Can The Nashville Predators Fix Their Powerplay Before The Playoffs?

The Nashville Predators are an elite team. Not in just the Western Conference, but the Predators are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

The Nashville Predators have an elite top four defensemen, they have solid four lines with dynamic scorers such as Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. The team ranks 15th in PK percentage, successfully killing 80.45% of penalties this season. Their powerplay is their one glaring weakness. The team currently ranks 30th on the powerplay with a paltry 13.19% efficiency. The Vancouver Canucks are 29th with 15% meaning there is a stark drop off from the team they are closest to. The only team with a worse conversion rate is the Montreal Canadiens who are running at a 12.26% rate. The questionable thing about this is that they ranked 13th last season with a 21.17% powerplay, and are just over half of that this year. If they matched their 21.17% from last year they would improve on last years ranking 11th in the league.

screenshot from hockey-reference

screenshot/visual from Meghan Hall’s Balls & Sticks tableau

What made them work in 2017-18?

Last season they had about a league average powerplay which is acceptable for a team that was so dominant at even strength play. as stated, the team ranked 13th league wide with a 21.17%. The two units that played the most minutes, and had the best results for the Predators were as follows:

UNIT 1 Filip Forsberg-Craig Smith-Viktor Arvidsson-PK SubbanRyan Johansen (13 Total PPG when together)

UNIT 2 Kyle TurrisColton SissonsMattias EkholmKevin FialaRoman Josi (8 Total PPG when together)

The team changed their units up quite often, interchanging players between the two units, so the scoring was spread over many different units but these were the two with the most minutes together and also most production together.

The team has never been a high total shots team on the power play, rather they were good at setting up a play and making the most out of their opportunities. Last season the team ranked 28th in shot for per 60 minutes (SF/60) with 51.55 SH/60. Now to figure out how efficient they were with their shots, you have to look at their expected goals for (xGF/60) and actual goals for (GF/60). This is the area that helped make them efficient with their shots. They scored about a goal more than expected (7.47 GF/60 vs. 6.49 xGF/60). This is due to the team taking shots from good locations and good puck movement.

screenshot/visual from Meghan Hall’s Balls & Sticks tableau

Another factor that aided the team on their power play was their sheer volume of opportunities. The team finished the year tied for 3rd most power play chances in the league with 274. The 58 power play goals scored ranked sixth league wide even though they were an average team in terms of conversion rate. The Predators were opportunistic and took advantage of being given one of the most power plays.

What has gone wrong this year?

This season, to say that the Predators have struggled with the man advantage would be an understatement. The Predators are an abysmal team with the man advantage even though they are again drawing penalties at a rate above most in the NHL. The Predators are drawing the 4th most power play opportunities, just one behind 3rd place Florida Panthers who have 236, with 235 chances. They are the only team in the top 5 of power play opportunities with under a 21% conversion rate. The 13.19% power play has been improving slightly since the trade deadline acquisition of Wayne Simmonds and pre deadline trade for Brian Boyle. The power play percentage at the deadline was 12.3%.

The two units that were used prior to the trade deadline were as follows:

Filip Forsberg – Craig Smith – Viktor Arvidsson – PK Subban – Ryan Johansson

Ryan Ellis – Kyle Turris – Nick Bonino – Kevin Fiala – Roman Josi

Below is a chart with each units efficiency and Individual shot maps.

screenshot/visual from Meghan Hall’s Balls & Sticks tableau

screenshot/visual from Meghan Hall’s Balls & Sticks tableau

The Nashville power play ranks 23rd in shots for on the power play overall but rank 13th with 111 high danger scoring chances. although the team is getting a large number of high danger chances, the team is only shooting 12.2% from those high danger shooting areas. The league average for HDSH% is 20.59% with the top team in the league in the Florida Panthers shooting 30.77%. The team does rank 3rd in the league with 305 low danger scoring chances but is shooting a league worst 9.37% on those shots as well. In the case of the Nashville Predators, the low shooting percentage is often due to the team not having much of a net front presence. Players such as Arvidsson, Sissons, Smith and Bonino have all cycled through the net front role on their power play and none have been able to succeed at both taking the goalies eyes away for shots from other players as well as being able to clean up the rebounds and collect some garbage goals.

