With a disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Dallas Stars, the Nashville Predators will be taking a hard look in the mirror. Can they pursue their goals of a Stanley Cup with this roster yet again, or are major changes needed?
Six games. That’s all it took the Dallas Stars to eliminate the Central division champion Nashville Predators. The disappointing result to conclude the Predators season has raise questions among both fans and media alike. Coming into this season Nashville was expected to among the Stanley Cup favorites. With a loaded back-end, a Vezina-calibre goaltender and improvements up front, Nashville’s first round exit is a complete failure. A lack of offensive production paired with a blue-line who couldn’t seem to put it together for an extended period burned the team before they could even get to the main course.
The forward group for Nashville has often struggled throughout the season. Although the Predators calling card has never been offence, this season the lack of production proved costly. Finishing 19th in the league, their 236 goals for were a major step backwards from last season where they finished 7th in the NHL with 261. Many pundits have pinned this drop off on the putrid power play performances that Nashville put forward over the season. They finished dead last in the league with a 12.94% conversion rate. a drop off from 21.17% last year. The power play struggles have been well documented, including here at PUCK77 in this deep dive.
The deeper issue is the even-strength goals scoring. dropping from 9th (96 EVGF) to 24th (66 EVGF) in the league is a back breaker for any team. As a team, the Predators have undeniably failed offensively. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Predators finished 16th in HDCF% (High Danger scoring chances) with 50.28% but finished 4th in converting that with a 56.10% HDGF% (High danger goals for percentage). This would imply that the team is good at converting on their high danger chances yet doesn’t get to those areas enough. With only 712 HDCF through the season, the fact of the matter is that they are not getting to good scoring areas. In comparison teams in the top 10 averaged about 810 HDCF with the Carolina Hurricanes setting the high watermark with 900 HDCF.
Table courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com
Goal Differential Stagnation
To be a truly elite team, a true Stanley Cup contender, you need your stars to produce beyond standard expectations. They should be able to create a major issue for other teams, creating a positive goal differential. When you score more than your opponent, you tend to win. As simple of a statement that it is, it’s easier said than done.
In Nashville’s case, when comparing their expected goal differential to their reality, they are about as average as a team could get. As you can see in the graph below, the Predators players are all bunched up at the “0” point of the graph. The few outliers for the team have been Mikael Granlund and Frederick Gaudreau. In Backlund’s case, he’s been quite poor in the fact that he has a worse GD60 (goal differential per 60 minutes of ice time) than expected in his time with the Predators. As for Gaudreau, he’s has been producing slightly above the rate he’s been expected to. However, as a bottom-six player, his impact on the game isn’t going to be as indicative on the outcome.
Chart courtesy of Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey)
For players of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson skill levels, they need to be better in this department. For the Predators to truly recapture their elite status from 2017, they will need to be better than average. Depth in scoring would help that as they wouldn’t be burdened with doing it all as their production up and down the line-up was mediocre at best outside of that top line.
The aging Finn that’s manned the Predators goal for years had an up-and-down season following his Vezina trophy winning season of 2017-18. Even with the inconsistency, Pekka Rinne was able to post a GSAA (goals saved above average) of 13.54, good for 8th league wide. His cumulative statistics over the season look solid yet again although the signs of aging were prevalent.
The inconsistency in his play came into play in the playoffs this year. His performance in the playoffs against the Dallas Stars was one of the reasons that Nashville fell short among others. In the graph below, the GSAA of all goalies to play in the playoffs are displayed with Rinne being dead last. Allowing almost four goals more than what an average goalie would, can be series killer. While this isn’t all on Rinne, the Nashville Predators netminder needed to be better and wasn’t.
While backup goalie Juuse Saros did play more this season than last, 26 GP to 31 GP, he will likely need to play more next season as Rinne will continue to regress with age. Saros has shown promise and should slowly move into a starters role over the next season or two. As beloved as Rinne is, both fans and management need to look at the window this team has and really question who should be in-between the pipes when the games truly matter.
Blue-line Dominance Fading
For years now, the Nashville Predators have had one of, if not, the best group of defensemen in the NHL. At one point, people considered them to have four quality top pair blue-liners. This season has been a major step back for the Predators defensive core.
