effective top line seems to be getting broken up without trying Duchene with two other players at wing first.

I also don’t understand moving Craig Smith—who has been a pretty consistent 20-goal, 40-point player when not in danger of being shipped off to Vegas, but who has struggled when pushed into the bottom six—down to the third line. He’s a fine player, but the coaching staff wants very different things from him than they do from Bonino or Sissons, and that line seems like it will struggle to form an identity and fit a role.

Most teams that win these days have four lines that can score, and they pretty much all have three. Why force Kyle Turris into a winger role and push Smith further down the depth chart as a result? Turris could be giving the youth a chance in the NHL while the top two lines draw all the opponents’ strongest players, and the Preds could roll a strong top nine. That’s what I’m hoping to see, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Statistics from Other data shown gathered by Corey Sznajder. Data referenced but (in an attempt to control the length of this article) not shown, regarding on-ice performance and player usage, from Micah Blake McCurdy/