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.

The Buzzer: Price passes Plante; hats off for Jenner, Gaudreau

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Three Stars

1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames kept pace with the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division race with a 9-4 win over the New Jersey Devils, featuring the NHL’s first six-point game since the 2013-14 season from Johnny Gaudreau. Read all about it here.

2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The list of Hall of Famers and legendary goalies to play for the Montreal Canadiens organization is a lengthy and impressive one. It is a who’s who list of some of the greatest goalies in the history of the league, and Carey Price now officially has more wins than all of them. By stopping 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, Price earned the 315th win of his career and moved him ahead of Hall of Famer Jacques Plante for sole possession of first place on the team’s all-time wins list.

3. Boone Jenner, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ offense has gone cold in the games after the trade deadline and it has put them in a tough spot when it comes to making the playoffs, especially with a tough schedule still remaining down the stretch. The offense finally clicked on Tuesday night in a 7-4 win over the Boston Bruins — who have now lost two regulation games in a row after going 19 consecutive games without one — that was highlighted by a hat trick from Boone Jenner to give him 15 goals on the season.

Highlights of the Night

Joe Pavelski scored the game-winning goal for the San Jose Sharks with just 3.6 seconds remaining in their 5-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

The Pittsburgh Penguins stormed back for a 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals thanks in part to a pair of goals from Sidney Crosby. The first of those two goals was a beauty.

Some highlights from Carey Price’s milestone night for the Montreal Canadiens.

This is not really a “highlight” in the traditional sense, but it is still worth watching as MacKenzie Blackwood’s water bottle did not cooperate.

Daniel Sprong has not always put it all together at the NHL level, but there is no denying his talent when he does. His goal on Tuesday was the game-winner for the Anaheim Ducks in their 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

  • Believe it, the Arizona Coyotes are in a playoff spot thanks to their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, and Oliver-Ekman Larsson scored his 10th goal of the season. He is one of just four defenders, joining a list that includes Brent Burns, Roman Josi, and Mark Giordano, to score at least 10 goals in each of the past six seasons. [NHL PR]
  • Ben Bishop is on an incredible run for the Dallas Stars and quietly putting together a Vezina Trophy caliber season. He recorded his third consecutive shutout on Tuesday night, helping the Stars top the Buffalo Sabres. [NHL PR]
  • Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are the fourth pair of players to each record 1,000 points after being selected No. 1 and 2 overall in an NHL draft year. Malking recorded his 1,000th point on Tuesday night, while Ovechkin recorded his 1,200th point in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-3 win. [NHL PR]

Scores

Dallas Stars 2, Buffalo Sabres 0

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Washington Capitals 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, Boston Bruins 4

Montreal Canadiens 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Arizona Coyotes 3, St. Louis Blues 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Winnipeg Jets 4

Calgary Flames 9, New Jersey Devils 4

Anaheim Ducks 3, Nashville Predators 2

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.

Golden Knights could win big thanks to Seattle’s expansion draft

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What if the Vegas Golden Knights “win” the expansion draft … again?

In a fascinating article that’s absolutely worth your time (sub required), The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun ran down how the Golden Knights could leverage the fact that they’re exempt from exposing players to Seattle’s expansion draft to land some great trades from teams who don’t want to lose players for nothing.

Parking ticket

The possibilities are almost overwhelming, especially if GM George McPhee finds creative ways to get assets, picks, and players from teams unable to protect certain guys Seattle might otherwise get. What if McPhee gets really creative by pushing the limits to help teams essentially “circumvent” the expansion draft?

One idea might be to “park” a player in Vegas for the expansion draft, giving the Golden Knights some sort of asset, only for Vegas to send that player back later on?

The league will allegedly take measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told LeBrun that “you can’t park players on Vegas,” hinting that, since the NHL must approve all transactions, they could reject a shady-looking deal.

“I don’t see that happening, they’re just not part of this expansion,” Daly said. “Obviously, we’ll make sure that Vegas isn’t used in the process by other clubs to circumvent the purpose of intent of the expansion draft rules, but I don’t anticipate that happening.’’

Actually enforcing circumventing moves could end up being easier said than done, however.

Thin line between “parking” and a valid trade

Sure, the league could stand in the way of truly blatant moves, much like they shot down that cap-circumventing Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils.

But what about more straightforward trades, where a team senses they’d lose a player, so they give up on that guy for picks and prospects? This is a league where Taylor Hall was traded one-for-one for Adam Larsson, so how far could the NHL go in making value judgments for potential trades?

LeBrun provides an example of the Predators theoretically trading P.K. Subban to Vegas as the odd man out, and down the line, that could make sense even outside of the expansion draft. After all, Subban will be getting up there in the years by then – he’s already 29 – and Nashville might legitimately prefer to stick with their other key defensemen, what with Roman Josi nearing a raise and Subban carrying a $9M cap hit.

And, really, how long can you keep a player “parked” before he’s fair game again?

Let’s say a player is sent to Vegas for a season, only to return to his original team. What would make such a move unacceptable when you remember the path of Jamie Oleksiak? The Penguins traded a fourth-round pick to Dallas for the towering defenseman back in Dec. 2017, only to get their draft pick back from Dallas when they returned Oleksiak to the Stars on Jan. 28 of this year. None of this is to say the Oleksiak trades were nefarious. Instead, there’s precedent for recent returns, so even handing out “parking violations” might be quite challenging.

Frankly, it all sounds like a nightmare for the NHL to try to police.

Really, though, the greatest “deterrent” arguably should be just how poorly teams handled trades to the Golden Knights to avoid protection issues.

Repeating history?

Most infamously, the Panthers sent Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas, to a) get rid of Smith’s contract and b) protect the likes of marginal defenseman Alex Petrovic. But check out this trade history and you’ll see other teams who pulled a muscle trying to beat the system. The Blue Jackets ended up doing all sorts of maneuvering, only to make the wrong call on William Karlsson. The Wild fared very poorly. Plenty of teams loaded up Vegas with draft picks, and in just about every case, the Golden Knights profited greatly from those GMs outsmarting themselves.

Seattle will try to do the same thing, but teams will be wary of making those mistakes again — plus they’ll have Vegas to work with.

Also, it’s easy to say you don’t want to repeat history with past mistakes, but Flames GM Brad Treliving gave an interesting take on that to LeBrun:

” … Are people going to be a little more hesitant because of the history and success Vegas has had of doing side deals? Maybe,” Treliving said. “But at the end of the day, you’re not going to say, `I’m not going to do this because something did or didn’t happen last time.’ You’re going to make the best decisions for the club. It’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback it, but the biggest thing is that everyone is going to be more familiar with the process. It’s the same rules.”

At some point in reading this post, you might be thinking that Vegas has an unfair advantage. Shouldn’t they have to give up a player in Seattle’s expansion draft after being able to go through the NHL’s teams like a buffet during their own expansion draft?

LeBrun reports that some GMs grumbled to him about that exemption, but the gripes lose their muster when you remember that the Golden Knights also aren’t getting a cut from the $650 million expansion fee from Seattle.

Ultimately, it is what it is when it comes to Vegas being exempt.

The Golden Knights could really be a wild card during expansion draft time, so good luck to the NHL in trying to keep all of that in control. Like Vegas’ zany pregame shows, this also only makes it a tougher act for Seattle to follow, too.

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.