Mikael Granlund

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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.

Granlund’s goal the difference as Predators edge Stars in Game 3

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Mikael Granlund‘s seeing-eye shot with 8:19 left in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and helped give the Nashville Predators a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3. Nashville now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; USA).

The Predators stormed out to a 2-0 lead 14 minutes into the second period as they kept Ben Bishop busy in the Dallas net. Eight minutes after Rocco Grimaldi scored his second goal of the series, Nick Bonino floated a pass to Filip Forsberg, who then added another highlight-reel tally to his resume.

Dallas continued to battle back and broke through minutes after Forsberg’s goal when Mats Zuccarello netted his second in three games. Tyler Seguin would connect after some great work behind the Nashville net by captain Jamie Benn to even the score at two.

Not long after Seguin’s goal, Benn had a glorious chance of his own, but he was denied by the left pad of Pekka Rinne, who finished with 40 saves.

“Just desperation,” Rinne told NBCSN’s Joe Micheletti afterward about the save. “It was a good save at the time.”

But an icing call three minutes later put the Stars in their own zone for a faceoff and unable to get a change. Kyle Turris won the draw and Granlund wired a shot that got by Bishop for the eventual game-winning goal.

Stars head coach Jim Montgomery threw out Benn, Seguin and Alex Radulov in hopes of finding an equalizer, but Rinne and the Predators stood strong to during a third straight one-goal game.

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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.

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.

Wild aren’t firing Boudreau, and they aren’t rebuilding

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The Minnesota Wild’s Tuesday press conference was notable for a number of things, but chiefly, one thing the Wild is doing (keeping Bruce Boudreau), and one thing they’ve decided against (not doing a rebuild).

Wild GM Paul Fenton made it clear that he’s not firing Boudreau — you know, at least through the 2019-20 season, which not so coincidentally represents the last year of Boudreau’s current contract. Tellingly, he didn’t really explore the question of a contract extension.

“Bruce is my coach next year. I have total confidence in him,” Fenton said. “If you look at his track record, it’s amazing … he’s going to be the guy that’s going to lead us back to where we want to go.”

If you’re the type to read too much into body language, you might enjoy watching the full press conference, which kicks in around the seven-minute mark of the video above. Considering the rumblings about Boudreau being Wild owner Craig Leipold’s “guy,” and Leipold not wanting to pay Boudreau to not coach the Wild next season, you may enjoy trying to read if Fenton’s truly happy about this path, or kind of stuck. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll giggle at the upside down Wild lapel pin.

Also of note in what could be a dysfunctional relationship:

(There were some chances to the staff, however, including the departure of Andrew Brunette.)

The presser was also notable because Fenton provided this update: the Wild are deciding to “do this on the fly, without having a rebuild.”

Fenton emphasized a few things in that regard.

  • Getting younger. In a somewhat amusing moment, Fenton noted that the Wild entered the 2018-19 season as the oldest team in the NHL, and now are somewhere around “25th.” That’s really not a bad improvement, but it still seems like a modest-enough gain to also be pretty funny.
  • People have criticized plenty of the Wild’s moves, which include transitioning from Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle to Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala, and Ryan Donato in trades. Fenton defended his moves, stating that he believes the Wild would be in this position, even if the trades weren’t made.
  • Fenton emphasized injuries as a factor, bringing up Matt Dumba multiple times, along with players like Mikko Koivu.
  • He also noted that the Wild should have a lot of cap space entering the off-season, and that’s indeed an interesting point. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have a bit less than $62.5 million devoted to 14 players, and not a ton of must-pay free agents, beyond someone who might not be too expensive in Fiala. With the cap ceiling projected at $83M, Minnesota could indeed make some splashes, though Fenton himself warned against spending just to spend.

Is this really the right path?

An optimist can find a lot to like here.

Boudreau is, by just about any fair measure, a fantastic coach. While his playoff lows have been stated – and often overblown – Boudreau’s been a success basically everywhere he’s been. From the high-flying Capitals to the grind-it-out Wild, he’s been a versatile coach, rather than a one-trick pony. Boudreau isn’t far behind Jon Cooper (.644) and Scotty Bowman (.657) when it comes to his .641 points percentage as a coach.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If you’re goal is to win as much as possible, in the short term, then Boudreau’s your guy. I’d argue that he got every ounce of usefulness out of Minnesota’s limited roster this season.

But maybe that’s the point: there might not be much jelly left in this donut. There can be a curse disguised as a blessing by having a really good coach: Boudreau might just delay the inevitable rebuild, or even maximize results to the point that the team might be misled into believing that a rebuild isn’t necessary.

It’s not that this Wild roster is outright putrid. The truth is likely more confusing for someone trying to run the team: the overall talents ranks somewhere in between good and bad. With that, you risk getting stuck in purgatory.

Dangerous half measures?

The Wild are going with a plan to “rebuild on the fly,” basically hoping to eat their cake and have it too. They want to get younger and compete, which requires quite a juggling act from their GM. Can you plan for the future and the present, without spreading yourself too thin and hurting yourself in both regards?

This “a little from Column A, a little from Column B” plan seems like it can work out if the goal is to be respectable, or a hockey answer to Minnesota Nice. But if the goal is to aim higher than making or barely missing the playoffs each season, to actually win division titles and Stanley Cups, then the Wild might be wiser to hit the reset button, at least as much as they can.