Chart courtesy of Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey)
As seen in the chart above, the ability to prevent entries and create exits for the stud-filled rearguards of Nashville has fallen off drastically this season. While captain Roman Josi and former Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban have been able to sustain positive control of the defensive zone, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis have both regressed this season.
Ekholm has been traditionally overlooked on this backend by the average fan, but he’s consistently been a strong puck-mover while being responsible defensively. His ability to play a complete game was one of the reasons his partner, P.K. Subban, has been able to push the pace of play and take risks. His play this season however has been uneventful. While this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it’s not good either.
With his defensive zone play lacking positive or negative impact, he wasn’t a detriment in his own end. The issue was the fact that he didn’t provide anything over and beyond the average defenseman. He definitely played better with Subban in the lineup, although there was a large chunk of games where he was playing without Subban due to injuries on the blue-line. A return to form for Ekholm should be expected in the fall.
Ryan Ellis signed an extension in the offseason for 8 years, $50 million that kicks in at the beginning of next season. That gives him an AAV of $6.25 million which meant that this season was the last season of underpaying their top-four defencemen. The top-four will now cost a total of $23 million. With Josi expiring after next season meaning that number is only set to grow even further.
The struggles of Ellis have been concerning this season due to the fact that his contract runs through 2026-27. His foot speed has always been there but the difference this season has been his ability to make the appropriate decision with and without the puck. Although he put up 41 points in 82 games this year, he was undeniably one of the worst defencemen in the league for allowing opposing players to enter the zone.
Graph courtesy of Corey Sznajder (@Shutdownline)
As you can see from the graph above, while Ekholm, Subban and Josi have all been positives, even if they haven’t been as efficient as in years past. Ellis on the other hand has been absolutely atrocious. Among the worst players in the league at preventing the zone entry, the diminutive blue-liner needs to return to respectability. His ability to pivot and force players to the outside, limiting high danger chances wasn’t up to his usual standards. Generally able to skate his way out of trouble, using his active stick to turn the puck over, he failed to do this far to often this season.
Without his return to form, the contract and the defence corps will likely struggle in years to come with little-to-no flexibility to change it up unless a change is made.
Change for the sake of Success
This season proved that the Nashville core may need to change. While the team gave this group a good run, with marginal success, to get to the next level they will need to find some scoring. The depth up-front is in need of an injection of talent. The emergence of Dante Fabbro after he signed with the Predators helps the backend depth.
Simple math would suggest that if the management group, led by David Poile, think that Fabbro is ready to play on the second pairing, they should look at moving a defenseman. This leaves the question of who to trade. The logical candidates are the freshly extended Ryan Ellis and the non-homegrown P.K. Subban.
The case for moving Ellis would be that with his league wide perception and value still very high, you can get almost maximum value. Trading Ellis to a team looking for a good right-handed defenceman could net a solid return in an offensive talent. Possible trading partners for Ellis could include the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams that are in win-now mode, need help on the back-end heading into next year after disappointing first round exits for each team.
A return such as Kasperi Kapanen plus draft picks or prospects from Toronto could be likely. A trade with Pittsburgh could be more interesting as the possibility of a one-for-one with Phil Kessel being the return could be an option for the Predators who need a pure offensive force. While a trade isn’t close (or even rumoured as of yet), Ellis has to be an option to be moved.
The other trade chip that Nashville possesses is P.K. Subban. This trade presents its own obstacles due to the fact that Subban is owed $9 million for three more seasons. This is a hefty number for any team to take on so some creativity may need to be used in order to facilitate a trade. Whether it’s taking on a contract, salary retention or even finding a matching cap hit, a Subban trade will cause GM David Poile to work his magic.
Extending the Championship Window
This Predators team has the ability and the means to extend the window to win. Changes will be needed. Coming back next season with the same roster will not suffice. Whether it’s a trade or free agency, the Nashville Predators need to alter their strategy when looking at how to build their roster. A star-studded blue-line has been close but each time they’ve been struck down because their offensive depth couldn’t get it done. That needs to change next season or the Predators could become the team that can’t win no matter how good their roster looks on paper.
Featured Image Photo Credit – Nikos Michals