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Predators are red-hot, but there are some red flags

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At a quick glance, the Nashville Predators leading the NHL with 24 standings points makes total sense. After all, we’re talking about the deep, well-built reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, and all the widely-mocked banners that come with it.

In defeating the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 to close out Wednesday’s NBCSN doubleheader, the Predators displayed a mix of the unexpected (Colton Sissons generating a hat trick) with what’s becoming run-of-the-mill (an explosive offense going cold against Pekka Rinne). Nashville’s show has been traveling better than the circus so far in 2018-19, as their 12-3-0 overall record is buoyed by a perfect 7-0-0 mark on the road.

Everything’s going to plan, right?

So far, sure, but there are some red flags to at least monitor. Let’s take a deeper look at the Predators’ impressive start.

Red-hot Rinne

Rinne’s been ridiculous lately, including only allowing one basically unstoppable goal in the two games since signing a two-year extension with the Predators.

You can see how great Rinne’s been whether you look at simpler numbers (a remarkable .949 save percentage this season) or you dig a little deeper. From last season through this early stretch, he sports the eighth-best save percentage against high-danger scoring chances, via Corsica Hockey. You know Rinne’s on fire when he’s outpacing John Gibson and Jaroslav Halak this season, as you can see from Sean Tierney’s handy chart for Goals Saved Against Average, one of the more respected fancy stats for goalies:

For quite some time, analytics-minded people viewed Rinne as one of the league’s most overrated goalies. The argument was that the Predators provided a cocoon for the big Finn to rack up easy wins and starts, particularly when Barry Trotz’s system was at its stingy peak.

Rinne’s becoming a tougher goalie to knock, especially if inevitable jokes about the postseason are mitigated by the notion that plenty of great netminders stumble in the small sample pressure cooker of the playoffs.

If Rinne was dependent upon the team and system around him before, now I wonder if the Predators are asking too much of their veteran starter (and up-and-comer Juuse Saros).

Regression looming?

So far, the Predators lead the NHL with a +20 goal differential, as they’ve scored 51 while only allowing 31. That’s impressive, yet you wonder if Nashville’s luck could run out, possibly in troubling ways.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s numbers, the Predators have enjoyed the fifth-highest shooting percentage at even-strength (9.63-percent) and the second-best save percentage (95.18), translating to a 1.048 PDO that screams “unsustainable.”

Generally, their possession stats have been middling, and appear eerily familiar to their old, struggling buddies, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Some formulas place them very much in the middle of the pack, and you can simplify things by merely noting that they’re barely generating more shots on goal (30.9 per game) than they’re giving up (30.2).

Now, it’s not all bad, as they’ve been a top-10 team at preventing high-danger scoring chances, and none of the numbers seem outright disastrous. They don’t need to panic.

Still, these red flags should at least provide some caution, rather than inspiring the hot-starting team to rest on its laurels.

For instance, the Predators could conceivably withstand a dip in luck at 5-on-5 if they can work out what’s become a gnawing issue.

Power up that power play

It says a lot about Nashville’s strengths (and luck) that they’ve managed this 12-3-0 record despite a pitiful power-play percentage of 13, the fourth-worst efficiency rate in the NHL.

That number – if not ranking – should climb with time, even if the Predators make few adjustments. Colton Sissons’ hat-trick goal came on the power play during Wednesday’s win, for instance.

While the Predators are almost certain to get more bounces on the man advantage, it’s up to Peter Laviolette and his coaching staff to find ways to put Nashville’s power play in better situations to create and take advantage of said bounces.

Improving Nashville’s power play could be as much about massaging egos as anything else.

A deep defense that can create offense as readily as it can defuse threats makes for a splendid advantage for the Predators … most of the time. Still, having P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and to a lesser (offensive) extent Mattias Ekholm means that there’s likely pressure to run the PP through defense too often.

Looking at Tyler Dellow’s breakdown of power plays at The Athletic (sub required), you can see that the Predators:

  • Are among the team’s most likely to go with a less-explosive alignment of three forwards and two defensemen instead of four forwards and one defenseman.
  • They rank among the teams that have defensemen shooting the most often.
  • Their power play has been ineffective by many metrics.

Again, the Predators are likely to see gains just by way of puck luck rebounding, but Laviolette will probably need to make some key adjustments if Nashville wants its power play to be a greater advantage.

