Nashville Predators vs Arizona Coyotes: Forwards Breakdown

Nashville Predators center Kyle Turris (8) (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nashville Predators center Kyle Turris (8) (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Hockey is back, and the Nashville Predators have an opponent; let’s look at some forwards that will be critical in the play-in series.

So, the NHL season is set to resume some time in July, as far as we know right now. The Nashville Predators will face the Arizona Coyotes in an initial play-in round, where whoever wins a best-of-five series has a chance to make a playoff run.

The loser will be included in the draft lottery, with a shot at top prospects in one of the deepest drafts I can recall.

Who are the players to watch out for in this series? What can we expect, and what are things to worry about? Who holds the edge in this department? Let’s get into it.

Matchup Preview: Skaters (all stats via Evolving Hockey, taken at 5v5 SVA)

Nashville Skaters: 13th in CF%, 17th in xGF%, 6th in CF/60, 15th in xGF/60, 11th in CA/60, 17th in xGA/60

Arizona Skaters: 21st in CF%, 19th in xGF%, 12th in CF/60, 21st in xGF/60, 7th in CA/60, 19th in xGA/60

Nashville key injuries during the season: Ryan Ellis (20 games), Filip Forsberg (6 games), Viktor Arvidsson (12 games)

Arizona key injuries during the season: Jacob Chychrun (7 games), Niklas Hjalmarsson (43 games), Jason Demers (20 games), Darcy Kuemper (14 games)

Head-to-head record: 1-1 (5-2 Coyotes win in October, 3-2 Predators win in December)

Now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s break down the individual moving parts for each team’s skaters.

Nashville Predators: Forwards

The Bad

The Predators have seen hard times on offense this year, despite having what was billed initially as a “new look” for the unit.

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The underlying issue with the forward group remains poor transitional play, with only Matt Duchene grading out as a notably strong forward in carry-in with passing play%, carries/60, and controlled entries/60.

Filip Forsberg grades out well at generating offensive plays in this regard (lots of NZ/DZ shot assists/60), but no other forward comes close to lifting the massive transition load that sits on Duchene’s shoulders.

Another huge issue with the team has been shot quality; while improved from Peter Laviolette‘s tenure, the Predators still see a huge disparity between their xGF/60 and CF/60 rankings. This means they’re cranking a lot of weak shots on goal, which will become a clear issue when we talk about Arizona’s coaching and style of play.

In terms of closing negatives, the forward corps lacks any dynamic presence aside from Forsberg, who is experiencing a down year that alarmingly continues a downward trend in his career WAR.

The Good

Mikael Granlund has come alive under John Hynes, and in a very interesting way.

While posting high xGF/60 numbers the entire year, Granlund struggled heavily to generate points under Laviolette; things only got worse when he, Duchene and Forsberg were split up early.

Under Hynes, Granlund has seen some regression to the mean in his chance generation, but has also seen his shooting luck turn, hence the increase in points.

Another easy positive would come in the Predators having a really, really good third line of career-year Nick Bonino/Rocco Grimaldi and the ever-solid Craig Smith.

That line has arguably been the best all season for Nashville, and could certainly play a key role in defeating a team full of middle six talent like the Coyotes.

Lastly, while the forwards have struggled this year, I think that some of them really needed this break, in particular Viktor Arvidsson.

As I said a while back in my breakdown on him, Arvidsson looked like a simple player who had trouble adjusting to opponents that planned against him. I speculated that his injury might have something to do with it, so maybe he comes back and starts generating offense off of the rush again.

I’m optimistic until proven otherwise. To sum up this point, we should hopefully see some regression to the mean from guys like Ryan Johansen, Arvidsson and Forsberg, all of whom were having tough years in terms of both results and, in one form or another, underlying numbers.

Pivotal Player

This was a tough choice, but I’d be hard pressed to find a more important player to this group’s success than Forsberg.

Forsberg was ice cold before the shutdown, and while I can argue all I want about how his underlying numbers remained solid, the production just wasn’t there.

If he can heat up and start converting on his chance production, the offense will take on a whole new sheen. If not, the Predators might be hurting for scoring as usual.

Arizona Coyotes: Forwards

The Bad

The Coyotes are a very confusingly-built team. The majority of their roster is founded on middle six/bottom six players with upside, along with Taylor Hall in the worst year of his career and a burnt out Phil Kessel.

The biggest bright spots here are Christian Dvorak, Conor Garland, and Vinnie Hinostroza, all of whom posted strong underlying numbers at a young age (but more on them later).

Other than that, it’s a black hole of wasted cap space and under-performing trade returns and free agent signings, like Michael Grabner, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, and the aforementioned Kessel and Hall.

This is the part where I talk about what a mess Clayton Keller has become. After a promising, high-scoring rookie season, many people expected Keller to emerge as a star, despite his underwhelming underlying numbers.

Instead, he took a massive nosedive and looked like a middle-six talent in his sophomore season.

So far in his third year, despite a favorable 16.8/6.9 OZS%/DZS% at 5v5, Keller ranks among the least effective players on the team, with middling offensive numbers and horrifying shot suppression, good for worst on the team in CA/60.

Despite his weak output and visibly sagging play, he’s still fourth in all Coyotes forwards in TOI at 5v5, and sits at third in powerplay time. He’s an exploitable weakness for Nashville.

Nashville seemingly has the advantage against every line Arizona ices minus maybe one, both in terms of shot/chance generation and suppression.

The Coyotes are reliant on dragging the game into the mud and winning with a combo of depth, goaltending and Kessel/Hall doing something noteworthy.

In all three respects, Nashville is about even or better, and when it comes to forward play and value the ‘Yotes are severely lacking.

The Good

The Coyotes have at least one good, young player for each of their first three lines in Hinostroza, Garland and Dvorak.

While none of them exactly lit up the stat sheet in terms of points, all three were very strong play drivers and flashed ample talent. They bring depth and upside to a lineup sorely needing some jump as the Coyotes head into a do-or-die series.

Hall and Kessel were having horrible years by their lofty career standards, but maybe the rest does them some good and they come back stronger and as adequate first line players. If either of them come anywhere close to the value of their contracts in this series, Nashville is in trouble.

Barret Hayton could be returning to the lineup, and in his limited stint in the pros he looked really, really legit. He brings even more speed and two-way play to the forward corps and adds some needed depth down the middle, in addition to the inherent upside of a young, talented player. He’s at least better than Stepan or Richardson.

Pivotal Player: Christian Dvorak

Dvorak was  having a strong season, with great underlying numbers and a near 20 goal, 20 assist total despite spending a lot of time with Keller. He’s not a well known name because he doesn’t score much, but the 24-year-old embodies what Arizona is trying to build with strong two-way play, speed and aggressive forechecking.

Dvorak is a guy to keep an eye on, and if his linemates step up and finally take advantage of his abilities, that might be a game changer.

The Verdict

I give the edge here to the Predators. As weak as the play from Nashville’s forwards has been this season, they still have the better personnel to roll three good lines.

The Predators are the deeper team going up against a team that sees depth as a strength, and that third line of Bonino/Smith/Grimaldi could shred the soft underbelly of Arizona’s lineup.

With Granlund firing on all cylinders under Hynes and Duchene providing stability, there’s a tangible advantage.

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Furthermore, adding a potentially improved trio of Forsberg, Arvidsson and Johansen into the mix does the Coyotes no favors. Nashville has the better forward corps and could be the difference-maker in the series.