Nashville Predators First Quarter Review

We recently went through a round of parent-teacher conferences for the Little Forecheckers (two in Kindergarten, one in preschool), so it's high time to provide an interim report on these 2007-8 Nashville Predators. Sorry guys, no credit here for tying your own skates or strapping your own gear on...

As a team, the season so far has been a story of streaks; first, there was the six-game losing stretch that left them with a 2-6 record. The final game in that walk of shame was a
nauseating 6-0 defeat in Los Angeles that provided fodder for all the doomsayers who based their preseason predictions on the talent that left Nashville over the summer, not the talent that remained. What followed immediately, however, was an 8-1-2 run that brought the team right back into the thick of the newly-competitive Central Division. At this point, the Predators boast the top inter-divisional winning percentage in the Central at .667 (5-2-2), so appear able to compete for those coveted playoff spots this spring.

The Centers

Jason Arnott (21 GP, 8 G, 10 A, 22 PIM, +8, 18:44 TOI); As a newly-minted captain, top-line center and key power play weapon, Arnott's production has been steady and reliable. Referencing Behind the Net's 5-on-5 Advanced Statistics, #19 comes out 2nd-best on the team in terms of On/Off Plus-Minus. In other words, he makes the 2nd-greatest improvement in the team's GF/GA performance at even strength when he's on the ice. When he's on the bench, the Predators are at a -0.19 Goals per 60 minutes pace, but when he's playing, that jumps to +1.97 Goals per 60 minutes. One quibble I have with Arnott's play to date has been the number of penalties taken; he's committed a team-worst 7 penalties more than he's drawn from opponents, which not only puts his the team on the penalty kill but sets a bad example for a team that has been bitten by the penalty bug too often in recent playoff disappointments. Also, he shoulders part of the blame for a power play that's been dismal at best. 1st Quarter Grade: B

David Legwand (22 GP, 6 G, 12 A, 16 PIM, +4, 18:22 TOI); Perhaps the hat trick he achieved against Dallas in the second game of the season got some fans hoping for a 30-goal season out of the Predators first-ever draft pick, but Legwand seems to have settled in to a valuable role; second-line center and penalty killer extraordinaire. His contributions aren't merely defensive, however. His speed creates chances for his linemates, as reflected in his 5-on-5 Advanced Statistics. When he's on the ice, the Preds give up 2.32 Goals/60 minutes, and when he's on the bench they give up 2.48. The real difference is on the offensive end, as his On-Ice GF/60 minutes is 4.18, vs. 2.31 when he's catching a break. In short, he's adding to the offensive punch without compromising the back end. 1st Quarter Grade: B

Radek Bonk (22 GP, 9 G, 2 A, 4 PIM, -3, 16:17 TOI); Hockey fans in Music City have been going "Bonkers" over this free agent pickup (oh, stop the groaning already) based on his unexpected goal production, but his line is generally getting outscored at even strength. Granted, that's due in part to the strength of opposition Bonk typically faces; using Behind the Net's Quality of Competition metric, his line comes out as having the toughest job to handle, and considering that his usual linemates at even strength are Smithson and Ortmeyer, it's not like they're going to outscore the Zetterberg/Datsyuk/Holmstrom's of the NHL anyway. The real epiphany with Bonk has been on the power play, where his performance has stood out amidst an otherwise lackluster team effort. 1st Quarter Grade: A-

Scott Nichol (18 GP, 1 G, 1 A, 26 PIM, +4, 10:39 TOI); Nichol's job is to provide some energetic forechecking on the fourth line, and focus on the penalty kill. He's been generally effective in those roles (the Nashville PK has taken a step back this year, however, among the bottom third in the NHL), and remains the team's top faceoff specialist. 1st Quarter Grade: C

The Wingers

J.P. Dumont (22 GP, 6 G, 8 A, 14 PIM, +4, 18:14 TOI); Dumont has struggled with a broken finger during the early going, so hopefully the offensive numbers will start to pick up. It seems like J.P.'s had a number of slam-dunk chances go just wide of the net, so while his head and his heart are in the right place, the hands just haven't been able to bury some of those pucks. That's particularly worrisome on the power play, where Dumont's getting 4+ minutes per game while the unit struggles. 1st Quarter Grade: C-

Martin Erat (22 GP, 7 G, 14 A, 10 PIM, +6, 18:17 TOI); The month of November has been kind to Erat, with 15 points in 11 games, compared to 6 in 11 October contests. Barry Trotz spoke before the season of the need for Erat to step up and be an offensive threat every night, so we'll have to see if Erat can keep rolling like this. One interesting aspect to #10's production is his work on the penalty kill, where he has been the top performing forward; despite averaging 1:20 a game on the PK, he's only been on the ice for one goal against so far. 1st Quarter Grade: B+

