Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

It’s never been a better time for those of us who want to know every little thing that we can about hockey. From in-depth features on the nuances of the game, to increasingly insightful “fancy stats,” you can go deep down that hockey rabbit hole.

Even with all of that information in mind, it’s still easy to miss things. Take, for example, how the Nashville Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg really isn’t that far behind the best combinations in the NHL.

If you merely look at season totals, you’ll think reasonably highly of the trio, but maybe not fully absorb how dominant they’ve been.

Johansen has 58 points, and that’s reasonably reflective of his season, as he’s played in 71 of 73 games.

His wingers have been outstanding, especially since they’ve missed quite a bit of time with injuries.

Arvidsson on a 50-goal pace

Perennially underrated, constantly-moving Swedish scorer Arvidsson might be having the most impressive season. He’s also tied his career high of 31 goals … in just 49 games. If Arvidsson maintained that .63 goals-per-game pace through 73 games, he’d have about 46 goals right now. Over an 82-game season, he’d have between 51 and 52 (51.66).

Now, sure, the bounces would start to even out in a less positive way for Arvidsson, as his shooting percentage is by far at a career-high of 19.3 percent.

Yet, it still all points to career-best work. Arvidsson’s up to 19:16 TOI per game, a significant jump from last season’s career-high of 17:45 per contest.

Taking the ball and running with it

In general, the Predators realize that they need to lean on this trio for their offense, and it shows beyond ice time. After being closer to fifty-fifty with zone starts previously, the top line has been leveraged for offense more than ever, beginning 64.9 to 67 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Speaking of those meatier numbers, one of the most promising developments is that Johansen is sure looking like a true top-line center. Johansen’s enjoying some of the best possession numbers of his career, and his .82 points-per-game average in 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career.

For a while, Johansen’s $8 million cap hit seemed like a mild problem for the Predators. Now it seems perfectly fine, and only really pales in comparison to the obscene discounts for Forsberg ($6M) and Arvidsson ($4.25M).

Forsberg is probably the player most widely acknowledged as a star, likely in part because of his penchant for scoring highlight-reel goals. He’s also the player who has probably been most shortchanged by injuries over the years. Forsberg has 25 goals in just 55 games this season, after managing 26 while being limited to 67 contests in 2017-18.

(Much like his linemates, Forsberg’s been more than opponents can handle possession-wise, too.)

Now, we can tussle about where the Predators’ top line ranks among the best of the best. But the point is that they’re really not that far behind the upper-most of the elite, making Nashville a team with an interesting ceiling.

Because, for the most part, the Preds have pieces that only a few other contenders also have.

Their defense is much-hyped, and rightfully so. They not only have a veteran starter in Pekka Rinne, but an increasingly proven backup/goalie of the future in Juuse Saros.

Still searching for scorers beyond the big three — and that defense

But, yes, there is an issue: are the Predators something of a one-line team?

It’s telling that a) the top line players lead all other forwards, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing so much time and b) three of the Predators other top-six scorers are defensemen, with Roman Josi‘s 55 points sitting not that far behind Johansen’s 58 for the team lead.

(Mattias Ekholm has 42 points, while Ryan Ellis is at 37.)

Craig Smith‘s the highest-scoring forward after that trio with 33 points. Being that 19 of those points are goals, Smith’s been a useful player – as usual – for the Predators.

The key, then, is to get his would-be linemates on track by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Johansen’s been justifying his price tag, Kyle Turris hasn’t exactly looked like a $6M center this season. Turris’ already-rough season hit a new low with a recent healthy scratch, but maybe he can start to get things back on track, beginning with a likely return to the lineup during Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs?

(Granted, he’s currently slated for fourth-line duty, so it might be an uphill battle.)

[More in the Morning Skate]

Mere ripples after from splashy moves

The Predators were aggressive during the trade deadline, but the returns haven’t been astronomical.

Mikael Granlund‘s four points in seven games can be considered acceptable, yet not exactly mind-blowing. Through eight games, Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored a single goal, managing just an assist during that span.

Some of these results must be frustrating, no doubt. At least there’s time to find offense beyond that explosive top line, though.

Peter Laviolette could always at least tinker with seeing how it would work to spread the wealth, although too much movement might be messing with a good thing. Granlund could easily slide into a role as center, where he often played with the Wild.

The Predators haven’t enjoyed great results from forwards beyond Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson, but there are at least plenty of options. Hey, maybe this would be a good time to see if Eeli Tolvanen can finally stick in the lineup, too?

Even if none of those other options work out, the NHL’s shifted to being a league that’s heavy with teams who depend largely on their top lines, and the good news is that the Predators’ trio can hang with most of them.

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.

