Nashville Predators: Do The Predators Play Worse In Front Of Saros?

(Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Nashville Predators can feel like two different teams at times. While it seems like it depends on the period, does it depend on the goalie?

Different goaltenders can demand different play styles, the best example being the LA Kings last season. Jonathan Quick went down with an injury and Peter Budaj stepped in. The stats make it look like Budaj did a great job, but the Kings adapted their entire style around him. Defenders like Drew Doughty and Alec Martinez didn’t jump in on the rush, instead electing to stay at home. The biggest change was Anze Kopitar, who is admittedly the second best two way center in the league. He suffered terrible personal stats because he was more focused on keeping the puck out of the net. The point of it all is that a different goaltender can change a game plan.

The Nashville Predators are no exception, as defenders will often lead the rush down the ice. In doing so, they’re trusting Pekka Rinne to save their bacon if the puck goes the other way. But do defenders take these chances in front of an unproven Juuse Saros? We all know that the Predators aren’t the best team at locking down the slot, but is it worse in front of either goalie?

For reference, we’re going to look at shot distribution, because the ice times are vastly different.

Shots taken by the Predators

You might be asking yourself, why should we pay attention to the offensive zone in an article about goalies? That’s a great question and I have no real answer. The best I can come up with is that we can tell how aggressive the forwards are being. For instance, are the forwards taking more chances and driving to high danger areas? Or are they settling for low danger shots that they know will hit the net in order to be able to back check? With that in mind, let’s look at some charts.

As the chart says, these are shots taken by the Predators when Rinne is playing. The big thing that immediately hits me is the giant sea of blue in the slot. That’s the highest danger area of the ice, with goalies saving about 80% of the shots that come through there. Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators are absolutely infatuated with the right side. A lot of shots are taken from bad areas that mostly suggest that the Predators are going for quantity over quality. I have a funny little feeling that the left point deep red area is all Roman Josi, but that’s just a hunch.

The Saros heat map reads like a Jackson Pollock painting, with weird seas of red and blue. The heat map shows that the Predators do a better job of getting to the dangerous areas. Now, to be fair, Saros has played a fifth of the minutes of Rinne, but the competition hasn’t been easier. I will say that I think the aggressive offensive behavior has to do with the Predators’ poor first-period play. Just from looking at the charts, it’s fairly safe to say that the Nashville Predators are actually a better offensive team in front of Saros than Rinne.

Shots taken against the Predators

Now, onto what really matters, how the Predators play in front of each goalie in the defensive zone. This is obviously the most important way to judge a defense and a goaltender’s performance.

Rinne’s heat map looks like an onion, in that there are layers of shots. The net front area is as red as a fire truck which is asking for disaster because that’s the most dangerous part of the zone. Red around that area means that rebounds aren’t being cleared by the defense. The mid slot area is actually pretty blue, which tells me that the centers are doing a good job of supporting and tieing up sticks. Although the next “layer” of red suggests that wingers aren’t supporting low enough and are looking to possibly escape the zone prematurely. That’s a tough strategy on a goaltender, although the Predators usually do a good job of suppressing shots from the point.

The most distressing thing, in my opinion, is all the shots that are coming from the middle of the point. This would suggest that wingers are attacking defensemen with the puck head on, rather than trying to force them to the boards. The Nashville Predators have a stable of speedy wingers so this seems like a coaching issue, as they’re trying to block the shot, rather than dictate play.  I think the key might be similar to the offense, sacrificing quantity for quality. Have the wingers maybe play a little bit lower and allow more shots from the corners of the point, to stop some of the shots coming from the slot and the center point.

It’s like there’s a volcano in the entire high danger area. What little the Nashville Predators had going for them with Rinne in net, they have little of it with Saros. This kind of explains why Saros may have struggled in the beginning of the season. He was literally getting no help from anywhere. The only good thing I can really say about this is that the Predators’ wingers kept the puck away from the center point area. But that’s probably because teams were more focused on keeping possession and saving their shots for high danger chances.

I don’t know how the Predators expect to win games when they keep giving up these high danger chances. Not even Carey Price or Martin Brodeur could be great with Saros’ defense. I think the wings need to support way more down low. The centers need to be tougher in front of the net. And the defense needs to pressure more in the corners to try and cut off passes to the slot. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a sense. The Predators give up a bunch of high danger chances and probably a goal, from there they have to be more aggressive. As they get more aggressive and take more chances, the Predators sacrifice defense. This, of course, leads to more high danger chances because the forwards trying to leave the zone prematurely for a scoring chance.

Who has it better?

It’s a tough one because Saros gets better offense while Rinne gets better defense. I’d say Rinne has it better but it’s not a cake walk by any means. I think the main takeaway is that the best defense in the NHL has been weak in their own zone and that goaltending from Saros and Rinne has bailed them out. The skill is there, I think it has more to do with strategy. We’ll see if that strategy changes, or if the coaching staff just sees all the W’s and thinks that everything is perfect. I’m a big believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I also understand that it gets harder and harder to fix problems as the season goes on. Let’s hope the Nashville Predators fix this before the playoffs arrive.

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