Alexander Radulov (22 GP, 5 G, 11 A, 12 PIM, +7, 15:06 TOI); People will look at the five goals and conclude that Radulov has been a disappointment so far considering the Bure/Mogilny-like expectations many have for the Predators' flashiest winger. His vision and passing ability, however, set up chances for teammates that wouldn't otherwise have been there, as defenses converge on him and leave linemates wide open. His even strength presence has provided a lift to the team (3rd best, not far behind Arnott), although he is prone to the occasional heart-stopping defensive zone giveaway, usually the result of a weak clearing effort. 1st Quarter Grade: B

Vern Fiddler (22 GP, 6 G, 6 A, 11 PIM, +3, 12:48 TOI); Fiddler's been the character actor on this team, a guy you can throw into a variety of situations with an expectation of competency, if not dominance. He started the year alongside Arnott and Dumont, has spent time with Legwand and Radulov, and has also seen duty on the fourth line as well. He reminds me somewhat of Doug Brown, who used to play on a line with the Russians in Detroit; both know how to jump into a passing lane and take advantage of the opportunities that more talented players can provide. On the penalty kill, his performance hasn't been as strong. The question here is that once (if?) Steve Sullivan returns, will Fiddler get even-strength playing time with quality teammates like he has so far? As an added bonus, he's tied for 2nd-best on the team with a Penalty Plus/Minus of +4. 1st Quarter Grade: A-

Jordin Tootoo (22 GP, 5 G, 2 A, 32 PIM, -1, 9:04 TOI); Tootoo's five goals have his fans buzzing, and have toned down much of the bluster from critics like Kelly Hrudey who thinks he has no place in the NHL. On the negative side, he's still a poor performer in terms of GF/GA at even strength (as are most fighters as pointed out by Mirtle). On the plus side, he's showing a much higher level of discipline as compared to last year, and has a Penalty Plus/Minus figure of +3. 1st Quarter Grade: C+

Jed Ortmeyer (21 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 15 PIM, -4, 13:28 TOI); Everyone loves the work ethic that Ortmeyer brings to the table, especially considering that his role is a thankless one. His duty is to battle the top opposing offensive players and basically hold down the fort. At times, however, it appears that Jed's too focused on the defensive end, and passes up scoring opportunities. He's also the leading forward in terms of penalty killing ice time, so must share some of the blame for that unit's underwhelming record. 1st Quarter Grade: C-

Martin Gelinas (16 GP, 2 G, 3 A, 8 PIM, +2, 12:52 TOI); Gelinas has taken full advantage of the Predators medical staff this season. First he cut his hand during a teambuilding exercise at nearby Ft. Campbell. Then, he caught a high-stick to the face during a game in Anaheim, then in the next game against L.A. got poked by Martin Erat's stick in the eye while returning to the bench. Over the last few weeks, however, he's provided solid forechecking on a line with Tootoo and Nichol, creating the occasional goal and dishing out some hits until one of the scoring lines is ready to go again. His special teams play has been sub par to date. 1st Quarter Grade: C

Jerred Smithson (22 GP, 2 G, 1 A, 18 PIM, -9, 13:43 TOI); Smithson has spent most of his even-strength time on a line with Bonk and Ortmeyer, which helps explain the lack of offensive production. Even with that consideration, however, his EV performance is the worst among players regularly in the lineup. He carries a heavy load of PK work alongside Ortmeyer which also hasn't gone well, and boasts a rotten 42.5% faceoff percentage. 1st Quarter Grade: D

Darcy Hordichuk (7 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 10 PIM, -4, 5:03 TOI); He's missed a great deal of time with a broken toe, but even considering that he's been a healthy scratch many nights. His even strength performance is the worst on the team by a country mile, which must explain why Smithson is still making the lineup every night. 1st Quarter Grade: Incomplete

The Defense

Shea Weber (5 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 4 PIM, 0, 15:07 TOI); A dislocated kneecap kept him on the shelf until only recently, but it is hoped is return will provide the dangerous point presence that's been so sorely lacking. 1st Quarter Grade: Incomplete

Ryan Suter (22 GP, 2 G, 7 A, 22 PIM, -5, 21:42 TOI); Suter's had a rough go of things, generally getting outscored by a 0.73 goals/60 minutes rate at even strength while the team runs at a +0.95 goals/60 minutes clip when he's on the bench (all this while facing basically average opposition, so it's not like he's facing only the best of the best). On special teams, however, he's fared better. He's been one of the more productive blueliners on the PK, and has been the team's best player on the power play so far, as measured by On/Off Ice +/- on the PP, surpassing even Radek Bonk. As Weber works his way back into game shape perhaps Suter's EV time can be scaled back a bit, allowing him to focus on his special team strengths. 1st Quarter Grade: B-

