The Nashville Predators have started their 2022-23 campaign with a handful of incomplete efforts and unsatisfying performances leading to a 2-2-1 record through five games.
It’s been a strange sight to behold.
The Preds started their season with such promise in Prague, sweeping the San Jose Sharks in swift fashion. Nashville’s offseason acquisitions made significant contributions in those games, which suggested we’d be watching a much improved Preds team this year.
However, after those two games, the Sharks lost three more games in North America and they remain winless through five games. Perhaps those first two games told us more about San Jose than about Nashville.
In their home debut against Dallas, the Preds looked positively outmatched. The pressing nature of the Stars’ attack supported by their efficient defense, and led by the suddenly dominant Jake Oettinger (he leads the league in wins and save percentage), made quick work of the Preds in two games. After the second loss to Dallas on Saturday, John Hynes said his team did not have the “competitiveness” needed to win those games and that Dallas was “far hungrier” to win than Nashville.
Then there was Tuesday night, perhaps the most perplexing Preds game to date.
Nashville began the night on fire, rolling all four lines early on and dominating five on five play. Cody Glass scored his first goal for the Preds, firing home a shot from the right circle after a confident move into the offensive zone. The Kings were on their heels early and, having played a game the night before in Detroit, seemed vulnerable.
And that’s when Nashville’s penalties began. Dante Fabbro was called for interference. Cole Smith called for a cross check. Roman Josi called for hooking, Matt Duchene and Jeremy Lauzon each called for tripping.
In the end, the Preds were sent to the box nine times, resulting in eight power plays for the Kings. It was only the 6th time in franchise history that Nashville had eight or more penalty kills in one game.
The Preds still had a 3-1 lead going into the 3rd period, but they could not close out the win. Two goals by defenseman Matt Roy tied the game, and then Kings eventually won the game in the shootout.
“Tonight was not about competitiveness,” John Hynes said after the game, referring to the issues against Dallas. “Tonight was about smarts.”
Committing stick fouls. Defensive miscues. Mis-reading defensive assignments in transition. Rushed passes in the offensive zone. Penalties while on the power play. Penalties in the offensive zone. Ill-advise blue line passes.
All are examples of a lack of “smarts” as Hynes alluded to. He was right in his assessment about the competitive nature of his team Tuesday night. The team looked hungry to get a win in front of their fans. The effort was there. They just didn’t play smart enough to match their effort.
So, given everything we’ve seen from this team in five games, what are the most pressing issues?
Power ranking the Preds’ issues
The Nashville Predators, like most teams, have flaws. But which of their flaws are more important? Which ones are causing the most issues, and therefore the ones they need to fix first?
Here’s a power ranking of their main problems.
5. Juuse Saros’s cold start
Can you blame Juuse Saros for all of the Preds’ early issues? No.
But is his cold start a factor? Yes.
It should be noted that this is typical for Juuse Saros. In his first six seasons, he has a tendency for slow starts, as I pointed out here:
Juuse Saros in games 1 through 10 of each Preds season (across all 7 seasons):— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) October 19, 2022
.903 save %
.467 quality start %
And in games 11 through 82:
.922 save %
.639 quality start %
Right now, Juuse Saros is not saving the team in key moments like we saw last year. Through five games, he has an .897 save percentage and has made only two quality starts in four games. His .919 save percentage at five on five ranks 24th in the NHL.
In moments last year, Saros was the only reason the team was able to escape with two points, making highlight reel saves late in games to preserve leads.
Eventually he will warm up, so Preds fans should not worry. Soon we will see the same Saros that finished third in Vezina Trophy voting last year.
And the sooner it happens, the better.
4. The Preds’ “identity line” not being very identity-like
The “Herd Line” with Colton Sissons, Tanner Jeannot, and Yakov Trenin was a huge part of the team’s identity last year. Physical play, high pressure on the opposing defense, winning battles in the corner and “being tough to play against” is what that line did so well last year.
This year they’ve been terribly inefficient at both ends.
For folks looking for reasons why the Preds have looked like butt 👇👇— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) October 17, 2022
🔥 Herd line last year (646 mins):
49% shot attempts, 51% expected goals, +4 goal differential
🥶 Herd line this year (32 mins):
46% shot attempts, 40% expected goals, -1 goal differential
They aren’t generating scoring chances at the same rate and they are allowing too many easy chances in their own end. They are being utilized in almost the exact same way as last year, so it’s a little baffling as to why that is. But something feels different with them early on.
Does Hynes look at breaking up the line that was so important to the team’s identity last year? Not likely.
But at some point he might need to, especially if they don’t improve.
3. Roman Josi has been quiet
Roman Josi is this team’s rocket fuel. His near-100 point season last year carried the team (sort of) into the playoffs and nearly earned him his 2nd Norris Trophy.
But through five games, Josi has not produced at nearly the same pace: he has one point in five games, with that point coming on a secondary assist to Nino Niederreiter’s 2nd goal against San Jose.
There’s no question that the Nashville Predators’ offense is built around Roman Josi. The offense is funneled through his ability to pick apart defenses and turn defense into offense on a dime. When it’s working, the team’s attack is incredibly dangerous, and his quarterbacking of the power play last year led to it being the 7th best unit in the league.
Without Josi’s production, the team struggles offensively. The Preds need Josi to get it going offensively if they are going to solve their early issues.
2. McDonagh & Ekholm growing pains
I am on record as saying the best offseason acquisition for the Preds was Ryan McDonagh, and I’m not close to giving up on that statement. In the end, I believed McDonagh will be a stable force on this defense and his pairing with Mattias Ekholm makes the most sense.
But they’ve not been good defensively to start out. Here’s a look at defenders and defensive pairings for the Preds at five on five, courtesy of Hockey Viz. The Y-axis is defensive play as measured by expected goals (higher on the chart = good, lower on the chart = bad) and as you can see, the Ekholm and McDonagh pairing is the worst on the team.
This is just going to take time. As I’ve mentioned before, Ekholm switching to the right side is a matter of getting the reps on that side and getting used to the switch. He’s played it before, but not on an every day basis.
Eventually that pairing will work, but right now it’s an issue.
1. Penalties, penalties, and more penalties
Last season, the Preds finished 1st in penalty minutes, 1st in penalty minutes per game, 1st in penalties taken, and 1st in major penalties.
This season, the Preds currently rank 1st in penalty minutes, 4th in penalty minutes per game, 2nd in penalties taken, and 2nd in major penalties.
So not much has changed.
As was talked about all last season, the Preds had real penalty issues that ultimately led to their downfall. John Hynes and players generally described their penalty issues as a byproduct of their changing identity: by increasing their intensity and physicality, they were bound to get more penalty minutes. They were willing to pay that cost, as it was a means to get the team back on track and become more competitive in games.
But this year was supposed to be a correction. By adding more skill to their lineup (at least in theory) the team was supposed to stay out of the box more and spend more time putting the puck in the opposing net. That has not happened yet.
Instead, this team’s lack of focus and discipline (especially with their sticks) looks very similar to last year.
Tanner Jeannot on the Preds’ penalty issues (Nashville finished with 9) tonight: pic.twitter.com/UgVmL41wzG— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) October 19, 2022
Taking penalties does more than just put your team on the penalty kills. It disrupts your offensive flow and gives momentum back to the other team.
Take the Kings game on Tuesday as an example. The Preds were rolling in the first 10 minutes. Cody Glass scored to make it 1-0 and things were looking great.
But the penalties changed all that.
This is the single most important thing to fix with this team right now. How John Hynes and coaches plan to do that is anyone’s guess, but their ability to do so will determine how successful the Nashville Predators are this season.
— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —