Roughly a third of the way through the 2014-15 regular season and the Nashville Predators push their record to 19-7-2 with a convincing win over the Arizona Coyotes. Yes, this team is going well and it’s keeping pace with the best teams in the Western Conference. That much is obvious. Here’s a few things that may have been overlooked along the way.
The Resiliency Factor:
Last season, if scored on first, the Predators record was 11-29-6. This was a very fragile club. A goal against in the early going usually meant defeat. This year’s edition of the club is unaffected if it’s trailing early. In fact, their record if scored on first is a startling 9-6-1 (through just 28 games).
Case in point, the Preds spotted Arizona a 1-0 lead to start the opening period and then proceeded – just two and a half minutes later – to go on a three goal run to send Arizona back to the room down two goals. It was never very close after that point. Fun to watch, no?
James Neal is an iCorsi Beast:
Head Coach Peter Laviolette swears by the total attempts his team takes at the opposition's net. Strong numbers in this regard, according to many, is a recipe for success over the course of an entire season. Why? Because attempts lead to chances even if the initial attempt does not result in a direct shot on net.
After Thursday’s action, James Neal was second in the NHL in total attempts at the net or iCorsi (the total number of shots, misses or blocked shots a single player attempts at his opponent’s net). Neal has 160 attempts and the attempts leader, Brent Burns of San Jose, has 161. However, dig a little deeper and it begins to get interesting. Burns has played three more games than Neal and Burns has over 100 minutes more total time on ice (TOI) than Neal this season. Burns’ TOI is 532:17 while Neal sits at 412:03. So you begin to appreciate that Neal generates total attempts at a rate similar to the current attempts leader Burns but while using far less TOI.
What does a 19-7-2 record get you in the West? Would you believe just a five-point cushion over the ninth placed team who just happens to be the defending Stanley Cup Champs? Don’t get me wrong … this is a good problem to have but how about a little separation when you go 7-3-0 over your last 10 games? I suppose you can chalk that up to “well, that’s just life in the West.” And the one benefit this Predators team does seem to draw from the tight rankings is the motivation to refine its game. It’s a tough conference, and you have to keep your game sharp to stay in the mix.
Stay tuned, lots of hockey left to play!
Every year in the National Hockey League, there are at least a handful of teams that surprise, either by plunging in the standings against high expectations or by rising to a place in the rankings that not even the pundits predicted. Here’s a sampling of three from the Western Conference.
Uh, Nashville. The Predators finished out of the playoffs the last two seasons, largely because they were without their large, netminding Finn and goals were awfully hard to come by. A significant retooling was in order, at the forward position specifically.
By adding James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy to the corps, you knew the team was better on paper, but there was no way anyone saw this coming. At the first quarter mark, Nashville led the West and was tied (in points) for the League lead.
Credit General Manager David Poile for acquiring the pieces; credit Head Coach Peter Laviolette for slotting everyone in the proper spot; and credit the players for embracing a new structure and for playing more consistently than any Predators team in recent memory. These guys just might have something here.
Is the Big D for disappointment? The Dallas Stars turned an ankle out of the gate. And I, for one, projected that this team would add 10 or so points to last year’s total. With Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin coming off such strong seasons last year, I was expecting even more results. They essentially added another first line as they acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Spezza has been fine; Hemsky has been nearly invisible and a significant organizational shortcoming has been exposed in a graphic way. The Stars blue line lacks skilled puck-movers and solid defenders. Not sure where it turns for Head Coach Lindy Ruff and the Stars at this point; they’re currently mired in the 11th spot in the West. Not out of it by any means, but they’ve got a tall hill to climb.
What in the Wild West is going on in Calgary? This is a team that was supposed to be in a full-blown rebuild. But this group isn’t paying the experts any mind. As December begins, Calgary sits fifth in the West, trailing Pacific Division rival Vancouver by a single point.
This is not the flashiest forward corps in the West, so you’d speculate the Flames 15-8-2 record is built on a stingy system that gives up few chances. Not exactly. They’ve allowed more goals against than all but two Western playoff teams. The truth is that the Flames are getting terrific production from the blue line. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are first and third in scoring, respectively; they’ve combined for 46 points over the first 25 games. Their counterparts in Chicago, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who form one of the best tandems in the NHL, trail them by no less than an aggregated 17 points. Please don’t say you saw that coming.
So the stretch for the All-Star Break is on. There’s bound to be more of the unexpected ahead.
Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2014-15 season, it’s no longer necessary to qualify commentary with “it’s a small sample size but …” as the Nashville Predators sit atop the Central Division at 12-4-2. At this stage, I find it worth highlighting certain players who benefit the most under Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s regime.
But Stu… How is Olli Jokinen benefiting under Laviolette? He’s pointless in 18 games this season! Exactly. In spite of the fact that “Joki” has been unable to find the back of the net, Laviolette keeps pushing him minutes - into the mid-teens on most nights. And so he should.
Jokinen is a big-bodied veteran of nearly 1,200 games. He is solid in his own end, he wins more than his share of puck battles; and he’s creating as well as getting looks/chances at the other end. I’ve heard Laviolette say on more than one occasion that he’s more concerned about a player’s quality of play rather than his actual statistical production. In fact, he’s made that very point when talking about Jokinen’s contribution specifically.
So what’s my point? Jokinen is being afforded an opportunity – one that he’s earned – to play his way through a little offensive snakebite. Due to the fact that he plays under a coach that sees the value of his game beyond the numbers. Laviolette has taken this approach with others also and it’s paid off. See Calle Jarnkrok, Taylor Beck and Craig Smith.
Mattias Ekholm came to camp a better player by 20 percent to start the year. He is faster, stronger and looking right at home defending against top-six competition.
A key part of the Laviolette structure involves the defenders activating up into the attack; mindful that you have to recover back and be responsible on the other side of the puck also. I didn’t see it before this year, but Ekholm has this feature in his game. The blueliner possesses great offensive instincts and the first step comes quick when he decides to go. Laviolette has referred to Ekholm as one of his “steadiest players at both ends.” Laviolette’s approach is a tailored fit for No. 14. The proof is in the fact that Ekholm and Ryan Ellis appear to have taken over as the number-two pairing.
Laviolette covets offense. James Neal was acquired to provide that very thing. The question then became who will get Neal the puck in good spots? Well, Mike Ribeiro was signed for that reason and the fit has been a good one from training camp forward.
Ribeiro is a skilled playmaker. He sees the ice well and he has this wonderful ability to “hide his play.” He rarely reveals where he intends to move it until it’s too late for the other side to prevent. In my view, the recipe here has been one part Ribeiro making the most of the opportunity and one part that the coach wiped the slate clean and placed his trust in a player with demonstrated assets.
Here’s to another set of beneficiaries rising up down the road.
The Nashville Predators are rolling early on, and there’s no single explanation for the 8-3-2 start. So let me point out a handful of players who have made the kind of impact you may not have seen coming.
We use this phrase a lot in hockey: “He makes the people around him better.” But it really does ring true in Forsberg’s case. The moment he was re-inserted on to the first line with Mike Ribeiro, the dynamic changed and this line became … well, more dynamic. He’s getting Neal the puck in dangerous places, and he’s converting his own chances off this lightning quick release of his. Remember, as Forsberg entered training camp this year, you were asking the question: “Will he stay?” … Never mind, now we’re asking: “Will he lead all rookies in scoring?!”
From his first shift of the preseason, you could tell Ekholm had added something to his game. He came back quicker, stronger and more confident than the prior year. In terms of his play during the regular season, he didn’t kick it in until the Country Music Association awards trip, but kick it in he has. Four points in his last five games, and he’s even getting time with the man advantage now. He defends as well as anyone in the group and is often up in the attack at regular strength. I don’t believe we’ve seen the ceiling on Ekholm’s game yet.
Signing Ribeiro last summer was a gamble; albeit one involving very little risk (One year at $1.05 million). The center was run out of the Arizona organization and sat on the side-lines of unrestricted free agency until rather late. As he signs, it’s very much an open question. Can he be the guy to get James Neal the looks he needs to score consistently? I’m not sure you can answer that after one-eighth of the schedule has elapsed, but the first 13 games look awfully promising. If not for Forsberg, Ribeiro is leading the team in scoring. He’s a very patient playmaker who sees the ice well. I like that he makes the unconventional pass that a defender does not see coming which creates the opening for a quality chance.
You didn’t see Rinne making an impact coming? Ok, maybe he doesn’t belong in this list like the others do, but since I started covering this team, I’m not sure I’ve seen him string together a better month of hockey. Of course you expect him to make an impact if he’s healthy. But like this? He’s got eight wins and an overtime loss in just 11 starts. Yes, the group in front of him is playing well. But poll any member of that same group and ask them to identify the difference; they’ll point to Rinne. He’s simply won games for his club. Seven times this year he’s had a save percentage of .920 or better. For me, the surprise comes in this way. He missed 51 games last year due to a complicated and potentially career-ending injury; given his competitive nature you’re confident he can bounce-back, but wasn’t he supposed to spend some time finding his form again? Guess not.
Here’s to a strong start.
In the summer of 1991, I’m negotiating my new deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and then-GM Bob Pulford stares across the table and counters by saying, “Stu, I can’t pay you $300,000 a year; I don’t think there’s going to be fighting next year.” Nice try Pully.
But is anyone surprised that we’re still having the debate 23 years later?
Will the NHL ever outlaw fighting and the enforcer?
Maybe; maybe not. But more and more prominent hockey folks are adding their voices to the anti-fighting lobby and there seems to be an increasing appetite within the game to take that step. I am for leaving things as they are but let me make one point before I explain why I take that position.
If you’re going to make a change and ban fighting, do it for the right reasons.
For starters, don’t do it to save the enforcers from themselves. These guys realize the risks associated with what they do, and they accept that risk willingly. I understand the concern for player safety but save it for the reckless, deliberate blows to the heads of unsuspecting, vulnerable players. That’s where the serious injuries occur.
First off, fighting on ice has evolved, it occurs with far less frequency, and it’s become far more tactical if you look back through the 60s, the 70s and even the 80s. During the course of the regular season, you might go two or three games without seeing a player on your favorite team get into a scrap. At the NHL level, most fighting occurs because a player is protecting a teammate or a player is trying to motivate his team because his club is trailing in a game. See Paul Gaustad versus Vern Fiddler in a recent game against the Stars.
Furthermore, when I broke in, every team had a heavyweight – sometimes two. Today, my own informal survey of the league demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of NHL managers believe they can get by without the services of an enforcer. My point is: Why should the league ban fighting when the role and the act itself are becoming more and more marginalized as time goes on?
Second, and this is more an observation than a reason to leave the game as is, attempting to define “staged-fighting” and outlaw that is a fool’s errand. You can’t pick and choose which type of fighting you want to eliminate. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. There would be no end to the complaints if one day the refs were responsible for deciding that one type of fracas is okay but the participants in a different fight should be ejected for the entire game.
Finally, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition is far less likely to take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And think of it this way: If the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, the threat of a fight is one tool in a small basket of tools the NHL has at its disposal to curb that sort of behavior. The enforcer, just like a ref on the ice, acts as a deterrent. If a player knows he has to answer to a Brian McGrattan or Rich Clune when he acts up, he’s far more likely to keep his elbows tucked in.
Having said that, I am the first to admit that the justification for fighting is less compelling today than it was when I played.
The game has evolved; I don’t recall the last time I saw one team come out on top simply because it brutalized its opponent. There was a day when the tougher team was most often the team that prevailed. Today, that seems to be the exception… not the rule.
If you want to ban fighting, do it for that reason. Ban fighting because the game has outgrown it.
But I’m not convinced it has.
So summer 2014 has come and gone and David Poile has done his level best to bolster his Predators and put them back on a path to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ve written fairly extensively on the changes made on the ice and behind the bench.
But for a broader perspective, let’s shift the focus to the Western Conference and the Central Division to evaluate the club’s prospects for a top-eight finish.
Of all the NHL divisions to occupy, the pesky Preds had to pick the newly formed Central. The only division in the NHL to send five – count ‘em – five teams to the playoffs last season. And what’s more, nearly every Central Division team improved during the offseason.
Chicago adds Brad Richards; St. Louis signs Paul Stastny; Minnesota grabs Thomas Vanek; last season’s remarkable surprise, Colorado, adds key experience in Danny Briere and Jarome Iginla; and perhaps the greatest concern to Smashvillians, Dallas ropes in Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Adding another formidable layer of offense to what was already a strong and improving line up. See Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
If you gulped as these transactions were made, you’ve got a pretty good feel for the way things stack up in the West.
Here’s the task for the Preds as I see it. The West is comprised of three tiers of teams: the elite tier, the struggling/rebuilding group and the middle tier. Take the second category first. The Predators, given their current make up, should finish above Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. However, that’s by no means a given. There may be a Colorado-like surprise to come out of that group… but not likely.