Dan Hamhuis (22 GP, 1 G, 7 A, 8 PIM, +2, 23:58 TOI); Hamhuis has led all Nashville defensemen in minutes played, and in an opposite case from Suter, has performed generally well at even strength while lagging both on the power play and penalty kill. One especially positive aspect of his play is that he boasts a Penalty Plus/Minus of +4, tied for the best among all NHL defensemen. 1st Quarter Grade: B-

Marek Zidlicky (20 GP, 1 G, 9 A, 21 PIM, -3, 21:19 TOI); Zidlicky was supposed to carry the offensive load in light of Kimmo Timonen's departure, but the results have been underwhelming so far. He's taking too many penalties (Penalty Plus/Minus of -6) and his even strength performance has been substandard. He's been one of the few positive factors on the power play, but the Predators should be getting more out of him in 5-on-5 action. 1st Quarter Grade: D+

Greg Zanon (22 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 4 PIM, +5, 19:55 TOI); Zanon is the team's defensive-zone battler, a dedicated shot blocker and steady physical presence. He's been remarkably disciplined, taking only two minor penalties despite heavy action, and during his time at even strength and the penalty kill he's been a positive influence on GF/GA. He doesn't garner significant PP time, but that's not his role. 1st Quarter Grade: B+

Greg de Vries (22 GP, 0 G, 6 A, 16 PIM, +8, 18:54 TOI); Many fans would be surprised to find de Vries atop the team's Plus/Minus rating, as he's been conspicuously hung in the middle of a number of 2-on-1's that have resulted in goals against. Perhaps it's an endorsement of his play that at least he was the guy back, however. At even strength, he's been one of Nashville's better performers, basically adding a goal per 60 minutes to the Predators attack while keeping the goals-against constant. He's also been their top defenseman on the penalty kill. In short, the bottom line has been much better than some of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) would indicate. 1st Quarter Grade: B+

Ville Koistinen (14 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 10 PIM, +6, 16:04 TOI); It's still the early stage for Koistinen, who got the opportunity to log significant ice time once Shea Weber went down to injury. While his work on the power play hasn't been extraordinary, his even-strength numbers are dynamite; tops on the team in terms of impact on GF/GA. With Weber's return the blue line is getting crowded, so it remains to be seen whether room can be found to determine whether this young Finn can continue this performance over the long haul. 1st Quarter Grade: B+

Kevin Klein (5 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 4 PIM, -1, 13:10 TOI); Despite a highlight-reel end-to-end rush in the game against Atlanta, Klein has played himself out of the Predators lineup, and during his conditioning stint in Milwaukee Trotz has not sounded like a man impressed with Klein's ability and desire to prove he belongs back up in the NHL. 1st Quarter Grade: F

The Goaltenders

Chris Mason (7-9-2, 3.07, .897 Save %); The knock on Mason according to TSN's Scouting Report starts with "Lacks consistency". After earning player of the week honors for victories in the first two games of the season, Mason then failed to finish a number of games shortly thereafter as the team spiraled. His performance has been steadier of late, but when the inevitable bad game does come along, it needs to be put in the rear view mirror and left behind. As stated before, the biggest variable in the success of this team will be Mason's ability to shoulder a 60-70 game workload while maintaining the kind of performance he's logged before as a backup. 1st Quarter Grade: C+

Dan Ellis (4-0-0, 1.35, .952 Save %); Just like a backup quarterback, the backup goalie is the most beloved of hockey players. Ellis gamely stepped into the breach when Mason struggled early, and had some (admittedly delusional) commentators wondering if he might steal the #1 job from Mason. Trotz has indicated that Ellis will get another start soon, so it will be interesting to see if he can match his performances of a few weeks ago. One thing that is fun to watch with Ellis is his ability (and desire) to play the puck, a holdover from his time in Dallas. 1st Quarter Grade: A

The Coaches
Often in pro sports we hear of teams that tune out a given head coach after a few years, and regardless of whatever success had been achieved, the organization decides to move on. It's amazing to see how Trotz, the only head coach Nashville has known, still has the ear of this team. When the record stood at 2-6 after that shutout in Los Angeles, I said at the time that the team faced a true test of leadership. Apparently Trotz has passed that test, as the team has rallied convincingly since then, including some strong comeback (like the two-goal, third-period effort in Detroit).

On the downside, much was made during training camp about Brent Peterson (edit: spelling correction) taking over the power play, and how there was going to be a "shoot first" methodology put in place. Now granted, the #1 point man, Shea Weber, has missed most of the early action while on IR, but the power play has looked inconsistent at best, and disorganized at worst. The penalty kill, as well, has sunk to below-average NHL performance, whereas it had typically been a team strength in the past.

Line juggling over the first 10 games has given way to a fairly consistent lineup of late, which has roughly correlated with the team's recent success. The main challenges for this group over the months ahead are how to fix the special teams, and how best to manage the glut of defenders available now that Weber is back in the lineup. 1st Quarter Grade: B-