If judging by the standings, the Nashville Predators have had a tough start to the 2023 season.
Through 15 games, the Predators are 5-10-0 and they have just 10 points, tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for last place in the Central Division and ahead of only the lowly San Jose Sharks in the overall NHL standings.
The new “Predator way” under first-year head coach Andrew Brunette is built to win more 7-5 games than 1-0 ones. But to win 7-5, offense needs to be prioritized with defensive accountability being of the utmost importance.
Defensive growing pains were to be expected playing in more space in a new fast-paced system — one that requires significant adjustment from both the defensive gapping and goaltender positioning. This somewhat explains the issues that goaltender Juuse Saros has experienced between the pipes this season (3.23 goals-against average, .892 save percentage, five games allowing four or more goals). His fellow countryman Kevin Lankinen is likely experiencing similar issues, but he has yet to have enough game action (two starts, 3.01 GAA, .900 save percentage) to really know if that’s the case.
The metric that best illustrates everything for the purposes of contextualizing Nashville’s struggles this season is PDO (Shooting % + Save %) x 100), which essentially measures how lucky a team has been. A number below 100 is progressively bad and one above 100 is progressively good (100 is average).
According to Natural Stat Trick, Nashville has a PDO of 99.8 during 5-on-5 action. The positive here is that despite their recent poor results having lost four straight and six of their last seven, the Predators are performing right on par from an overall analytical perspective. For context, the team performing the best right now is the Vancouver Canucks with a PDO of 106.7.
Regarding special teams, Nashville ranks 15th in the NHL on the power play (20.6% success rate) and an uncharacteristic 30th on the penalty kill with an (un)success rate of 70%. For context, the Predators as a franchise had an average PK percentage of 82.2 in their previous 24 combined seasons.
How the Predators stack up in more traditional metrics (via The Score App):
- Goals per game: 2.93 (21st)
- Shots on goal per game: 30.6 (20th)
- Goals allowed per game: 3.47 (tied for 22nd)
- Shots on goal against per game: 29.7 (10th)
But taking into account the team’s metrics plus the eye test, the issues are abundantly clear without much debate: sub-par goaltending and defensive breakdowns/system lapses have been the Predators’ downfall.
In a 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 14, the tying and game-winning goals allowed perfectly demonstrate these issues as seen in the videos below. (Clips were pulled from the NHL’s YouTube game recap).
The first play starts in Anaheim’s defensive zone with a simple 2-on-2. Liam Foudy is the third guy for Nashville on the backcheck with Cole Smith trailing the third Anaheim player, Radko Gudas. Once the Ducks enter the offensive zone, the defensive breakdown begins.
Foudy goes backdoor thinking Smith has Gudas, Smith chases the puck-carrier, leaving Gudas wide open in the slot for a high-danger chance. To top it off, this wasn’t even Gudas’ best shot and it went off Saros. A case could be made that he should have stopped it, but it was the breakdown in the defensive play in front of Saros that resulted in the high-danger shot and subsequent goal.
This second play began innocently enough but quickly progressed to disaster with the Predators chasing the puck around the zone before it ended up in the back of the net.
Alex Carrier won the puck battle on the dump into the corner, he then pushed the puck to Ryan O’Reilly, who miscommunicates with Jeremy Lauzon, resulting in violating hockey’s No. 1 rule: never put the puck in front of your own net in the defensive zone.
This mishap floats the puck to the point after Gustav Nyquist had his stick lifted in the slot. Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakaneinen received a pass from Gudas and fired a shot on goal with three Ducks and four Predators players all screening Saros. Adam Henrique deflected the shot in for the game-winner.
Despite these poorly timed blunders, those in the locker room still feel relatively positive about how the Predators have performed a little under one-quarter of way through the season.
“I feel like we haven’t really had a 60-minute game where we felt like we played well the whole game and, especially in the last couple games, even against Arizona we started really well,” Roman Josi said. “We’re up 2-0 and then we give up, we kind of give them two goals. [We just need to find] a way to play the same way for 60 minutes and play consistently like the way we want to play. I think that’s huge, and we got to find a way to do that.”
Added Brunette: “I like the way we play. And again, (the Anaheim game was) another night where you feel good leaving the rink if you just think about your own game. The result stinks, but I think if we continue to grow, the score will take care of itself as we get better.”
There’s little reason for the Predators to be concerned this early. The team has had its fair share of injuries (Cody Glass, Tommy Novak, Ryan McDonagh, Luke Schenn), which hasn’t helped its cause, but the return of McDonagh and Schenn will be much-welcomed for the defense.
However, every defenseman on the roster other than Spenser Stastney, who will make his season debut against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, is an NHL veteran, so Nashville’s defensive miscues cannot simply be chalked up to inexperience and youthfulness, or to only the two defensemen mentioned from the Ducks game.
Some of the Predators issue are not necessarily something the underlying numbers can display either. The issues are with execution and a lack of discipline in trying to implement a new system. Whether or not the current roster has players that can run the kind of system Brunette is seeking to employ will slowly begin to reveal itself the more games that are played. After all, a team can only be given the benefit of the doubt of playing well but not getting the desired results for only so long.
There’s no reason to be concerned about what’s going on between the pipes right now. The goaltending will presumably figure itself out as Saros has a proven track record of success and Lankinen showed last season he’s a very capable NHL goalie on a team with talent.
These system and defensive lapses, however, are about attention to detail — something the Predators have been lacking in thus far.
Follow Clay Brewer on Twitter/X: @ClayBrewer10