If somebody were to perform a hockey post-mortem on why the 2019-20 Nashville Predators should miss the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, it wouldn’t take too much digging to fill out the death certificate.
Wasn’t the Year For 2019-20 Nashville Predators
Why Should the Preds Miss Out?
The Preds season has been a quagmire of mind-boggling proportions. An excellent roster on paper, the ability to score goals like no other team that David Poile has put together in his career, and the goaltending 1A and 1B tandem to keep them in contention on the team’s off nights.
But the reality has been a stark contrast: terrible special teams (24th PP and 28th PK), an unusually leaky defensive unit (bottom half of the league in goals conceded) and a lack of leadership on the ice from some of the team’s largest cap hits.
While it is currently unclear how the NHL is going to conduct the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or if they even happen at all, the 2019-20 Nashville Predators probably shouldn’t be a part of them and the following piece will explain why.
The first line has been under the microscope for the Preds for much of the year. Whether it be as a result of constant player combo shake-ups or long scoring slumps; there has been a concerning level of unrest.
Yet, in the season’s early going, the developing synergy between Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg looked to be the start of a serious bromance, and one that would propel the 2019-20 Nashville Predators into the Central Division winner conversation all over again.
On October 8th, Game 3 of the season at Bridgestone, a deking Duchene drew both the trailing and back-pedalling defenders into his ice space as he fed a nasty backhand-dish into the vacant slot where a surging Forsberg unleashed a filthy one-timer into the roof of the net. Nashville remorselessly put away the San Jose Sharks in their third game of the season.
That was Forsberg’s third goal in as many games to start the year. As well, Duchene had six assists in that span. The early reckonings had this pair projected as a regular fixture in the league’s highlight reel coverage segments. However, fast forward three months and the Preds were treading water at a notch above NHL .500.
In the aftermath of a chastening Winter Classic loss, the team was sitting 6th in the Central division after capitulating in the third period to the Dallas Stars. Nashville’s first-ever appearance in an NHL outdoor game was one of the final nails in coach Peter Laviolette’s coffin. He was fired less than a week later and replaced by John Hynes.
Lack of Goal Threat
Laviolette had been juggling lines on the regular and Duchene and Forsberg had been split up for long stretches. Neither was lighting up the league and heading for pedestrian (for their ability) 50-60 point seasons as the Preds looked puzzlingly bad. Devoid of confidence and swagger, and yet again, toothless on special teams.
On paper, the Forsberg-Duchene marriage was there to create the most exciting first line the franchise has had in its history. But it hasn’t carried the load it was expected to. Forsberg-Duchene-Granlund are currently tied for 38th on the list for goals produced by offensive lines in the NHL with at least 100 minutes of ice time together.
To put this into perspective, of all the franchises not featuring above them on the goals-scored by lines league table, only the Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets (perennial, defensive powerhouses) currently occupy playoff spots. The others, outside the playoffs, being the Ottawa Senators and the San Jose Sharks.
What’s possibly worse is that the first line has been outperformed by teammates on the third line. This season, Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons have scored more than double the amount of the first line’s goals and are averaging a goal every 13.8 minutes as a unit. On the other hand, Forsberg-Duchene-Granlund are averaging over 16 minutes of ice time per goal.
Considering that Nashville used all of the P.K. Subban cap space to acquire Duchene, the eagerly anticipated, ‘franchise-tag’ center, before the season, it has to sting that they have had their worst year since the Pekka Rinne-less one in 2013-14 that spelled the end of the Barry Trotz era. But is it entirely the fault of the Predators best players?
Of course not.
As with all slumping teams, the coaching staff are always the first ones to get the short end of the stick. In this case, it may have been a credible reason for the Preds’ struggles.
The rhetoric of Peter Laviolette’s tenures in the NHL has focused around his coaching style has a sell-by-date. His message waned in the fifth season with both the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers, though in Nashville he managed six.
Then again, the inconsistency that has plagued the 2019-20 Nashville Predators, can be traced back to the 18-19 season. We just didn’t notice the trend as the field in the division was equally volatile. The St Louis Blues were 31st in the league in January, Dallas sneaked into the playoffs and the bottom fell out for the Winnipeg Jets during the stretch run.
