Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

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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.

Predators should not trade Tolvanen, Fiala at deadline

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Note: The situation would change considerably if the Predators managed to keep a trade target like Artemi Panarin or Mark Stone. This post revolves around the dangers of paying a big price just to rent someone like them.

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Looking to the past has its obvious flaws (are any two situations truly alike?), yet the Nashville Predators should consider history before trading Eeli Tolvanen and/or Kevin Fiala. The result would preferably be to … uh, not trade either of them.

One can look to other recent trades as warnings, including the Edmonton Oilers selling low on Jordan Eberle, but the Predators’ longer history probably resonates best with GM David Poile and the fanbase.

Remember the Forsbergs

We probably don’t need to linger on that one, as I already feel the piercing glare of Capitals fans for beating that dead horse.

  • In February 2007, the Predators sent a first and third-round pick (plus Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent) to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg.

Forsberg actually put up some impressive numbers during his short stay with Nashville (15 points in 17 regular-season games, four in five playoff contests), but the Predators were bounced 4-1 by the Sharks in the first round of that postseason.

Potential fallout of trading Fiala

This was mentioned in a post about not trading Jonathan Huberdeau, but it might be a point that I bleat out until the trade deadline: GMs should institute their own rule about never trading away a talented player whose shooting percentage is below 10 percent during that season. (If it’s the summer, use the most recent season as your barometer.)

If the Predators need a more splash-of-cold-water example than Eberle, try Jeff Skinner. I pre-scolded the Hurricanes about trading Skinner when his value was artificially low in May (24 goals in 82 games on an 8.7 shooting percentage in 2017-18), they did it anyway before the season for a weak return, and now Skinner’s playing so well (34 goals in 56 games, 18.5 shooting percentage) that there are credible talks that he might earn $9 million per season on his next deal.

Fiala is just 22, and as the speedy 11th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, there’s plenty of pedigree there to expect bigger things. Guess what: Fiala’s shooting percentage is at just 7.3 percent this season, and his career average is a flat 10.

People are frustrated with the Predators second line, and so you hear people losing patience with Fiala. But those lost-patience deals are often the ones where teams lose big in trades. That might have happened with the Hurricanes and Skinner, and it likely happened when the Oilers traded Eberle after a tough playoff run.

Here’s the thing: a smart team might actually leverage this for future gains, and the Predators have shown some history of being wise in exactly that way.

When you look at the best contracts on the Predators’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll see some situations where context and luck helped Nashville get good deals, like with the trend-setting bargain for Juuse Saros and the flat-out lucky steal with Viktor Arvidsson, who somehow has 26 goals in just 36 games this season.

But then you’ll see examples of the Predators showing foresight and signing players before they blossomed.

Consider the deals the Predators landed for the likes of Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, and you’ll see a team that’s leveraged RFA advantages to lock up guys for term, in many cases before they’ve been identified as difference-makers. (In Ellis’ case, consider that his expiring $2.5M cap hit lasted for five seasons.)

Fiala’s struggles could serve as Nashville’s gain. If they could lock him up for a value contract, Fiala could deliver top-six forward production at an affordable price, which could be crucial when players like Josi need new deals (in Josi’s case, after 2019-20).

When you don’t know what you have

Not that long ago, people were wondering how the Predators stole Eeli Tolvanen with the 30th pick in 2017. It might feel like he’s taking forever to develop, yet it’s easy to forget that he’s just 19 years old.

The Filip Forsberg trade is the big, waving, red flag regarding Tolvanen.

While it’s true that landing Artemi Panarin would be worlds ahead of what the Capitals received in even their more optimistic projections with Erat in 2013, the point is that Washington clearly didn’t know what it had in Forsberg. If the Predators are being truly honest, they’d admit that they do not know what kind of player Tolvanen is yet.

On the lowish end, Tolvanen could be a depth player/specialist on a cheap entry-level contract. If he reached his ceiling, the Predators’ would get a cost-controlled player whose earnings would still be pretty limited. How many contenders wouldn’t love to have a potentially cheap difference-maker through 2020-21?

