Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.
Pickin’ on Nashville
As I type this, the Nashville Predators sit in tenth place in the Western Conference, just one point behind eighth-place Dallas. Given the Preds’ fourth-place, 104-point finish last season, this is not at all where Nashville hoped or expected to be as they approach the homestretch of the 2013 campaign. What’s wrong in Music City?
First and foremost, offense: The loss of Ryan Suter to free agency was huge, and his 26:30/night of ice time has been missed. Last season’s team leading goal scorer Patric Hornqvist has been limited to 14 games due to injury, and when he’s played, he hasn’t performed up to last season’s standard – Hornqvist’s shooting percentage is 5.6% in 2013, down from 11.7% in 2011-12. The net result of the departed Suter and injured Hornqvist is a team Goals per Game average of 2.44 this season (tied for 24th in the league), compared to 2.83 (8th) last season. Also, the Power Play % has dipped, from 21.6% (1st) last campaign to 20.0% (11th) in 2013.
Interestingly, the Predators aren’t allowing significantly more goals without Suter on the blueline; team GAA is 2.53 (T-11th) vs. 2.50 (T-8th) last season. 5-on-5 play has actually improved marginally, as the team even strength goals for/against ratio has moved from 1.05 (T-10th) last season to 1.06 (T-12th) in 2013.
A significant difference in the post-Suter Predators is apparent in the Penalty Kill – 83.6% (10th) in 2011-12 vs. 76.9% (29th) in 2013. This season, only the Florida Panthers’ PK is worse (apparently, killing penalties is a common shortcoming among cats). Another area of concern is the Preds’ win percentage when trailing after the first period – .125 (28th) this season vs. .325 (T-15th) last. For better or for worse, Nashville has decided over half their games this season in the first twenty minutes: they’re 7-0-3 when leading after one and 0-8-0 when trailing.
The Predators have always been a defense-first team. This philosophy has served them well, as evidenced by seven playoff appearances in fourteen seasons. In order to take the next step, though, they desperately need OFFENSE. The New York Rangers were defensively solid last season, but were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals because they couldn’t put puck in net. Ditto the 1997-98 Dallas Stars. I could list more examples, but my point is made. The Nashville Predators have the dubious distinction of being the only NHL franchise without a single 40-goal scorer in team history. After fourteen seasons, Jason Arnott’s 33 goals in 2008-09 is tops. Defense will only take a team so far; a balance of offense and defense hoists the Cup.
Team captain Shea Weber, desirous of a shot at the Cup and unsure the cash-poor Predators could afford the necessary pieces to ice a true contender, signed a monstrous offer sheet with Philadelphia last summer. Nashville management concluded they could not part with both Suter AND Weber at the same time, so they matched the Flyers’ offer. As a result, Weber carries with him a $7.857mil cap hit through 2026. Ironically, paying their captain so much seriously hinders the Preds’ ability to acquire the players necessary to bring the Cup to Music Row. Until Nashville figures out how to draft and develop goal scorers (beyond Hornqvist, a 7th-round winning lottery ticket of a pick) or ownership grows deeper pockets, the Predators will continue to die the slow death that is “pretty good-ness.”