Down and Out
From the start of 2018-19 season, Nashville has endured two six-game losing streaks in less than a year. And during this season in particular, the players have often looked defeated before games were up.
There have been too many instances of goals being conceded in bunches. For example, the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights in November, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins in December and the Stars on January 1st. (More recently there was Vancouver (again) and a brain fart third period against the Edmonton Oilers on March 2nd.) The Predators seemed to have lost their trademark grit and bounce-back-ability, without the will to battle through the tough stretches.
This loss of identity could be diagnosed as a failure in leadership, which primarily falls on the coaches. With little answer or change in playing style as the rot set in, it is hard not to feel as though Laviolette and his staff should have done more to shake things up.
Hynes’ and Laviolette’s Shortcomings
Although, since John Hynes has come in the ship has steadied, (16-11-1) there are still some prevailing issues on the coaching front that have been widely criticized and have epitomized the 2019-20 Nashville Predators.
One similarity between both Laviolette and Hynes is their unwillingness to give big minutes to the most skilled players on the team. Forsberg topped the list of Nashville forwards in average ice time 17:57 under Laviolette but ranked 86th among NHL forwards. Since Hynes has come in, this number has dropped to 16:35 a night and 136th among forwards. (As per Quant Hockey)
Meanwhile, the Alex Ovechkin’s, Nathan MacKinnon‘s and the Leon Draisaitl’s of the league are eating up 20+ minutes a night. At this moment there are 17 skaters in the 30-goal club this year. Their average time spent on the ice between them is 20:02.
Forsberg has elite-level skills and is the Predators biggest threat in the goal-scoring department. Heck, he is one season removed from going at an almost point-per-game click. And despite the drop-off this year he is still the third most threatening player on the team in scoring.
According to Money Puck’s expected goals to actual goals scored ratios per 60 minutes, Forsberg has been finishing the quality chances he has been getting. He has 1 goal per 60 on a 0.88 xGoals projection, a rate that is bested only by Nick Bonino and Craig Smith on the roster.
Minutes For The Best Players
How on earth can you expect your best players to perform if you aren’t giving them the chances to create and score that other teams are literally heaping on their own stars?
Ryan Johansen (17:03 avg. TOI in 19-20) and Duchene (16:52 avg. TOI in 19-20), the two best forward playmakers on the team, are also getting their minutes scrimped on.
And all of this is even more baffling when you look at what Hynes has done with Mikael Granlund. Nashville’s first-line right-winger has been getting over 2 minutes more ice time per night since the coaching change. And the improved production has followed. From 0.4 points a game under Laviolette to 0.57 under Hynes.
Surely it stands to reason that this uptake would follow suit with an increase in minutes for Forsberg, Duchene and Johansen too?
2019-20 Nashville Predators’ Special Teams
Another issue with management, which has already been alluded to earlier, is the Predators’ special teams.
After a dismal 12.9% power play in the 18-19 season, Nashville hired Dan Lambert in the offseason as a special-teams-focused assistant coach. But this season has been as bad.
The 2019-20 Nashville Predator’s power play is tied 24th with the anemic New York Islanders offence. Their penalty kill has gotten much worse; they have fallen 21 spots from last season. On the power play, the willingness to try new things has been non-existent. The Predators are one of the dullest teams on the man advantage.
Rarely has the team set up to control from behind the net, which would open up plenty of dangerous passing lanes and allow shooters to evade defensive coverage more easily. Their movement hasn’t been fluid enough to create the pretty passing plays that lead to tic-tac-toes. And the power play has often tried too hard to force the pace at the blue line to manufacture space, turning the puck over before they can set up.
Meanwhile, the PK, which was in the top half of the league in 2018-19 for Success Rate, High Danger Scoring Chances Against, High Danger Goals Against and Save Percentage, has plummeted this season because the team can’t get a stop between the pipes. Nashville is 23rd in the league for High Danger Goals conceded and 30th in Save Percentage while short-handed.
In his last three seasons, Arvidsson had been averaging 0.79 points per game and scored 94 goals in that span, the most of any Predator. His speed entering the offensive zone and tenacity on the rush was what made him one of Nashville’s most dangerous offensive weapons and these qualities were in full flow last season.
