The Nashville Predators have reached the quarter turn of the season. After playing 21 games, they have an 11-9-1 record, sitting in 4th place in the Central Division with 23 points.
The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues are the clear favorites to win the division at this point, with the Winnipeg Jets in a close third behind them. Surprisingly, the Preds are tied with the Colorado Avalanche and one point ahead of the Dallas Stars, two teams whose talent and skill rival that of the Preds. Unsurprisingly, the Blackhawks and Coyotes are at the bottom of the division.
Being in 4th place leaves the Preds in a familiar position: the playoff bubble.
They might want to get comfortable, because they could be there all season.
The makeup and organization of the 2021-22 Nashville Predators is that of an average “rebuilding” hockey team that could, if they get hot at the right time, make the playoffs, and then could, if they get even hotter, make some noise in those playoffs.
One fourth of the way through the season seems to confirm that. They’ve had nice wins over the Wild, Stars, and Blues. They’ve had bad losses against the Kraken, Canadiens, and Blackhawks. They’ve not had a losing streak longer than two games, and they managed a nice four game win streak in late October.
But I doubt anyone is expecting this team to really challenge for a division title. No one is calling this team a lock for the playoffs. Likewise, no one is considering them a lottery pick, either. At least they shouldn’t be.
They are what we thought they were: a sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometimes awful, sometimes great, but all-the-times average team.
Which is what makes the performance of their top five players all the more interesting.
Preds getting outstanding play from their top five
In an ultimate clap back to all the questions about under performance over the last two season, Matt Duchene leads the team in goals with 13. He also leads in points with 21. He’s been the Preds’ best forward, something fans are certainly happy to see.
Roman Josi, well on his way to being a Norris Trophy finalist (at least), is 2nd on the team in goals with seven. Then Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg have six goals each, and Mikael Granlund has five. Granlund also leads the team in assists with 16.
So the Preds’ top five skaters, both in contract value and in skill/talent, are all carrying the bulk of the scoring for this team.
In fact, they are carrying more of the load than would be expected, or at least than we’ve seen from the Nashville Predators over the last six seasons. Here’s a quick glance at the Preds’ top five goal scorers as a percentage share of the team’s goals:
This season, those five players I mentioned have scored 37 of the team’s 57 goals, for a total of 65% of the team’s scoring. That’s a huge number. Just for a quick comparison, the Toronto Maple Leaf’s top five scorers (including John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner) account for 62% of their team’s scoring.
But does this bode well for the Predators the rest of the way? With three quarters of the season to go, is being a top heavy team a good thing or a bad thing?
Why being top heavy is a bad thing
The obvious problem with being top heavy is it makes one vulnerable to toppling. If an opponent can shut off production from those top five players, the Preds become relatively easy to beat.
With 65% of the scoring coming from five skaters, that means only 35% of scoring is coming from 21 other skaters.
That includes players that the Preds expected to produce this year. Eeli Tolvanen has one goal in 21 games. Luke Kunin has only three. Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro have combined for zero.
Those four players simply must produce more than they have, especially someone like Tolvanen. Some were expecting him to take a huge leap forward, perhaps even pushing for the thirty goal mark. As of now, he’s projected to finish with less than 10 goals this season.
The Preds’ much heralded “fourth line” with Tanner Jeannot, Colton Sissons, and Yakov Trenin have provided the bulk of that remaining 35% of scoring, accounting for nine goals so far. But even they have been quiet lately: they’ve scored only once in the team’s last seven games.
Depth scoring has been an issue this year. The Predators will need that to change if they want to be anything other than average.
Why being top heavy is a good thing
Every team wants to be feared. Every team wants opponents to worry about something they are good at. An elite goal scorer, a dangerous power play, a stifling defense.
Having a group of players, even if it’s just one line, that the other team has to constantly worry about gives the Predators an instant coaching advantage. Opposing coaches have to shuffle their line changes and manage their top defensemen to account for the threat.
It also provides a mental advantage for the players on the ice. That’s a hidden edge not many people think about. If your coach is telling you “we need you on the ice to shut down the opponent” as opposed to saying “we need you on the ice to score goals and use your skill” it changes the player’s perspective considerably.
Another reason why this is a good thing for the Preds is their contract/cap situation. As I mentioned earlier, these top five players are also the top five highest paid players on the team. They account for nearly $36 million in salary, or 44% of the team’s salary cap allotment.
David Poile, in particular, has to be happy about that. Finally, all the players he’s signed to massive contracts are coming through at the same time.
Ultimately, I think the team’s top heaviness is a good thing for right now. It gives the Nashville Predators an advantage in regular season games that might not otherwise matter.
But if the team wants to make the playoffs, and if they want to be anything other than an average team, they’ll need more scoring balance.
— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —