The Nashville Predators have one of the highest touted defensive rosters in the NHL. But, where it counts is where they struggle.
There is an old adage in sports proclaiming defense wins championships. Whether is it completely true for all sports is debatable. A case can certainly be made in the NFL and NBA. It always seems defensive players step up in the postseason. You can argue it is also true in the NHL. Just ask the Nashville Predators.
With players like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi leading the charge, the Predators pushed their way to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. During the playoffs that season, the Predators allowed three or more goals only four times in the first 16 games. The Penguins did it three times in the Finals.
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Obviously, there are two factors in holding opponents to such low scoring totals. First, the goalie has to keep the puck from crossing the net. Second, the defense has to prevent their counterparts from getting quality shots. The more traffic in front of the net and in the danger zone, the better the odds in scoring. This is basic hockey.
So, what am I saying all of this? Because, for all the talk regarding how great the Predators’ defensive roster is, they struggle some with playing defense.
What you talking about?
This is likely the part where you close this article and start saying “this guy has no idea what he is talking about.” If you look at Corsica Hockey, the Predators were the second rated defense in the league. True.
Stay with me for a bit. I will try to keep this simple.
There are two basic tasks when playing defense in hockey: keep the offense from scoring and get the puck out of the zone. Makes sense, right? Now, the execution of these tasks varies. For example, to keep the other team from scoring you can block shots. Or, you play a style that makes it difficult to penetrate the slots or danger zone.
As a team, the Predators faced 2659 shots, eleventh most in the league. Luckily, they were tied at the top in save percentage with .923 on the season. Additionally, they blocked a total of 1204 shots. As you would expect, the defense lead that change with Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Alexei Emelin, Subban, and Ryan Ellis taking the top 5 spots, respectively. Interestingly, Ellis trailed Subban by 6 blocks in 38 fewer games.
However, when it comes to the danger zone, things get a bit more interesting. In 2017-18, the Nashville Predators allowed high-danger chances during 5v5 play according to Natural Stat Trick. That is 14th overall. Luckily, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros allowed only 94 goals through, good enough for second in the NHL.
In the playoffs, teams achieved 146 high-danger chances against the Predators in 13 games. So, over 11 per game. The puck found the net 20 times on those chance, second worst in the playoffs behind the Washingon Capitals.
But, it is not just keeping the puck out of the net. Teams have to get the puck out of the zone. This is another area in which some of the Predators struggle. The top pairing of Josi and Ellis in particular. If you love charts and graphs, check out this player comparison tool on Tableau. Players are ranked by percentile, not overall totals. Of all players in the NHL, Ryan Ellis is in the 59th percentile in possession exits per 60. Not terrible, but just above average. Josi, is in the 73rd percentile. Yet, when you look at entry defense, Ellis is in the 38th percentile in possession entries allowed per 60. Again, Josi is a touch better at the 50th percentile.
What about Subban and Ekholm? Subban is in the 94th percentile in exits per 60, 97th in possession entries allowed per 60. His linemate, Ekholm, is 60th and 77th respectively. Additionally, Ekholm is in the 40th percentile in entry breakups.
In short, Subban is great an preventing and ending opponent offensive possessions and Ekholm is pretty good. However, Ellis and Josi struggle in getting the puck out of the zone. It is understandable to a point. Commonly, they are facing the top players from the other team. I can only imagine what it is like to face the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Patrik Laine every night.
That being said, if the Nashville Predators want to achieve their goals this season, the defense needs to tighten up. Allowing opponents to gain possessions in the high-danger area and not stopping possessions will only hurt their chances.