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.
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).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.