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Look, the Predators often pass the “eye test,” and it’s early November, so they have plenty of time to make tweaks.

A better power play could also offset at least some of the drop-off that is likely to come from Rinne occasionally seeming human and that high shooting percentage cooling off.

Still, the Predators aren’t aiming to just be “fine.” This team has Stanley Cup aspirations, so they should pay at least some mind to weaknesses – there were worries about relying too much on Rinne last season, too – and should also take advantage of this buffer in the standings by experimenting with different strategies.

Nashville has been aggressive about improving over the years, and it’s paid off. Staying vigilant could mean the difference between another playoff letdown and truly sticking with the NHL’s absolute best.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks sign Ian Mitchell, will join team in 2020-21

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CHICAGO (AP) — Ian Mitchell will have to wait until next season to join the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 21-year-old Mitchell, one of the organization’s top prospects, agreed to a three-year contract in April. But there was some question about when the defenseman’s entry-level deal might begin.

Mitchell is ineligible for the resumption of the NHL season, and the team announced Thursday it had finalized a contract with the former University of Denver star that begins with the 2020-21 season rather than burns a year right now so he can practice with the team.

The Blackhawks face Edmonton in Game 1 of the qualifying round on Aug. 1.

The team also announced it had agreed to a two-year contract with defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk and a one-year deal with forward Pius Suter. The deals for Mitchell, Kalynuk and Suter each carry a $925,000 salary-cap hit per season.

Mitchell was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2017 draft. He was a first-team All-American during his junior year at Denver, collecting 10 goals and 22 assists during the regular season. He also served as team captain.

He finished his career with the Pioneers with 18 goals and 71 assists in 116 games.

Mitchell and Kalynuk join a promising group of young defensemen that includes 19-year-old Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick in the 2018 draft. Nicolas Beaudin, who doesn’t turn 21 until October, also could be a factor as soon as next season.

The 23-year-old Kalynuk had a career-high 28 points in 36 games during his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, finishing with seven goals and 21 assists. He also served as a team captain with the Badgers.

Kalynuk was originally selected by Philadelphia in the seventh round of the 2017 NHL draft.

Suter, 24, won the MVP award for Switzerland’s National League-A last season, collecting 30 goals and 23 assists in 50 games for the ZSC Lions.

2019-20 Lady Byng finalists: MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

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The NHL announced Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs), and Ryan O'Reilly (Blues) as the three finalists for the 2019-20 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The Lady Byng is awarded to the player “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

As usual, the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on the award.

Panthers center Aleksander Barkov won the Lady Byng in 2018-19. O’Reilly finished among the finalists that season.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Lady Byng Trophy cases for finalists MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

Quick case for Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon, 24, managed another great season (93 points, Ted Lindsay Award finalist) while posting a career-low 12 PIM in 2019-20. Considering his significant ice time (21:13 TOI average), it’s impressive that the speedy scorer kept his PIM totals so low. This is his first Lady Byng nomination.

Matthews becomes Lady Byng finalist after tumultuous offseason

No doubt, Auston Matthews finishing as Lady Byng finalist will create controversy. Honestly, it’s easy to understand such critiques.

While Matthews’ disorderly conduct was dismissed in November, plenty will wonder why he finished among the top three. Would Teuvo Teravainen (63 points, eight PIM) served as a better choice, for example? Maybe Ryan Suter (12 PIM despite workhorse duties) instead?

From an on-ice perspective, Matthews makes a case as a Lady Byng finalist. Matthews produced 47 goals and shouldered a substantial ice time burden while only being whistled for eight PIM.

Ryan O’Reilly aims for another Lady Byng Trophy

As great as it’s been to see “ROR” get recognition as a Selke winner, O’Reilly has been a Lady Byng fixture for years. In fact, the dominant two-way forward won the Lady Byng in 2013-14. This marks O’Reilly’s third season in a row among Lady Byng finalists.

Remarkably, this marks the sixth of O’Reilly’s 11 seasons where he finished with 10 PIM or less. O’Reilly scored 61 points, excelled as a two-way player as usual, and kept his PIM to a neat 10 in 2019-20.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Masterton Trophy: Stephen Johns, Oskar Lindblom, Bobby Ryan

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johns, Lindblom, Ryan are 2019-20 Masterton Trophy finalists

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Stephen Johns of the Stars, Oskar Lindblom of the Flyers, and Bobby Ryan of the Senators are the three finalists for the 2019-20 Masterton Trophy. The award, which is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Robin Lehner was last season’s winner.