(To be fair to Fenton, former GM Chuck Fletcher left behind issues, such as the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, that Fenton is almost certainly stuck with — whether he wants them or not.)

***

Ultimately, Fenton seems like he might be poised to echo the team he’s running: having to grind things out, with the risk of minimal gains. In the case of the 2018-19 season, it sure felt like the Wild were simply a team with a low ceiling, and not a high-enough floor.

The question is: can Fenton succeed where his team failed? For better or worse, that seems like the Wild’s plan.

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.

What’s in store for Wild after disappointing season?

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The Minnesota Wild need a miracle.

Without one over the next five days, their season is going to come to a bitterly disappointing end that not only snaps the team’s six-year run of consecutive postseason appearances, but also spoils the guarantee from coach Bruce Boudreau that the team would, in fact, make the playoffs.

What has to make this season so disappointing for Minnesota is where the team was coming from the previous two years, and just how wide open the playoff race in the Western Conference turned out to be.

You may not have looked at the Wild as one league’s top teams before this season, but keep in mind only three teams in the NHL recorded more points than Minnesota’s 207 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, while they topped the 100-point mark in three of the past four individual seasons. It may have never resulted in a meaningful playoff run, but the Wild were always good enough to matter, even if they weren’t quite good enough to actually do anything that would make them stand out come playoff time.

Add in the fact that the second wild card team in the West is likely to finish with one of the lowest point totals any playoff team has had in the salary cap era and it is kind of stunning that this team is almost certainly going to fall short, even when you take into account the injuries that have sidelined Mathew Dumba and Mikko Koivu for most of the season.

They should still be better than this.

That is almost certainly going to lead to more changes for an organization that has already undergone significant change over the past year.

The first big question is probably going to be the fate of Boudreau, and given the circumstances it is worth wondering if he is coaching his final games in Minnesota this week.

Anytime you have a team that will (again, barring a miracle) be now going four consecutive years without a postseason series win, and is likely to miss the playoffs by regressing by nearly 20 points in the standings, the job security of that coach, no matter their credentials in the league, is going to be in question. That is especially true when the team in question has a new general manager (Paul Fenton) that is almost certainly going to be looking for an excuse to bring in their own coach.

Realistically speaking, it is going to be awfully difficult for the Wild to find a better coach than the one they have now (unless they can convince Joel Quenneville to take their job, if it becomes available) so there is definitely going to be a risk there if that is the direction they go. And that is a concern.

But no matter who the coach is the future of the franchise is going to come down to the players Fenton and his staff are able to assemble.

And that is where the real red flag should be for Wild fans.

In his first full season as general manager Fenton dramatically overhauled the core of the team by trading Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in an effort to get younger. That also seems to have been the only primary objective because there is not much to suggest the team got better as a result of that sequence of trades.

The early returns, especially in the case of Niederreiter (traded straight up to Carolina for Victor Rask), are looking … poor.

It is not necessarily the results of the trades that is most concerning right now, but the process behind them.

In all three trades the Wild were trading core players, all of whom still had term remaining on their contracts beyond this season (meaning the Wild shouldn’t have felt pressure to trade them when they did), at what was arguably their lowest possible values.

If you are going to trade such significant players you need to make sure you are maximizing the return of that asset as best you can, and there is plenty of objective evidence to argue that the Wild did no such thing.

You don’t need to dig very far to see just how concerning the thought process was in these moves.

At the time of their trades, all of Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund were stuck in down years that could probably best be described as unlucky.

Niederreiter, a proven 25-goal scorer that plays a heck of a two-way game and can drive possession, was getting just 14 minutes of ice-time and had what was the second-lowest PDO of his career (PDO simply being the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save-percentage during 5-on-5 play). Everything about his season and his career should have indicated that he was due to bounce back at some point, whether it was this season or next season. The bounce back began almost as soon as he arrived in Carolina where he has been one of the Hurricanes’ best and most productive players. He looks like the player he has always been, and one that the Wild could absolutely use both this season and in future seasons.

In return for that, the Wild received Victor Rask  who is roughly the same age as Niederreiter, with a lesser resume in the NHL, and a career that seems to be trending in the wrong direction.

It was the same situation for Granlund, a forward that scored at a 70-point pace over the previous two seasons and was one of the few difference-makers the team had at forward.

And while the return for Granlund (Kevin Fiala, a long-time favorite of Fenton going back to his days as Nashville’s assistant general manager) looks better than the return for Niederreiter, it’s still worth wondering how much better it makes the team in the long-run.

The only trade that is looking overly promising at the moment and could be a decent upgrade is the Coyle for Ryan Donato swap.

Given that almost all of the Wild’s roster is still under team control for the foreseeable future (Koivu, Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, J.T. Brown, and Jared Spurgeon are the only players eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next two years) it is almost a given that any other significant overhaul of the roster is going to have to come through trades, and the early look into his process there is, again, concerning.

If the Wild are going to turn things around in the short-term they are going to need to see significant steps from young players like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, while also hoping that Fenton and his staff gambled correctly on the likes of Fiala and Donato and don’t continue to sell core players at their lowest value.

Without any of that that it’s hard to see better days being on the horizon for the Wild.

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.