After thriving as an underrated hockey city for years, Nashville made a splash in the 2017 playoffs, tearing through the Western Conference and making it all the way to game six of the Stanley Cup Final. They battled hard, and were definitely not robbed of a potential go-ahead goal, no way, not a chance. Fans around the league jumped on the Predators bandwagon during the months of the playoffs, enjoying the underdog storylines, raucous crowds, and the occasional stray catfish. There was a lot to cheer for in the Music City. The next year, the Preds came out even stronger in the regular season, winning the organization's first ever President's Trophy after cruising to a Central Division title. After battling down a resilient Avalanche club to open the 2018 playoffs, Nashville's historic season came to a sudden and jarring end as the team bowed out in seven games to a young and talented Winnipeg Jets team. It was a bitter defeat, but the Preds still had a lot to celebrate about after their historic two seasons, and appeared to have a lot more to look forward to after a minor setback.
Sure enough, Nashville remained highly competitive through the 2018-2019 season, chasing the Jets for the division lead as the season wore on and eventually overtaking their northern opponents as the season drew to a close. David Poile, the team's GM, bolstered his team's forward core at the 2019 trade deadline, trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund (who is essentially a better Kevin Fiala, way to go, Minnesota), adding fan favorites Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds, and also bringing back Cody McLeod, who is still playing hockey for some reason. The Predators were known for their incredibly poised and talented defense, a blueline featuring Roman Josi, PK Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, and the team hoped that their deadline moves would make them deep enough at forward to make another deep playoff run. Instead, Nashville fell victim to a dude who's real name is Roope Hintz and the rest of the Dallas Stars, bringing an anticlimactic end to a season for the second straight year (Author's Note: There has been contemplation on naming my firstborn son Roope Hintz). Through six games, the Predators' highest scorer was Josi, who managed two goals and two assists for a monstrous four point total in six games. Nashville's biggest problem caught up with them against Dallas: the team did not possess enough top-end forward talent to sustain a deep playoff run. This was most glaringly obvious when the Predators were on the powerplay, not just in the playoffs, but over the entire year. The Preds connected on just over twelve percent of their powerplays in the regular season, ranking them dead last in the league and only marginally better than what the 48-point Colorado Avalanche could muster two seasons ago. Nashville's man advantage was dismal, and part of the cause can be observed in the team's shot maps:
The purple areas indicate where the Predators shot a majority of their pucks while on the powerplay, and also indicate exactly why the team struggled to score while a man up. They relied far too heavily on their talented defense to launch bombs from the top of the zone, and hoped those shots would get tipped or just be too powerful and accurate to stop. The problem with this method is the reality that the blueline is fifty feet from the goal line, and that's a long way for a puck to travel for it to reach its preferred destination. There's too many bodies, too many sticks, too much goalie in the way of the back of the net, making the point shot one of the least efficient in hockey. A majority of NHL teams have uncovered this truth within the last few years, as a most now focusing on developing quality opportunities in the slot and right in front of the net. The Winnipeg Jets had the fourth best powerplay in the league in 2018-2019, and illustrated the benefits to maximizing shots close to the net and in the slot:
Despite their attempts to shore up the offense, Nashville's coaches still didn't trust their forwards enough and held on stubbornly to the defensive attack method. Then, the team ran into a nightmare scenario in the playoffs: the Dallas Stars boasted the top PK in the league, thanks to new coach Jim Montgomery and revitalized goalie Ben Bishop. The Predators had fifteen powerplay opportunities in the six game series, and ended up not having a single goal to show for it. This hurt Nashville most in their game six loss, going 0-4 in a game where one goal ended up being the difference. The Preds wasted a powerplay at the end of regulation and the watched John Klingberg take care of business in OT:
It was an ending well deserved. The Predators' 2018-2019 powerplay was terrible in all aspects, from coaching to execution. The players looked lost, and the plays they were told to create were doomed to fail from the start. Everything about it was egregious, and it was criticized by almost everyone, from analytics experts to fans. It was sad. It was pathetic. It made you question the foundation of reality. It made you question your place in the universe. It made me question if five catfish with hockey sticks could create a better powerplay. And then photoshop a fish with a little helmet and hockey stick. And create a scenario where it would actually work. Yeah, it was that bad. The following is a result of a Predators-induced existential crisis that I am not responsible for, and that includes all fish related puns. Nashville, you did this to yourself. Without further ado, let's meet the lineup:
Forward: Nazem Codri
Six pounds, twenty one inches long
Specialty: Getting suspended in playoffs series against the Boston Blue Fish (also known as the Boston Pomatomussaltatrix by their REAL fans).