Each local chapter submits one nominee and the full PHWA membership votes at the conclusion of the regular season. You can find the full list of nominees here.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Stephen Johns’ story: The Stars defenseman missed 22 months due to post-traumatic headaches. He made his NHL return in January and played over 18 minutes that night against the Wild. He would play 17 games this season and scored his first goal at Madison Square Garden in a win over the Rangers. “Throughout this whole process, it wasn’t just me going through hell,” he told the Dallas Morning News in June. “As parents, they want to help and for them to be here and see that, I probably know my dad was for sure crying. I’m pretty excited to go see them and give them both a big hug.”

Oskar Lindblom’s story: It was in December that the Flyers forward was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. At that time he was tied for the team lead in goals scorer (11) through 30 games. After months of treatment, the 23-year-old got to ring the bell at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia earlier this month as his treatments came to an end. He won’t play in the postseason, but there is hope he can rejoin the team for next season.

Bobby Ryan’s story: Ryan left the Senators in late November to enter the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program to deal with an alcohol problem. He returned in February and recorded a hat trick in his first game back in Ottawa. That led to emotional standing ovations and Ryan being name the game’s No. 1 star. He hopes to continue to tell his story to help others. “Because I’ve been open and candid about that, I think people have looked at me and said, ‘There’s a very relatable person,'” Ryan told the Ottawa Sun. “Through my family stuff and now with alcohol issues, I’ve never hid from it and I’ve always said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it in the public eye and I’m going to have to be candid with it.”

The winner will be announced during the conference finals.

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Lady Byng Trophy: Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Oskar Lindblom reflects on battling cancer

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lindblom’s battle, key Wild decisions, and more

• Alex Prewitt shares a detailed, touching account of Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer. [SI]

• USA Hockey announced the cancellation of the 2020 World Junior Summer showcase. The event was originally scheduled for July 24-31, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution. [USA Hockey]

• Ken Campbell believes the Wild took care of the present by dropping the interim tag from head coach Dean Evason, and secured the future by signing Kirill Kaprizov. I’d say the jury is still out on Evason, but getting Kaprizov signed is huge — even if COVID-19 presents more bumps in the road. [The Hockey News]

• How about some more detail on Evason, then? Tony Abbott breaks down why Wild GM Bill Guerin might have been impressed with Evason. In particular, it’s interesting to see that the Wild picked up the pace with Evason after firing Bruce Boudreau. [Zone Coverage]

• A fun one from John Matisz on various skills that hockey players find difficult to master. Some covet Nicklas Lidstrom’s ability to walk the line. Kevin Shattenkirk marvels at the deceptive “hitch” Nikita Kucherov can put on his shot. [The Score]

• Ranking the Detroit Red Wings’ jerseys, from worst to first. That 1928-29 Cougars logo is choice. [Hockey by Design]

NHL training camps, insight on playoff matchups, and free agency

• The Maple Leafs don’t view training camp as merely an opportunity to tune up. Instead, such activities are being framed as competition for playoff roster spots. I imagine players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly don’t have to worry too much, though. [Sportsnet]

• Sin Bin Vegas transcribed key Robin Lehner quotes about his free agent future. Over and over again, it seems clear that Lehner craves term in contract offers, making me wonder if a savvy team might be able to bring his AAV down by giving him some stability. Goalies are unpredictable, but you could make worse bets than Lehner, who’s been outstanding since at least 2018-19. [Sin Bin Vegas/TSN 1200 interview]

Really, the biggest story for today’s PHT Morning Skate might be Lehner’s silly leg pads:

 

• Count Brenden Dillon among the pending UFAs who would prefer to stick with their teams. In Dillon’s case, it’s the Capitals, whom he’s still becoming acquainted with. Looking at the Capitals’ cap situation, Dillon returning isn’t out of the question, although that might boil down to what kind of deal the rugged defenseman expects. Also, it may hinge on other decisions, such as what to do with Braden Holtby. [Nova Caps Fans]

• As the Canadiens await, which players are the biggest X-factors for the Penguins? [Pensburgh]

• Being that the Flames and Jets only met in an outdoor game, Paul Maurice doesn’t believe there’s much video to use in preparing for Calgary. He also explains how NHL systems are like battleships. Hopefully the return to play doesn’t flop like that movie. [Winnipeg Free Press]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.