At the same time, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Preds break into the elite group either. The Kings, Ducks, Blues, Blackhawks and Sharks are very likely to make up some combination of the top five. And it’s just as likely that one member of the Western elite will go on to hoist the Cup by the time it’s all over.
So that shifts the focus squarely to the middle tier. The challenge for your 2014-15 Predators is to knock the Coyotes, the Wild or the Avalanche out of the Nos. 6-8 seeds. Looking over those three, it would seem to me that the Avs are the most apt to re-appear in the postseason. That puts Arizona and Minnesota squarely in the Predators crosshairs. Season matchups versus the Wild – and there are five – should be just that… Wild. “Suuuuterrrrrr!!!!”
I’ve made this point before, but realignment makes for more interesting, more meaningful matchups earlier in the regular season. That couldn’t be more true for the 2014-15 Predators and the road ahead. Strap in and enjoy the ride… should be fun!!
Training camp 2014 draws to a close soon, and we look forward to the real deal on October 9. So I thought it would be worthwhile to walk through a little zone-by-zone primer in terms of the Predators new style of play.
Two things to key on here. First, the forwards will simply forecheck harder and with a larger presence. They’ll send two guys, rather than one, when the opposition has the puck in its zone. This means that this year’s team will need to be better conditioned and probably shorten their shifts on average to sustain increased pressure.
Second wrinkle is that the defense has the green light to pinch down more from the other team’s blue line. So on any puck that is rung around the boards to an opposition winger, you’re apt to see Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and company jump down hard to create a turnover and hold the zone. From the opposition’s point of view, this is tough to deal with when you’re now getting pressure from above and below the puck.
Not much to report on here, though I have picked up one observation through the preseason. On something like a faceoff loss in neutral ice, you should see the strong side forward force the opposition defender with the puck. He’ll try to steer that player to the outside in a trap style maneuver. The remaining Predators are stacked up at or near the blue line four across. The goal is to create a turnover at the Preds blue line or force the other side to have to dump the puck and concede possession.
We keep hearing the new system will add offense but can you add offense even when defending in your own end? Sounds odd I know, but yes. If you’re defending more aggressively – and you’re successful doing so – you should spend less time in your own end, right? And it follows that if you’re spending less time in the defensive zone you should be in your opponent’s end creating chances.
Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s team will try to accomplish this with at least two tweaks. One is by way of the swarm. Sounds pretty exotic, I know, but a lot of teams are playing this way now. Watch for the defenseman at the net front to jump into the fray when Nashville is defending deep in one corner once the puck goes to the wall. Typically, the net front defenseman will remain static in front of the Preds net as long as that two-on-two battle stays confined to his partner’s corner.
However, now under the Laviolette system, you’ll often see the net front defender jump into the battle in order to outman the two opposition forwards so as to regain possession of the puck. You saw this from the Preds in the past but there’s a key difference between then and now. Under Laviolette, the net front defenseman no longer has to wait for that puck to “die” (or stop) on the wall before he activates into the corner. He’ll jump in as soon as the puck goes to the wall even if it’s moving.
Second tweak is as follows: The left and right wingers will play lower in the zone when the puck is deep in Nashville’s end. The thinking here is that the wingers are more apt to create turnovers if they’re positioned deeper in the Preds zone.
Lots going on I know, but keep an eye out for some of this as it should be exciting!!
The following is the last of a four-part review of a summer’s worth of changes. Here, we focus on coaching.
Early in the offseason, the Predators made it clear that they were parting company with the only coach the organization had ever known in Barry Trotz. A few weeks of due diligence produced veteran bench boss, Peter Laviolette. In my estimation, this was the strongest candidate available to General Manager David Poile at that moment. There’s a lot to like here.
Coaching is 75 percent personality and 25 percent knowledge. A coach with a strong personality and the ability to communicate systems, structure and culture in a clear way will get the most from his group. This is where Laviolette is strong.
Players who’ve had him in the past agree that he can motivate. He’s a clear thinker with a very direct manner of speaking; it’s rare for him to verbalize much more than what is absolutely necessary for the moment. Players respond to that kind of clarity; it breeds confidence in the leadership. You start to lose people if you’re talking at length about things that aren’t really instructive or relevant.
Moreover, Laviolette carries with him 11-plus years of NHL head coaching experience as he enters the room; most notably, a Stanley Cup Championship in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s a lot of cachet as 20 sets of eyes lean in to learn which direction their new mentor intends to take them.