Codri can win faceoffs effectively by flopping around a lot and knocking the puck around to his team.
Forward: Vincent Troutchek
Five pounds, nineteen inches long
Specialty: Sliding into the slot and having the puck bounce off of him into the goal.
Coming off a down season, Troutchek did a lot of hard training during the offseason and is ready to make some waves.
Forward: Steven Clamkos
Six pounds, twenty three inches long
Specialty: Not having any legs to snap in half.
Clamkos surprises everyone with his shooting ability because there is general belief fish can't shoot hockey pucks.
Forward: Kevin LaBass
Eight pounds, twenty six inches long
Specialty: Signing team-friendly contracts for literally no reason, like Kevin, my guy, go get your worth.
Labass flashes his talent often, but consistently remains a steady, reliable talent that makes him, um, betta than most.
Defense: Hooks Orpik
Ten pounds, twenty eight inches long
Specialty: Scoring goals in the Stanley Cup Final, apparently.
Unlike his human counterpart, Hooks is an offensive defenseman that specializes in spreading the puck around from the top of the zone.
Bench: Eelya Kovalchuk, Nolan Patrick Star, Jared Sturgeon, Rob Klinkhammerhead
While they'd rather be playing for the Sharks, Whalers, or Minnowsota, I inserted the five fish unit into the crucial powerplay for the Predators at the end of regulation in game six against Dallas. Note that the fish already have one advantage over the normal Preds powerplay: they're using four forwards and an offensive defenseman, allowing for the attack to be as lethal as possible as close to the net as possible. They're also using a player who excels in the slot, because that's where the goals are as we've already discussed. The personnel and plan they're using sets them up for success. But yes, they're still fish, and that's kind of an obstacle to overcome. So how do they get the job done? Trust me, it's a whale of a tale, so let's drop into the action.
With less than two minutes left to play, this is the chance Nashville has been waiting for: a powerplay, and a chance to win the game. Out flops the top unit, ready to face the Dallas Stars' top ranked penalty killed once again. Codri sets up to take the faceoff against Tyler Seguin, flip flopping around. Seguin is confused, and misses the ref dropping the puck to his right because of it. Codri uses whatever forward momentum a fish can muster to get the puck back to Orpik. Orpik attempts to move the puck down to LaBass, but is pressured by Jason Dickinson. Unfortunately for Dickinson, he overestimates and steps on Orpik, injuring the poor little guy and himself in the process, while sending the puck flying down the ice. Fortunately, the Predators have their trusty puck-playing goalie: Clam Talbot. Talbot is able to push it up to Clamkos, who flops around the ensuing Orpik-Dickinson carnage that has now attracted the attention of a few of the other Dallas PK members. Clamkos stares down Dallas goalie Ben Bishop, who contemplates if a fish really can put any sort of velocity on a hockey puck. The answer is yes. Bishop reacts enough to deflect the shot puck with his shoulder, but it proceeds to bounce off of Troutchek, who was all alone because now grown adult men were fighting fish back at the blue line, and into the goal. 2-1, Nashville. Game seven incoming. Dallas fans are in anguish, there is weeping in the streets. Nashville celebrates into the night. Labass punches Dickinson in the face. The other Dallas players wonder how a fish can create a fist. No one knows. Orpik doesn't make it through the night, not because of injury, but lack of water. Fish need water. He is remembered as a hero and martyr for his sacrifice in Nashville.
Everything about that was absolutely ridiculous. I'm so sorry about the fish puns. But the point remains the relevant: for Nashville to improve on the powerplay in 2019-20, they need better shot selection, better execution, and probably some better luck. Because PK Subban's shot from the point is no longer an option, and Matt Duchene's playmaking now being one, a change of attack seems likely, or at least more advised than ever. If changes don't come, well, that seems rather fishy to me.
Tune in next time to see if a team of actual ducks could defeat the 2018-19 Anaheim Ducks in combat.
Sources: The Hockey Writers, Hockey Reference, NHL, ESPN, The Hockey News, HockeyViz, Sportsnet, SB Nation, Charting Hockey