Everyone has that special someone in life. You know the one. You have to fan yourself to keep from breaking into a sensually charged sweat at even a glimpse of them. But, like so many things in life, what you desire remains just out of reach. You resign yourself to a clandestine one-way love affair based on ceaseless, overpowering admiration. You suffer in silence.
For me, this person is actually a pair of people. Their names? Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg.
Ahem, as I’m sure you could tell, you’re reading another recap for nerds. This time, we’re breaking down Nashville’s 4-2 victory over the geographically challenged Minnesota Wild. What went right? What went wrong? Does Bridgestone Arena’s fervor for booing Ryan Suter have no limit? Let’s find out!
Defense: does it exist?
In a word, no.
Time after time, we’ve been told that the Nashville Predators have an elite defensive corps. On first glance, the evidence certainly supports this. Josi, Subban, Ellis, Ekholm – these are names you’d be unsurprised to find on any all-star team. The truth is, as a unit, they’re somewhat lacking in the defense department. Over the past couples of seasons, with the exception of Subban (who is unquestionably excellent), Nashville’s defensive top four has not been convincing in their own zone:
This does help explain some of Nashville’s all-too-common defensive zone scrambling. Opponents usually have a bit of a free pass to set up their attack.
Last night, possession once again did not favor the Predators in the defensive zone. None of these players recorded above a 50% in shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, or scoring chances. You could see this just from the shots on goal; Minnesota peppered Pekka Rinne with 30% more 5-on-5 shots than the Predators could produce.
Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom this time around. There are a couple of redeeming factors for the Nashville defense. For starters, they did a decent job at keeping Minnesota out of dangerous areas in front of Rinne.
You might notice that the low slot (the “high-danger” area) is pretty dark for Minnesota, which seems suboptimal for Nashville. Pay attention to the color scale though; even the darkest areas represent fewer than four shot attempts.
After the dust settled, each team had produced just six high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5. Both defenses can be proud of that performance.
The other silver lining for the Nashville defense comes from a perhaps unlikely source: the third pairing. Yes, they had a friendly matchup against the Wild’s third and fourth lines. That said, they still faced an uphill battle in terms of zone starts (just 25% in the offensive zone) and managed to produce a truly dominant performance when it came to puck possession. In fact, Hamhuis and Weber had the two highest Corsi-for percentages of any player last night.
Who needs other lines anyway?
In the forward category, the Nashville Predators produced an all-too familiar pattern. In terms of possession, there wasn’t much to see beyond the first line and Craig Smith. This has become something of a trend for the defending regular season Western Conference champions. Fortunately, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson do it well enough to succeed.
Let’s compare each team’s first lines last night:
This is a really good look for Nashville’s top three forwards. They had an identical zone deployment to Minnesota’s top line, but were much more effective. Producing nearly 60% of shot attempts and 66% of high danger scoring chances, while contributing a goal as well, is exactly what you want from your top line.
Craig Smith works his way into this conversation because he, once again, had a very solid offensive showing. While his linemates were good, Smith led the pack with a Corsi for of 66.67% and a power play goal to his name. He did contribute to just one high-danger scoring chance at 5-on-5. Keep in mind, though, that single chance represents nearly 17% of Nashville’s total high-danger chances at 5-on-5 last night.
Through six games, Smith’s Corsi for of 56.00% is second only to Johansen’s 56.41%. Not bad at all for a second line winger.
What it all means
Last night’s game was another installment of the relatively dull Minnesota/Nashville rivalry. While the six-goal scoreline suggests a back-and-forth offensive battle, the reality was a quite slow, physical matchup featuring relatively few scoring chances.
On the whole this season, Nashville has played about as we expected. It seems that, unsurprisingly, the 2018/19 Predators are an extension of last year. Fortunately for them, this trend does not exclude goaltending. Rinne and Saros are combining for the league’s fourth-best save percentage at 5-on-5.
For my sake, I hope the coaching staff has taken lessons from last year and will try to adjust defensively as the season progresses.
No matter what, it’s hard to argue with the start they’ve had. Few of the games have been pretty, but they’ve shown up well against division opponents. As it stands, here are my primary concerns:
- Minimizing score effects. The Predators are developing a nasty habit of quitting while ahead.
- Keeping it low-danger. Josi, Ellis, Ekholm, and Subban should really improve their slot defense.
- Spread the love. I won’t be happy unless Juuse Saros sees 32+ starts this regular season.
All in all, Nashville has set themselves up nicely at the start of the year. They have areas to improve upon, sure, but who doesn’t? With Johansen & Co. hinting at career-best seasons, this year could be fun.