It’s worth noting that Laviolette comes with long time assistant, Kevin McCarthy. “Kaito” knows the new guy well and he’s able to act as a buffer to some degree. He’ll fill in gaps and educate players and others about “life under Lavvy.” It is easy to underestimate the importance of someone like McCarthy, but he’s well positioned to accelerate any adjustment to a new man in charge.
Last point to make is that there is a strong nexus present here – where the coach’s strength meets the team’s greatest need. The Predators are in dire need of more offense and Laviolette teams typically adopt an offensive slant. It remains to be seen whether a Laviolette system applied to an upgraded forward roster (See: James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen) will actually produce more offense. But the table is set and if the coaches coach and the players play this team should compete for a top-eight spot in the West.
Lots to watch for here; and it all gets started today at training camp! See you soon!
Rookie camp 2014-15 is upon us.
That’s good news; it means the real deal is right around the corner! But no matter whether you’re a Gretzky, a grinder or somewhere in between, everyone runs the gauntlet that is NHL rookie camp. And this is one example of how the game has changed. For the better.
I broke in during the late 80s by way of the Calgary Flames organization. For whatever reason, the Flames rookies played the Vancouver Canucks rookies exclusively. We’d have two or three days of practice to get our legs under us before facing off against the Canucks recruits, and then it was on!
Fighting played a far more prominent role in the game back then. So most players felt that getting in a scrap or two (or three) with someone from the other side was a good way of impressing the decision makers.
We’d typically play the Canucks rookies a handful of times in different small town rinks all over southern British Columbia. Each outing included the same cast of characters, all tough as nails, all desperately trying to stick with the big club anyway, anyhow. This was not pretty hockey. Think Ogelthorpe, Dave “Killer” Carlson and a set of brothers named Hanson, except most of us were just two years out of high school.
I recall one game where we were "hosting" our Canucks counterparts in Calgary. As usual, it was another bloodbath. There were over a dozen fights in the first two periods. I’m sitting in my stall during the second intermission; I had been in three fights by this stage so I thought my night was over. I hung back as the other players filtered out to the ice for the start of the third period. Coach Baxter looks my way and says “What’s with you?” I replied, “I had three fights; I was going to hit the shower.” Baxter scoffed, “Yeah, you’re not. Get out there … you got another 20 minutes to play like everyone else.”
Today, you’ll see a brand of hockey that is far more subdued, at least in terms of the physicality. Rookie camp is a closer simile to NHL style hockey. And this is where the "changed for the better" part comes in. When you stage a Wild West show, as was the custom back then, you create an environment where the smaller and the highly-skilled players are distracted from playing their game. You lose the opportunity to truly evaluate these guys—and all players for that matter—and the camp itself is not nearly as effective.
So here’s to Rookie Camp 2014! And here’s to seeing you out at Ford Ice Center.
Missing the NHL playoffs in consecutive seasons provides plenty of incentive to retool and create a roster that will reverse the trend. That’s precisely what Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile did this offseason.
The following is part three of a review of a summer’s worth of changes, by position. This week we feature the forwards. Plenty to talk about here.
The changes up front amount to something just shy of a full-blown overhaul. No other area of the roster got more attention. Why? Because offense has been an area of concern for some time. And because a new coach with an offensive focus necessitates a roster with more firepower.
Starting on day one of the NHL Draft, Mr. Poile made one of the biggest splashes of the summer when James Neal was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins. An exciting move to be sure; the Predators have never had a 40-goal scorer in the stable.
But the question becomes: How do you put him in a position where he can produce in that way again? Remember, Neal scored his 40 with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin riding alongside.
Enter Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy. These are all interesting signings and each fits a common profile. Players in their early 30s (Jokinen is 35); who have scored at a point-a-game clip in the past; who signed for less money on one-year deals because they’re looking to parlay the coming year into another solid contract. (i.e. Each forward has something to prove.)
Given the way unrestricted free agency played out (Paul Statsny, Mike Cammalleri and Thomas Vanek were snapped up early), you have to credit the Predators with making the most of a depleted market. Unable to capture a “big name” the team adjusted and played the short game by signing three “second-tier” players who may be positioned to have strong years.
So at end of the day/summer, are the Predators any better? Yes … on paper. The club acquired four key pieces that make the club measurably more potent than last year’s version. But the rubber has yet to hit the road. I estimate that by the second half of November the answer to this question should become clear. In any event, keep an eye on the forwards this year; that’s the gateway back to the postseason.
Next week we’ll analyze coaching.