How Hurricanes can surge to Round 2

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The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has already seen two of the NHL’s powerhouse teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning — bow out, while the top two teams in the Western Conference — the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks — have already been pushed to the brink of elimination and are facing 3-1 series deficits.

The Carolina Hurricanes, who drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their Round 1 matchup, are the other team that is trying to play the role of giant slayers.

Despite the 2-1 series deficit they are facing heading into Thursday’s Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), they should have plenty of reason to feel good about their chances at successfully coming from behind and pulling off the upset.

Let’s start with this: The Hurricanes have been the better team during 5-on-5 play from pretty much the start of the series, and there really isn’t much room to debate that fact.

The Hurricanes’ Game 3 win was about as one-sided as a Stanley Cup playoff game can be, while they also carried the play for most of Game 1. There were a lot of encouraging signs to come out of that game if you’re the Hurricanes, despite the loss.

Overall Carolina has owned a 7-5 edge in goals during 5-on-5 play and, in true Hurricanes fashion, have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers for the series, and they really are not very close.

They are controlling the pace, they are dominating the scoring chances, and they have the all-important edge in goals.

The difference in the series at this point has come on special teams, particularly the performance of the Capitals’ power play unit in Game 1.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It was there that the Capitals power play completely picked apart the Hurricanes and changed the game, not only scoring a pair of goals, but by also doing pretty much anything they wanted when it came to generating shots and chances. In only six minutes of power play time they had 15 shot attempts, generated nine scoring chances, and scored two goals to completely swing the game. If the Hurricanes were going to have a chance in the series that sort of dominance by the Capitals’ power play was not something that was going to be allowed to continue.

And it hasn’t.

In the two games since, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill has done a complete 180 on the Capitals’ power play and shown some pretty dramatic improvement, drastically cutting the number of shot attempts and scoring chances they have allowed. They have also not allowed a single goal, and that has to be the best sign of all for the Hurricanes.

It’s obviously only a three-game sampling, but the Hurricanes have demonstrated so far that they are perfectly capable of carrying the play at even-strength and getting the better of the Capitals when all things are even. It’s when the game turns to a special teams battle that the Capitals seem to be at their most dangerous, and if the Hurricanes can eliminate that advantage their chances of coming back in this series will significantly increase.

Not enough is made about just how good the Hurricanes’ blue line is and just how much they can frustrate opposing forwards in any situation. There is a perception about the Hurricanes that their dominant shot attempt and Corsi numbers are the result of them having a “shoot from anywhere” mentality. But it’s not necessarily about what they do with the puck that drives those numbers, it’s also about what they do when they don’t have the puck. And for several years now the Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams at limiting shots and shot attempts.

They are doing it to the Capitals at 5-on-5 in this series.

And now their penalty kill is starting to do it.

If all of that continues, this series could get really interesting, really fast on Thursday night.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Wraparound: Sharks sticking with Jones as they face elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Eleven goals on 54 shots. An .847 even strength save percentage. Two consecutive games allowing a goal on the first shot. Martin Jones couldn’t be found to speak to reporters after Game 3, which matches his on-ice performance during this series.

On Wednesday, he did speak, and he wasn’t there to talk about the past.

“What’s done is done,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter at this point. We’re down 3-1. We’ve just got to win a game [Thursday].”

Peter DeBoer said he’s sticking with Jones as the San Jose Sharks face elimination tonight (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) against the Vegas Golden Knights down 3-1 in the series. Related to their goaltending problem, the Sharks have been playing catch up far too often, something you don’t want to happen with this Golden Knights team.

Since their Game 1 victory, the Sharks have not led at all and have allowed the opening goal after 58, 16, and 71 seconds, respectively, in the last three games. In their three losses they also allowed the second goal of the game to fall behind 2-0. That can quickly change your gameplan, and as they’ve tried to play more aggressively — sometimes succeeding when it’s far too late — Marc-Andre Fleury has been in their way.

“You’ve got to give him some credit, he’s made some good saves,” said Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. “[There has been] some posts, some pucks popping out the other side. But next game that can’t happen. Bottom line.”

The Sharks are 0-6 in franchise history when staring down a 3-1 deficit. Overcoming history is a big enough mountain to climb.

And when it comes to goaltending, DeBoer’s hands are tied. Aaron Dell wasn’t any better during the regular season, so it’s Jones, who has five years left on a deal carrying an annual cap hit of $5.75M, who will have to be the one to help bail them out of this situation that he played a role in creating.