Despite missing more than a quarter of the schedule, Arvidsson set a franchise record in goals scored with 34 in 58 games. This year has seen a major drop in production from him. In some of his most recent performances, the back-to-back games against Dallas, his ice time was slashed to fourth-line minutes.
The table below, which contains the list of skaters that have seen the largest drop in point production per game between the 18-19 season and the current year, illustrates Arvidsson’s struggles. *Players must have played at least 50 games in both seasons*
Players with the Biggest Downturn in Point Production Per Game
|Average Point production 18-19||Average Point production 19-20||Differential In Point Production||Player Age||Team||
Deficit between 19-20 and previous 3 seasons
Arvidsson, the Most Disappointing Skater This Season
Arvidsson has had the ninth-worst drop off among all NHL skaters this season with at least 50 games. If we also consider the fourth column, the deficit in production of this year versus each player’s previous three years’ average, from 16-17 until 18-19, it isn’t far-fetched to claim that Arvidsson has perhaps had the most disappointing season for any skater in the NHL.
The drop-offs from players like Kessel, Radulov, Burns, Pavelski and Nielsen could easily be attributed to natural decline. Meanwhile, the disparity between the one-year deficit versus the three-season ones for Giordano, Monahan and Gaudreau could all be due to team performance inflation as the Calgary Flames had their best regular season since the eighties in 18-19.
This leaves Skinner and Arvidsson.
From an eyeball test alone, Arvidsson looks like he has lost his explosive acceleration. And this would be in no small part down to the injury he sustained from multiple cross-checks in anger by Robert Bortuzzo, which sidelined him for 12 games in Nov-Dec.
Before the injury, Arvidsson had 15 points in 22 games (0.68 points per game). Post-injury, he has 13 points in 35 games (0.37). Adam Vignan, from The Athletic, deep dived this topic in February, which is certainly worth reading.
The End of the Rinne Era
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Pekka Rinne has been one of the other concerning stories for the 2019-20 Nashville Predators.
Nashville’s first-half struggles came at the hands of average goaltending from both Rinne and Juuse Saros, combining for a team save percentage of sub .900. However, while Saros was costing the Predators more at the start of the year, Rinne has been consistently out of sorts since late October.
Sean Tierney’s, Charting Hockey data, shows that whether he is being hung out to dry by his teammates, or getting simpler shot-stopping opportunities, Rinne has been poor with respect to Goals Saved Above Expected. Of all the games this year which have illustrated this, the 8-3 loss to Edmonton serves as a suitable microcosm.
At 1-0 down in the last minute of the first period, Rinne let a puck snapped from below the circle at a tight angle rip through his armpit for Edmonton’s second of the night. He would later cough up one between his legs and another under the pads on a shot he didn’t look set for, killing off Nashville’s chances at a fanciful comeback.
The other five Oilers’ goals were unstoppable; shots in the blue paint and slot area that left Rinne with no chance. But the three on Rinne were mistakes that a Vezina calibre goalie should never let in.
The table below outlines just how difficult a year this has been for the Finnish goaltender, who for the past 12 years, has been the household name in the city of Nashville.
Worst Performing Goalies as per Save % Above Expected Deterioration
|Save % Above Expected 18-19||Save % Above Expected 19-20||Differential Between 18-19 and 19-20||Games Played 19-20||
Save % 19-20
Listed are the goalies that have had the largest decline in save percentage above their expected value between this season and last. Rinne is behind only Howard, a goalie who hasn’t won an NHL game since October, in form deterioration.
2019-20 Nashville Predators Haven’t Been Good Enough
All in all, the fact of the matter is, whether it be Nashville’s biggest stars, or its coaching or its goaltending, the 2019-2020 season, won’t be among the most fondly remembered by Smashville. Maybe that’s because it isn’t clear whether the issues that caused it are that easy to resolve.
John Hynes is here to stay, Pekka Rinne could be seeing his career as Nashville’s starter come to an end and as for the 2019-20 Nashville Predators’ most important players, it’s hard to say whether they can figure this out and play the way they are capable of, and consistently.
Given the anticipation surrounding this team coming into the year, it has been a really disappointing campaign. There may be no Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, but if there are, the Predators special teams, loss of identity and synergy between its stars, are all reasons that they aren’t good enough to be in the mix.
If there’s one thing you can sell, it is hope for 2020-2021.