Troubling Trends: Balancing Undefeated with Mediocre Play

Jubilation and excitement meshed with crustiness and bitterness. Welcome to hockey season!

Let's get this out of the way first: most, if not all, of us would probably take an undefeated team that hasn't been playing very well over a winless team that's been playing great. This isn't a panic article, nor a prophecy of an impending Pred-pocalypse.

Rather, it's an acknowledgement that though they are without a loss, things have to chance if they want continued success, and the room for improvement is there. In all three games they've allowed the other team to take control of the game, are constantly trying to play catch up, and worse... aren't scoring. If not for Pekka Rinne and his abilities to transcend human comprehension, they might not be sitting so pretty in the standings.

Tuesday's game against the New Jersey Devils was enough to open our mind holes to the possibility that it's maybe more than just a one-off. As a quote I just Googled Ian Flemming once wrote, "One is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." Hockey isn't part of Her Majesty's secret service, but even the players on the ice know something is up.

(Now, three games is an impossibly small sample size to make a real assessment, so the next paragraph is meant paragraph is meant purely for comparison's sake.)

Nashville was one of the best possession teams in the league last year, and they were 51.6% in 5v5 score adjusted possession after the first three games. (That was still just 16th in the league.) They remained on that path and finished 53.1%, 8th in the NHL. Right now, they're still 16th, but that rate has dropped to a pedestrian 49.7%. It isn't good, but they aren't sunk and can improve that with a few good games.

(It's worth noting that the rate was 46.6% before the Devils game, and made a three point leap in one contest. That what small sample sizes do.)

So let's look at each individual effort, since the overall picture isn't quite clear yet. We'll look at all situations for a bigger sample, and the charts are adjusted for score. Not that score effects would really matter much in a 1-0 hockey game.

Nashville vs. Carolina

Maybe the best performance so far. That first period was like watching the team from November and December of 2014. They were flying, battling for pucks, and peppering Cam Ward with shot after shot after shot. To Carolina's credit, they tried to keep up, but Nashville always had an answer. Yet you can pinpoint the exact moment they took their foot off the gas.

After the 30 minute mark, Nashville looked like a different team and was lucky the only puck the Hurricanes could get past Rinne was with an extra attacker. Oh well, it happens. Only one game, moving on.

Nashville vs. Edmonton

Saturday they started noticeably slow, but got back into the Nov/Dec 2014 mode we were talking about. Check out that beautiful straight blue line from the end of the first frame and into the second. But again, something happened that kept the Predators from pressing, and the Oilers stormed back.

Undisciplined play no doubt contributed to Edmonton's continued resurgence in the third period, but they didn't have a power play in the second. That is just one team being better than the other. The Predators hung on to win, Rinne was spectacular, and all of us chalked it up to being another brain fart. They'll play better next time.

Nashville @ New Jersey

That Second Period Nap is a killer. Much like what we saw in the Carolina game, the Predators started really well before tapering off. Frame number two was a slog. Low event hockey on both sides, but still the Devils were able to control most of the play, if you could call it that.

The tables did turn in the third period, and Nashville was able to find their legs a bit. They also got some help from a power play and a pulled opposing netminder. Just like the first period in Carolina, that third period should be more like how we expect the Predators to play. Still, 10 minutes at the beginning of a game and 10 minutes at the end aren't going to cut it. Especially when you consider where these two teams are likely to finish in the standings this season.

Shot Location

Nashville has done a good job of either getting in the way of shots, or limiting them to the outside. Only two shots were on goal in a high-danger area against Carolina, and only two against the Devils. Though new Jersey was able to get more cracks at medium-danger distance, as did Edmonton.

That shouldn't come as a surprise, given the personnel on the blue line. But almost every shot has a chance to go in, and more shots are getting to Rinne than are being blocked or missed. Eventually, more of those will squeak by, and limiting the opponent's time in the offensive zone is the best way to combat that. Nashville was great at that last year. That defense is going to help immensely when the team has more breathing room.

The theme so far has been something that many thought was over: score a goal (maybe two), hold on for dear life and let Pekka take care of it. That's not a winning strategy and the players on the ice know it. If the competition so far wasn't bottom of the barrel, we probably aren't having this conversation. But it's disconcerting that Nashville's only able to muster about 20 shots per 60 5v5 minutes while allowing over 27 against those kinds of teams. (Again, again, ridiculously small sample.)

Those lack of shots are likely why the offense isn't getting much done right now. Shooting more is easier said than done, but it's a much easier fix than bad personnel or a bad system. It makes sense, more shots equal more opportunity for goals. If they're able to improve on that (likely) the goals will come. Thankfully the power play is keeping the team afloat right now, which is something that couldn't be said last year.

Ultimately, your mileage may vary on how to look at the last three games. On one hand, they've wrangled three wins and six points out of awful teams, and at this point in the season it doesn't matter how they do it. That is true. On the other hand, barely hanging on against awful teams doesn't bode well for the future, especially with Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Minnesota and St. Louis on the horizon over the next two weeks. That is also true.

Good goaltending and good defenses can mask a lot of mistakes, especially against poor teams. (Again, on the flip side, they can bail you out when you need it.) But how many of the upcoming contests can Nashville expect to win playing like they've been? The answer is not many. Rinne can only stop 97% of all pucks (and 100% of all even strength pucks) before that number starts to come down. Expectations are finally high enough that winning games by sucking less than the other team shouldn't be cause for celebration.

The good news is exactly what you think: it's so freaking early in the season. The team has time to adjust, and we've seen flashes of how good they can be. If that's sustained for longer than 10 minutes at a time, they are going to win a lot of hockey games. When that happens, this little streak will be much ado about nothing.

s/t to War-On-Ice for the Shot Location charts and for the Shot Attempt charts.