“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of our home games here,” Jones said. “If we can push it to a Game 6, we know we can win a game in that building. And you never know what can happen.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 4: Capitals at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1): A forgettable Game 3 performance is in the rear-view mirror for the Capitals, who won’t let a tough game derail them. “As this group maybe proved last year, we kept calm,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “If anything happens — you score a goal or you let in a goal — you’ve got to keep calm, I think, and make sure you stick to the game plan.” PNC Arena will be lively again in hopes that the Hurricanes can even the series. (NBCSN; Live stream)

Game 5: Blues at Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2): Mission accomplished for the Jets. They went to St. Louis down 2-0 in the series and head back home with things even following their 2-1 overtime win Tuesday night. “It’s going to look like this quite possibly for the next three games,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s going to be very, very tight. The whole team is going to have to play well, but you’re going to need one guy to put you over the top.” (USA Network; Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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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.

Jets hoping home ice is finally an advantage in Game 5 vs. Blues

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Home ice, much like games in-hand, is only good unless you take advantage of it.

For the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, neither team has benefited from the “advantage” part of “home-ice advantage.” Through four games, with the series knotted a two, the road team has been the victor as we shift back to Winnipeg for Game 5 Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET; USA Network; Live stream). According to the NHL, only three best-of-seven series in Stanley Cup Playoffs history have the featured the road team winning each of the first five games.

Home ice hasn’t helped either team, but one team’s top line as completely dominated offensively.

The Blues need to get more from their No. 1 line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. The trio have combined for only three goals in the series, compared to Winnipeg’s threesome of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, who have six goals and 15 points combined.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We’re a good line of good players and we’ll figure it out. It gets back to one shift at a time and making an impact,” said Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly. “If it’s something defensively or offensively… we know how to play the game, we know what our success looks like. It’s working for it.”

The Jets stars all hooked up for Connor’s overtime goal in Game 4.

“They drive for our team — all three of those guys and Mark in particular took his game to another level,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey after Game 4 via the Winnipeg Sun. “Looking at last year’s playoffs, that’s what we see. We definitely like to see that out of him.”

The Blues and Jets each had similar road records during the regular season, with St. Louis picking up 21 away victories ands Winnipeg earning 22. But the Jets’ issues away from MTS Place date back to March when they dropped their final three home games before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.

“I think it just goes to show that each game is a new challenge for both teams,” said Morrissey. “Coming here down 2-0 we had to be playing desperate hockey. We did a lot of good things in those first two games, but I thought we elevated our game in the last couple and that’s playoff hockey. I think for us, we love playing at home. Our fans really give us a lot of energy.”

The winner of Game 5 in a best-of-seven playoff series tied 2-2 is 205-55 all-time. The Jets will need the desperation they had in Games 3 and 4 to continue into Thursday night.

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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: Kings introduce McLellan; another level for Zuccarello

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

•  Here’s today’s NBC Sports Stanley Cup Playoff update for April 18

• The Todd McLellan hire is an important one for Rob Blake, as the Los Angeles Kings GM knows he needs to get this right. [LA Times]

• Here are all 31 nominees for the 2019 King Clancy Trophy, awarded to “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” [NHL]

Justin Williams is putting a lot of friendships on hold as his Carolina Hurricanes look to top his old pals with the Washington Capitals. [NHL.com]

• The Winnipeg Jets are looking like the 2017-18 version just in time. [Sportsnet]

• Another level for Mats Zuccarello to reach? Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery thinks so. [Dallas Morning News]

• A better Calgary Flames performance in Game 4 still wasn’t enough. [Calgary Sun]

• Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on how he felt the morning after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning: “A little relief. “Tired. Happy. All those things.” [Toronto Sun]

David Savard has been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• “Lightning becomes the disappointment all others will be measured against” [Tampa Bay Times]

• On Brad Marchand and turning a new leaf on the ice. [ESPN]

• Depth and resilience helped the New York Islanders eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins. [SNY]

Phil Kessel on his future in Pittsburgh: “That’s a tough question to start. I don’t know at this point. We’ll see how it goes this summer.” [Post-Gazette]

• What’s next for the Penguins in regards to roster turnover this off-season? [Pensburgh]

• Ralph Krueger on his future now that he’s no longer chairman of Premier League club Southampton: “At the moment, it’s rather difficult to imagine getting back into day-to-day business immediately and taking over a team.” [Swiss Hockey News]

• Former NHLer Brent Sopel talks about his battle with dyslexia and his travels with the Stanley Cup. [Grandstand Central]

• Some names to ponder as the Buffalo Sabres seek a replacement for Phil Housley. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Fun look at some very weird hockey cards from the 1990s. [Puck Junk]

• Finally, in the latest episode of “Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen,” Blue Jackets star Cam Atkinson reflects on his upbringing, and later reminisces with one of his brothers over a game of pool:

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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.