Sure, it stinks that Tolvanen’s only scored one goal and one assist in seven NHL games, but he also only averaged 12:46 time on ice. It would be better if he was tearing up the AHL right now, yet considering that he could have left for the KHL because of a special out-clause – but instead stayed – the Predators should reward him. And, by rewarding him, there’s a strong chance they’d reward themselves.

More palatable options

The Predators have other chess pieces to move around that trade deadline board.

If they feel like they must move a valuable future asset for Panarin, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Wayne Simmonds, or any number of other intriguing targets, then Dante Fabbro might be an easier loss to stomach.

(I’d personally still be reluctant, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money, or some other colloquialism.)

Fabbro’s a touch older than Tolvanen, and the Predators haven’t signed him to a rookie contract yet, at least slightly opening the door for another Jimmy Vesey situation. Fabbro could be valuable if the Predators decide they can’t afford Josi along with P.K. Subban, Ellis, and Ekholm, so it would be best to keep him, but that’s something to consider.

Nashville has its first-rounders intact, and while they shipped their second away at a hefty price for Brian Boyle, there are other picks to work with, such as two fourth-rounders in 2019. The Predators are unlikely to be bad enough to have good first-round picks anytime soon, so paying the price for first-rounders is a smarter risk.

Put it this way: even if they were to get Tolvanen 2.0 and Fiala II with subsequent picks, those prospects would still be behind those players in their development cycles. There’s something to be said for the time Tolvanen and Fiala have put in – stitled, stacco growth rhythms or not – particularly for a contending team.

It’s not always about if, but when

None of this is to say that the Predators can’t ever trade Kevin Fiala or Eeli Tolvanen, just that now might be the worst time to do it. Fiala’s a pending RFA, but a struggling one, so there’s a chance at getting a cheap deal for him. Tolvanen’s already cheap because of his rookie contract, and Nashville doesn’t truly know his ceiling or his realistic floor as an NHL player.

The Predators are in a spot where a calculated gamble is actually quite reasonable. They see a possible second-round rematch with the Winnipeg Jets looming, and on paper, they might need a serious boost to clear that hurdle.

But when you look at Poile’s trades, his best ones come when he’s timed things well (see: Erat/Forsberg, Subban/Shea Weber), yet like any GM, more desperate moves have been pretty dicey. Paying a first-round pick for Ryan Hartman or a second-rounder for Boyle won’t decimate Nashville’s future on an individual level, but those decisions begin to add up.

The risks that come with selling low on Fiala and Tolvanen likely wouldn’t exceed the rewards, especially since those players would likely need to be packaged with other high-value assets like a first-round pick. The Predators are better off leaving those two out of deals, even if it means settling for a medium fish rather than the biggest catch.

On the bright side, if the Predators throw caution to the wind and go big anyway, it should make things more exciting during the trade deadline, not to mention the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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.

Copley latest young, promising goalie to sign team-friendly deal

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It’s been a subtle but important trend in the NHL over the last year — highly-rated, young backup goalies signing very team-friendly deals on clubs that are (or will be) up against the salary cap.

The latest came on Monday when Washington Capitals backup Pheonix Copley inked a new three-year pact with the club to the tune of $1.1 million annual average value.

He became another promising netminder that a team signed a ‘smart deal’ in recent months.

Here’s the list:

Copley has proved he is on the right track as a full-time NHL backup this season. His .903 save percentage in all situations isn’t pretty, sure. But consider his five-on-five is sitting at .921, a very respectable number on a team that leads the league in minor penalties taken this season and has taken a nosedive as of late.

DeSmith, by comparison, is a .925 and Saros is just behind and a .924 in 5v5 situations. All three are in the Top 30 among goalies in goals saved above average, too, with each of them on the positive side of that category.

All three are backups with good-to-great upside and are signed to deals that aren’t forcing the team to choose between them and another roster player.

Copley and Saros project to be future signings, with Saros is the heir to Pekka Rinne’s’ throne and Copley the competent backup behind Ilya Samsonov if the Capitals decide to move from Braden Holtby after next season, or an asset down the line if Holtby re-ups. DeSmith is an excellent insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, having already proved his worth in that role this season.

