BY THOMAS DRANCE
Like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, the Predators keep on coming. For the small market franchise, for whatever reason, it doesn’t even seem to matter how horrific the damage inflicted on their roster by the annual offseason cleaving of talent.
Every summer, the Predators lose a high-profile player or two and are written off by hockey pundits and analysts. This summer the Predators suffered probably their biggest blow since they traded Tomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen within a week of each other. Through free-agency or defection, the Predators went into this season down the likes of Alexander Radulov, Andrei Kostitsyn and Ryan Suter, three players whom they relied on a season ago. Losing those three (Radulov and Kostitsyn’s reputations aside, they’re quality top-six forwards in the NHL) is a big step up from losing out on useful defensive winger Joel Ward – the biggest loss following the 2010-11 season, and it was widely assumed that this was finally the year that the Predators would collapse under the force of multiple “flesh wounds.”
So far – surprise, surprise – that hasn’t been the case. Through seventeen games, the Predators are fifth in the Western Conference in point percentage and sit second in the Central division. behind only the record setting buzzsaw that is the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve managed this despite being a terrible possession team that is currently sporting a weak goal differential, meaning they’ve probably out performed their true talent as a club in amassing an 8-4-5 record to begin the season. Yet, I wouldn’t confidently predict the Predators to regress.
The reason? Even if you take away Pekka Rinne, who is the third best goaltender in the NHL outside of Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, the Predators are a super elite defensive club. Of course we shouldn’t take away Pekka Rinne, whose .946 even-strength save percentage is completely unsustainable but whose very likely to post an even-strength save percentage somewhere in the vicinity of .930% this season (which is ridiculous). Rinne has been consistently excellent for two seasons as a full-time starter, he’s probably the most athletic of the “elite” goaltenders and he does more to control the game with his puck-handling than any goaltender not named “Martin Broduer.”
As for the defense, they’ve weathered the absence of bonafide top-pairing guy Ryan Suter pretty impressively so far this season. Much was made about Shea Weber’s lack of production in the early going this season, but that was percentage based and to no ones surprise he’s turned it around.
But the offense is gravy from Nashville’s 1A right-side defenseman, what really matters is that Weber is playing some of the most difficult minutes in hockey – soaking up difficult matchups and starting the lowest percentage of shifts in the offensive-zone among all Predators defenseman while playing with a replacement level top-four guy on occasion (in Scott Hannan) – and the Predators are still outscoring their opponents with Weber on the ice.
Some of that is luck (the defensive percentages have been very kind to Weber at even-strength, though that’s the benefit of playing behind Pekka Rinne) but a fair portion of it is also that Shea Weber is ridiculously good at hockey. Consider that opponents are generating shots against the Predators at a clip of 24.2 per sixty minutes when Weber is on the ice. Only Ryan Ellis and Hal Gill – two defenseman who have their matchups manipulated very carefully by Barry Trotz – are surrendering shots against at a stingier clip than Weber so far this season.
I’d also argue that Weber’s possession data looks worse than it really is. When Weber has skated with slick young Swiss puck mover Roman Josi – who is a really exceptional talent, and very effective in a top-four role already – Weber’s more or less an even possession player and that’s the way the Predators will play tonight against the Canucks.
Beyond that top-pairing the Predators will ice two right-handed shots in Kevin Klein and former Vancouver Giant Jonathon Blum as their ostensible second pair, while bargain free-agent signing Scott Hannan babysits offensive dynamo (and pipsqueak) Ryan Ellis on the third pairing. In case you’re wondering how a small market team keeps afloat in a salary cap system despite massive budgetary restrictions: five of those defenseman were drafted by the Predators originally and the sixth signed a one year, one million dollar deal this summer.
Nashville’s six defenseman, three of whom I’d describe as “green around the gills,” have combined to make Nashville a top-five defensive club in terms of goals against at evens strength and in terms of shots against (only St. Louis, Los Angeles and New Jersey allow shots against at a lower rate). Rinne’s save percentage isn’t sustainable, but if the Predators can continue to slow down the pace of games he’ll still be the better goaltender more often than not. So far that style of play has allowed the Predators to manage their losses (they’re the recipient of a league leading five Bettman points) and in a shortened season where the difference between a playoff team and a non-playoff team is likely to be razor thin: that could make all the difference.
Offensively, the Predators are anemic. Their power-play – so potent a year ago thanks to an inflated shooting percentage – has predictably regressed this year, and the Preds have only managed 28 even-strength goals on the season. Obviously they’re going to need to score more than that – no matter how good they’re defensively – and with Patric Hornqvist back in the lineup I tend to think they’ll manage to do that. Hornqvist who returned this week after playing only the first three games of the season, has already recorded – and this isn’t a typo – sixteen shots on goal in two games this week. Think he might offer some critical help to an offensively challenged club?
Ho hum. The Predators are, once again, poised to outperform their “true talent” and it’s thanks to out of this world goaltender, the reliability of their homegrown blue-line talent and the complete dominance of Shea Weber.