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Revisiting Nashville’s Optimal Lineup with Super WOWY

Not long after the Nashville Predators acquired Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, Braden took a look at what the team’s most optimal lineup might look like. At that time, the best way to evaluate the strength of a line was just by looking at the parts individually to see what might work as a cohesive unit. Braden did this by judging players’ scoring and possession metrics (as well as using the eye test and common sense) to determine which of them might work well together.

Well, the folks at Hockey Analytics have outdone themselves this time. Over the weekend, they debuted a fantastic (and production killing) new tool called Super WOWY. For those not familiar, WOWY (with or without you) measures what a player’s statistics when he is playing with certain teammates, as well as what those same stats look like away from them. Super WOWY is the same concept, but with multiple players. How do players X, Y and Z perform whenever they are all on the ice at the same time?

So let’s revisit the lines Braden looked at, and see if intuition matches up with the numbers. All data is 5v5.

First Line

The biggest question mark on Nashville’s penthouse line is whether Craig Smith or James Neal should be the one on the right side of Mike Ribeiro. Neal spent most of the season there, before getting replaced by Smith when sitting out with an injury. #15 has yet to relinquish his hold, although Neal spend most of the third period of Monday’s game back there.

This came up in this week’s Predcast, but the difference between when one is on the top line versus the other is relatively small, but still noticeable. Neal has spent just over 100 more minutes on the first line than Smith, and in that time he, Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg have outscored the opponent 23-8 (74.2 GF%) and sent 59% of their shot attempts towards the other goalie. That’s nuts.

While Smith isn’t a bad option at all, (56% of all shot attempts go towards the bad guys’ goalie) the line isn’t scoring nearly as much. Only 13 total goals between them, and they’ve been on the ice for 13 as well. Part of that is the awful play their getting from the goalies, (save percentage of 89% vs. Neal’s 95%) most likely due to the time frame they’ve been playing on.

Still, while it’s great to have a player like Smith available to slot in there when he can, it’s hard to ignore the overall better numbers with Neal up top. It also gives Ribeiro back a pure goal scorer to go along with Forsberg’s general Forsbergy-ness.

Braden’s Line: Forsberg – Ribeiro – Neal

Optimal Line: Forsberg – Ribeiro – Neal

Second Line

So is this the best place for Smith to go? Yes, as it turns out. No matter who he plays with, the second line sees an uptick in the amount of goals scored, even if the sample size is pretty small.

As previously mentioned, Neal has spent much of his time recently (153 minutes) on the second line with Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher. As you’d expect with a goal scorer like Neal, that trio is outscoring opponents 10-4 and is a good enough line to keep together.

However, put Smith in his place and possession efficiency increases. The question becomes who should play on the wing, Wilson or Matt Cullen? In only 18 minutes of play together, Wilson, Fisher and Smith are responsible for a 57.5 CF% and 100% GF (though that’s with only 1 goal scored.) Very good, but not enough to draw any hard conclusions.

Replace Wilson with Cullen, and the sample size increases to 83 minutes, 56 CF% and 90% GF (9-1 in favor of the good guys.) It’s been a little while since they’ve played together, but given Cullen’s recent discovery of the fountain of youth, he could be effective there for a time.

Common sense seems to dictate the Wilson, Fisher, Smith line to be the best one. I tend to agree and would have no problems if that comes to fruition. (Honestly, I’d actually prefer it.) Especially since Cullen is likely to regress from the gaudy shooting percentage that’s been favoring him lately. Yet, something jumped out when looking at the third line’s numbers, that makes me think Cullen on the second wing could open up more options below. Read on…

Braden’s Line: Wilson – Fisher – Smith

Garcia’s Line: Wilson – Fisher – Smith

Optimized Line: Cullen – Fisher – Smith

Third Line

Remember the thing about small sample sizes again and so on but in about 30 minutes of play, a line of Wilson, Calle Jarnkrok and Mike Santorelli is lighting up the shot attempts counter. They have 30 for, 16 against, to the tune of a 65.2 CF%, and a shooting percentage under 7%. If a few of those shot that are hitting the net start going in, there’s your rise in secondary scoring. (Though it could really go either way.)

It wouldn’t be relegating or punishing Wilson, rather putting the team in the best place to succeed. Nashville needs all the help it can get, and with a dominant first line, a second line that can more than hold its own, and a third line that spends majority of its ice time in the attacking zone, that’s exactly what those combinations do. Of course, it just seems to make more sense to give Wilson minutes on the second line, so it’s likely not going to happen.

If you’re wondering: there isn’t enough data right now to see if Viktor Stalberg would be a great fit yet, to the relief of many you, I’m sure. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like sitting Jarnkrok is really the best option at this point, but there’s still room for that to prove itself untrue.

Braden’s Line: Stalberg – Jarnkrok – Santorelli

Optimized Line: Wilson – Jarnkrok – Santorelli

Fourth Line

It’s a little silly to judge the energy line with stats, simply because their job isn’t to score goals, but you still don’t want it to be a detriment to the team. Essentially, we’re just deciding which of Eric Nystrom, Taylor Beck or Gabriel Bourque sits. Paul Gaustad had his role cemented in stone.

Well, any combination with Nystrom on it finds itself drowning. He, Goose and Beck do happen to find ways to score, but that’s in spite of an ugly 40.9 CF%. The most recent combination with Gabby in place finds itself even in possession, though is sporting a pretty ugly PDO of 92.9. Even for a fourth line, that has room to improve.

I’d like to see more of what the fourth line is currently made up of, which should happen now that Nystrom is still a few weeks away from returning. Even Peter Laviolette has mentioned how they’ve been buzzing of late, and that’s reflected on the ice as well as on the stat sheet.

Braden’s Line: Bourque – Cullen – Beck

Optimal Line: Bourque – Gaustad – Beck

So there we are. Comparing the individual numbers the overall numbers of the group, we still seem to land in a similar place. Only a few tweaks here and there, and over the past few games it looks like the actual lines are coming closer and closer to the ones that may be best for the team.

Agree? Disagree? Who would you move where?

Talking Points