You can throw another guy like Minnesota Wild puck-stopper Alex Stalock into this mix, too, after he signed late last month.

It’s a trend that could catch on elsewhere, as well.

The Winnipeg Jets would likely love to sign Laurent Brossoit to similar terms, for example. He’s having a stellar season in Winnipeg after escaping from Edmonton.

Los Angeles has decisions to make with Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen, both who have shown promise this season filling in for Jonathan Quick.

And then there’s the not-so-distant aspect of this: they represent expansion draft protection, allowing these teams to expose the mandatory one goalie without having to expose the team’s No. 1 (Saros will be the exception here).

The risk with these deals is low. We’ve already seen high-risk this year, with the Oilers shelling out $13.5 million for Mikko Koskinen, who has similar numbers to Copley but is three years his senior. It’s the above contracts that make that Koskinen extension so perplexing.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Kadri sinks Capitals; Saros turns out the lights in Vegas

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Three stars

1. Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs

Three goals and an assist helped the Maple Leafs end a two-game losing skid and send the Washington Capitals to their seventh straight loss in a 5-3 win.

The Leafs had just three wins in their past 10 games coming into Wednesday, so the win was a big deal. Kadri had just one goal in his past 13 games before going off.

2. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

Saros could easily be the first star after making a career-high 47 saves in a 2-1 win against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Vegas had little chance based on how well Saros was tracking the puck in this one. He made 37 straight saves (a busy night by its own right) after Max Pacioretty gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in the first period.

From there it was lights out on The Strip.

3. Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes

First NHL start, first NHL win. Not a bad debut from Nedeljkovic.

The 23-year-old stopped 24 of 26 shots sent his way and the Hurricanes, led by Teuvo Teravainen‘s three-point night, did the rest in a 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

His only other NHL action came in 2016-17 when he played 30 minutes in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, making all 17 required stops.

It sure would fill a void if Nedeljkovic turns into starting material down the line.

Highlights of the night

Here’s the filthiest save Saros made of the 47:

The fans still appreciate him, even if management didn’t:

Yeah, nice passing:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 6, Capitals 3
Canadiens 2, Coyotes 1
Wild 5, Avalanche 2
Predators 2, Golden Knights 1
Blues 5, Ducks 1
Hurricanes 5, Canucks 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Saros sets career high with 47 saves as Predators stave off Golden Knights

Associated Press

Try as a team might, sometimes the hot goalie at the other end is just too strong on a given night.

Juuse Saros was that hot goalie, and he stifled the Vegas Golden Knights at nearly every juncture in a 2-1 win for the Nashville Predators on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN.

Saros made a career-high 47 saves in place of Pekka Rinne, who was given the night off on the last day of hockey before the all-star break. And he was certainly up to the task, stopping 37 straight after allowing his only blemish on the night in the first period.

Ryan Johansen‘s ninth of the season came just 52 seconds into the second period to cancel out Max Pacioretty‘s first-period goal. Johansen returned to the fold on Wednesday after serving a two-game ban for trying to decapitate Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele last week.

Nick Bonino fired home the game-winner past Marc-Andre Fleury 3:01 later. Fleury, to his credit, was his usual self, stopping 25 shots. The run support just never came, despite all of Vegas’ best efforts.

Saros has been on a roll lately, winning four of his past five starts. His season didn’t start the way he would have liked and came into the game with a .908 save percentage. But after Wednesday’s performance, he’ll leave Vegas with a .914.

With the loss, the Golden Knights will have to wait to become the first team in NHL history to reach 30 wins in its first two seasons of existence. Vegas has lost two in a row.

For Nashville, the win puts them level on points (64) with the Jets for the top spot in the Central Division, although the Jets have four games in hand and are currently on their mandated player break. Nashville has won two straight and six of their past 10.

Meanwhile, there was an alleged chomp on the finger(s) of P.K. Subban during the second period. You can read more by clicking the link there, but the quick summary is that Subban accused Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of taking a bite after one of Saros’ saves right at the end of the period. Subban had his hand in Bellemare’s face, and there was no clear angle of the bite, but Subban’s reaction certainly made it seem like something happened.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck