The recent fun-ification of the Nashville Predators

The Predators have shifted into being a high-event hockey team, with somewhat positive results

The Nashville Predators' 6-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 30 signaled the start of a shift for the Predators.

Not that the lopsided result was unexpected or anything. Anaheim’s been the whipping boy of the league this year, so it’s not as if this was some massive, momentum-shifting win.

But it was the beginning of a new-look Predators team, as if they saw the upcoming new year and decided their New Year’s resolution was to be a fun team.

In that win over Anaheim, Nashville scored five goals on a season-high 4.07 expected goals at five on five alone, per Natural Stat Trick. That win kicked off a stretch where the Predators have created plenty of opportunities in their attacking zone, scored a ton of goals and, most importantly, won a bunch of games, even if it’s meant hanging their goaltenders out to dry more than a little too often. Including that win over the Ducks, Nashville is 8-4-1 since Dec. 30 and has somewhat put itself back in the playoff conversation in the process.

All gas, no brakes

Note: All stats are from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted

The Predators are a bit of an enigma. No team has blended a high-octane offense with minimal defense quite like they have.

Nashville has the third-highest expected goals for per 60 minutes at five on five since Dec. 30 (3.22) and also the third-highest expected goals against (3.08), trailing only the aforementioned Ducks and the Montreal Canadiens. In terms of pure action, the Preds are fifth in shot attempts per 60 minutes in that stretch and are 30th in shot attempts allowed.

Five of Nashville’s six best offensive performances by expected goals per 60 minutes at five on five this season have come since Dec. 30.

In total, Nashville’s offense has been cooking since New Year’s. Not only are the Predators shooting a lot and creating some serious goal-scoring opportunities, they’re taking advantage of them, too. Their shooting percentage of 10.6% in this stretch is fourth-highest in the league behind the Boston Bruins, Seattle Kraken and Edmonton Oilers.

It’s not as if they’re dramatically overachieving, either. They’ve scored 35 goals compared to 32.7 expected goals at five on five. That’s nothing compared to a white-hot Kraken attack (39 goals on 25.9 expected goals) or Boston (32 goals on 23.9 expected). Those 35 goals for Nashville are also second in the league, trailing only Seattle.

Offensive… depth?

Tommy Novak is the pure essence of the Preds’ recent stretch of fun hockey. Novak is second on the team in xGF/60 at five on five at 3.64 during this 13-game run, sandwiched between linemates Tanner Jeannot (3.7) and Yakov Trenin (3.56).

What Novak hasn’t done, however, is play any defense. Novak’s xGA/60 of 3.07 during this span is only the seventh-highest on the team, but he’s been the exact opposite of the archetypal checking-line forward. His RAPM chart shows how stark the difference between his offensive and defensive impacts have been despite minimal ice time this season.

Novak made his season debut on Dec. 19, and the offense exploded a few games later. Attributing Nashville’s recent outbursts to a fourth-line forward would be unwise, but Novak’s offensive playdriving and nine points in 17 games has at least given Nashville a depth line that can put the puck in the net.

Jeannot is the odd one out on that line. While the likes of Novak and Trenin have scored three goals each at five on five since Dec. 30, Jeannot has failed to find the back of the net since Oct. 27, but it’s not for a lack of trying. In this 13-game stretch alone, the 25-year-old has generated a team-high 3.48 expected goals by himself at five on five, which is the eighth-highest in the league. And he still couldn’t buy a goal. Whenever regression to the mean comes for Jeannot, the poor guy might get whiplash.

It should be noted that Jeannot, Novak and Trenin all have an xGF% above 54% at five on five during this span. They’re giving up plenty of chances at their own end, but they have more than countered that with offense of their own. It’s just not what the average NHL team envisions from its bottom six. Trenin is also the only one of the three who has been outscored at five on five.

Additionally, Forsberg comes across as another winner during this recent stretch. The Swede has benefitted from a sky-high on-ice shooting percentage (15.8%), but Forsberg has owned both the expected and actual goals. Only Dante Fabbro and Jeannot own a higher xGF% at five on five as of late, and Forsberg leads the team in goals (six) and points (10) at five on five.

But the defense…

The other big reason why the Predators have somewhat righted the ship lately is a 5-foot-11 Finn named Juuse Saros.

Nashville sports a save percentage of .934 at five on five since Dec. 30, which is the fourth-best mark in the league, despite playing what can be generously described as questionable defense. Natural Stat Trick credits Saros with allowing 16 goals at five on five while facing 21.3 expected. Only four more goalies had a higher expected goals against.

Nashville as a whole has been fairly fortunate despite showing signs of improvement as of late. The Predators have a pretty high PDO of 104 that is the third-highest in the league since Dec. 30. Nashville has outscored its opponents 35-24 at five on five in that stretch, despite a lackadaisical performance in its own end. Even though they’ve shown plenty of firepower offensively, they still sit around the middle of the league in xGF% in that stretch.

What does this all mean?

Plenty of ink has been spilled this season over whether or not the Predators are a good hockey team and what the next step has to be for this team. The divide between tanking for Connor Bedard and trying to make the playoffs one more time with this group has taken a toll on the fanbase.

Even in its most fun and arguably best form, the Preds are still stuck in the middle. They still sit outside of a playoff spot, and it’s tough to see Nashville picking up enough points to pass two of the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche for a wild-card spot. All the while, they’d be winning enough to lower their chances of landing a Bedard or an Adam Fantilli.

But if you’ve ever found yourself thinking, “If Nashville is going to be mediocre this year, can the games at least be fun?” congratulations. That’s exactly what you’ve had recently.