Mattias Ekholm

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Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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.

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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’ 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.

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Predators on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Tuesday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second half of a home-and-home series after the Predators defeated the Wild 3-2 in a shootout on Sunday in Minnesota. This is the third of four regular season meetings this season after Nashville won the first two. They will meet a final time on March 25 in Minnesota.

It was a momentous win for the Predators, who had lost three of their previous four games in regulation, all of them to Central Division opponents. The Predators are just one point behind the Jets for first in the Central, but Winnipeg has three games in hand.

After the loss on Sunday, Minnesota still has a six-game point streak (5-0-1) and occupies the second Wild Card spot in the West. Still, they do not have much breathing room with Arizona (two points back) and Colorado (three points back) nipping at their heels.

The Wild are tied with the Ducks for the second longest active playoff streak in the league. Right now, it is highly unlikely Anaheim makes the postseason and Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes, the only team ahead of them, are still in doubt in the East.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Minnesota Wild at Nashville Predators
Where: Bridgestone Arena
When: Tuesday, March 5, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Wild-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoWayne Simmonds
Frederick Gaudreau / Brian BoyleColton SissonsCalle Jarnkrok

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt Donovan – Matt Irwin

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jordan GreenwayEric StaalJason Zucker
Zach PariseLuke KuninKevin Fiala
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerAnthony Bitetto

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and Nashville Predators fan Josef Newgarden will be an ‘Inside-the-Glass’ guest tonight during the first period of Wild-Predators. He will join Pierre McGuire and John Walton (play-by-play), who will have the call from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

* * *

NBC Sports will take fans inside the sounds and passion of hockey with a one-hour special – “Wired: Stadium Series – Penguins vs. Flyers” – that will utilize audio from players, coaches and referees from the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on NBC. It airs March 5 at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN here.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nashville has lost two straight in regulation after dropping a 5-3 affair at Winnipeg on Friday. The Preds come in having lost three of their last four (1-3-0) but very much look headed towards their fifth straight playoff appearance. They are currently one point back of the Jets for first in the Central Division as Nashville could win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history – a year after winning its first division crown and the club’s first Presidents’ Trophy.

The Preds rank fifth in the league in goals against/game (2.64) and have the second-most points by defenseman (172) this season, behind San Jose. Roman Josi leads this charge with 51 points (second on team), followed by Matthias Ekholm (42 – third on team).

The Wild will return home to play the Preds and then head back out for a three-game road trip (Nashville, Tampa, Florida). Minnesota beat the Blues in its most recent home game snapping a six-game home losing streak. The Wild have not won two straight home games since Dec. 11 and 13.

It’s been the youngsters coming through for the Wild recently. Newly acquired Ryan Donato (age 22) scored a goal last night against Calgary. Donato has recorded a point in each of his first five games with the Wild (2G-5A). Only one player in franchise history has posted a longer such streak: Pavol Demitra (six GP in 2006-07). Donato had just nine points (6G-3A) in 34 games with Boston this season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Sunday, March 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCalle Jarnkrok
Brian BoyleNick BoninoColton Sissons
Rocco GrimaldiFrederick GaudreauWayne Simmonds

Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
Kevin FialaLuke KuninZach Parise
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinNick Seeler
Anthony BitettoBrad Hunt

Starting goalie: Alex Stalock

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.