Part of the issue with the fact that they are getting high danger chances is that they are all coming from a spot that is considered high danger in most situations, but not as dangerous on the power play. High in the circles. Penalty kills are generally set up in a box or diamond and have players that can get in the way of the shots from the high circles, often leading to blocked shots or weak shots on goal.

Visual from HockeyViz.com, Data collected by Micah Blake McCurdy

Again this season the team has interchanged players on the power play squads and this has led to the team not being able to get into a groove and settle into some chemistry with a single unit. The consistent shuffling of the power play units by head coach Peter Laviolette could be a factor into why the team has struggled on the power play. Another factor is that the team has essentially been very unlucky. The team has the 4th lowest PDO (sum of a team’s shooting percentage/save percentage) at .976. 

Improvement since the Deadline

Since the trade deadline acquisitions of Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds, as well as the pre deadline trade for Brian Boyle, the teams power play has improved. Wayne Simmonds specifically is making a big difference in the power play as he gives the Predators a natural net front presence that they have been lacking. Since Simmonds first game as Predator, the Nashville power play has hummed along at a solid 21% (4-19) which puts them about where they were last season. It has a lot to do with the teams restructured power play units.

screenshot from dailyfaceoff.com

The teams shooting percentage on the power play has risen from 8.79 percent up to the trade deadline to a still paltry 11.43 currently. This is an interesting trend seeing as the teams HDSH% (high danger shooting percentage) has actually fallen since the deadline having gone from 11.84% to 11.11%. This leads one to believe that the team has been shooting better overall thanks to the addition of a net front presence that isn’t the 5’9″, 180 lbs Arvidsson. The additions of Brian Boyle (6’6″, 245lbs) and Wayne Simmonds (6’2″, 190lbs) at the deadline have added the ability to not only screen the goalie but Simmonds has the ability to be a dominant offensive force in front of the net cleaning up the rebounds and Boyle has put up a power play tally since being acquired.

Although Simmonds has not been able to build up his counting stats, he has been able to make a subtle difference to the deployment of the players, allowing high skilled players such as Arvidsson, Forsberg and Johansson to play on the half boards and slot so that they can put their stick handling, passing and shooting ability to better use than planting them in front of the net.

An area where Nashville has struggled recently on the power play is entering and setting up in the offensive zone. This shouldn’t be the case with players like Filip Forsberg and Victor Arvidsson. The team often lets penalty killers close on them without passing the puck off to the Wings as they rush into the zone, thwarting any chance of a successful zone entry on the power play.

Is there a fix?

While the power play has improved over the small sample size, nine games since Simmonds has joined, and has begun producing at a 21% power play conversion rate since the deadline, maintaining that will be key. The Nashville Predators do not need a top flight power play to truly establish themselves as a Stanley Cup contender, but they do need one that can at least threaten the other team and provide opportunistic scoring.

Continuing to interchange the units may be hindering the teams ability to build chemistry and create a sub par product on the ice. This means that head coach Peter Laviolette should decide on two units and make minimal changes. Let them build chemistry and let them establish the big bodies in front of the net. Getting Wayne Simmonds going can help increase the goal count on the power play because he has been an elite net front presence over the past 3 years scoring a total of 33 goals between the 2016-17 seasons to now.

Creating puck movement on the power play in transition will also be a key factor in whether they can improve their power play. This can be done a variety of ways but the most basic way they can do this is to incorporate the drop pass as most teams, including the Predators, use when breaking out from their own zone, but having players on both wings that can receive a pass and bringing it into the offensive zone with one stride and then hitting another player with a pass after the defence has backed off because of the initial player rushing the zone.

In zone, the team needs to be less stagnant. They like to set up and sit in the same position. With the amount of skill that the team has of the back-end, allowing plays such as Subban, Josi, Ekholm and Ellis to free wheel a little bit and draw in defenders while the half wall player rotated either towards the middle “bumper spot” (between the circles in the high slot) or up high in the zone while that “bumper” player rotates to the vacant point. If you can get the penalty killers on the opposing team moving, this allows for a team to get more open looks at the net while a hulking presence such as Simmonds or Boyle screen the goalie will only increase the likelihood that a goal will be scored.

While most teams don’t have the firepower on the backend, the Predators should get all four of their top defensemen involved in the power play because they can all skate, pass and shoot. Players such as Josi or Ellis can play the half wall and create offence and playmaking ability from that position while allowing Subban and Ekholm to unleash their hard shots from the point. Allowing the players to get creative and use their skill on the power play will be key for the Predators moving forward.

Overall the Nashville power play has improved recently, albeit in a small sample size. If this league average production rate can continue, they can continue to be talked about in the conversation for the Stanley Cup. If they regress and continue to falter when they get the man advantage, this season will end up being a wasted opportunity for a team whose window is slowly but surely beginning to close. The Nashville Predators can be Stanley Cup champions, provided they continue to use their big bodies in net front roles and allow their skill players to wander the zone, tiring opposing penalty killers while also opening up shots for their high-end talent.

Follow me on Twitter, @TheTonyFerrari

Stats from Hockey-Reference.com, NHL.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, Meghan Hall, DailyFaceoff.com and HockeyViz.com

Featured Image Photo Credit – Nikos Michals

 

Pittsburgh Penguins: Time to Change the Power Play

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of offensive fire power on their top power play, but they have been lacking defensive awareness all year long. It is time to change things up. 

Top Power Play When Healthy

The Penguins have used a variety of combinations during the last 5 games without Evgeni Malkin, but the unit has been the same with him in the lineup. Kris Letang runs the point, while Malkin and Phil Kessel patrol the half walls. Sidney Crosby plays down low with Patric Hornqvist standing firm in the goaltender’s kitchen. All five players have the ability to score at a moment’s notice. However, they are prone to overthink plays and make ill-advised passes. This has led to a lot (12) of shorthanded goals. I would love to see the team change things up and have a more balanced two-line approach to the power play. 

Embed from Getty Images

Author’s Note: The below projections are based on the return of Evgeni Malkin and Justin Shultz, both of whom are projected back in the coming days. 

New Power Play 1

Juuso Riikola has had troubles getting pucks to the back of the net, but the two goals he has scored has come via the power play. He is a guy that could benefit a lot from the space generated by the talented forwards on the power play. My projected Power Play 1 would be Hornqvist, Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Letang, and Rikola. 

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Guentzel and Crosby already have a chemistry on the ice that some marriages are trying to match. With Patric Hornqvist‘s ability to pull penalty killers toward the front of the net, both Letang and Rikola could generate offense from the blue line. Also, the defensive awareness of the blue-liners should help combat odd-man breakaways. 

New Power Play 2

Most teams only use their second power play unit to spell the top dogs, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have enough offensive talent to deploy two deadly units. With the aforementioned top unit, the second unit could utilize the same setup. The forward unit would feature Malkin, Kessel, and the newly acquired Nick Bjugstad, who would serve as the net front presence. The defensive pairing would utilize Justin Shultz and Olli Maatta, who have had great chemistry in the past. Both of these defenseman have great defensive instincts and would prevent shorthanded chances, which the pairing of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are prone to give up. 

Embed from Getty Images

Added Benefits

A major benefit of realigning the power play units, as outlined above, is the chemistry after the man advantage expires. In its current form, Mike Sullivan pulls players from the top 3 lines, and they usually play the full two minutes. In the proposed realignment, Bryan Rust would be the odd man out on the top unit, but he is no stranger to playing in the bottom six. This would give Coach Sullivan to roll out his 3rd and 4th lines when the penalty expires. 

In Summary

I am not suggesting that the power play is the only shortcoming of this team right now, but being able to count on them to create offense without giving up shorthanded chances would go a long way come playoff time.