The Nashville Predators. (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Predators’ bold acquisition of Ryan Johansen should give Nashville an offensive boost and it’s hard not to consider the Predators one of the best sleeper picks for the Stanley Cup. Nashville has dominated the possession game and could be hard to knock out come playoff time.
The Predators made waves Wednesday with the acquisition of Ryan Johansen, and while one player can’t carry a team to post-season success, it’s definitely time to consider Nashville a sleeper Stanley Cup contender.
On paper, especially before the Johansen acquisition, the Predators’ roster was largely underwhelming. Outside of captain Shea Weber, Roman Josi and goaltender Pekka Rinne, most wouldn’t exactly call the makeup of the Nashville roster exciting. Filip Forsberg can be brilliant and James Neal is a tremendous power forward when he’s on his game, but there wasn’t much jaw-dropping offensive talent to be had before Johansen. For that reason alone, it’s understandable why few considered Nashville a Cup favorite.
When you really dig into this season’s Predators, though, one is reminded, if even in the slightest, of the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings. That Kings squad squeaked into the post-season and became a playoff powerhouse en route to what would be the first of two Stanley Cups in three seasons. Statistically, at least, the similarities are all there between the 2011-12 Kings and this season’s Predators. The acquisition of Johansen is yet another parallel between the two clubs, and one that makes Nashville even more likely to shock everyone in the post-season with a deep run.
The 2011-12 Kings snuck into the post-season by beating out the Calgary Flames for the eighth and final post-season spot in the Western Conference by a margin of five points. Los Angeles finished the season with a 40-27-15 record, but were plagued by offensive inability for most of the season. Their offensive inability was addressed in February 2012 when the Kings acquired Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Following Nashville’s 4-1 loss at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday — a game which the Predators dominated but dropped thanks to outstanding play by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck — the Predators are on pace for a record of 39-29-14. Like the 2011-12 Kings, the Predators have struggled offensively. And the Johansen acquisition, like the Kings’ trade for Carter, should give Nashville’s offense a boost. It’s worth noting the coincidence that both Johansen and Carter were acquired from the Blue Jackets, too.
The similarities between the two sides run deeper, though, and illustrate why Nashville might be a dark horse Cup contender in the Western Conference.
The 2011-12 Kings scored 194 goals, allowed 179 and had a total 5-on-5 goals for percentage of 50 percent. The Predators are on pace to net 213 goals, allow 217 and currently have a 5-on-5 goals for percentage of 50.4 percent. This Predators group has been able to score more than that Kings team, but troubling has been the performance of Rinne.
Prior to the Kings’ Cup run, Jonathan Quick posted a great regular season and finished with a 5-on-5 SP of .934. Rinne’s current 5-on-5 SP is .929. Worth noting, though, Quick and Rinne have performed similarly since the beginning of the 2011-12 seasons. Since Oct. 2011, Quick’s 5-on-5 SP is .928 and Rinne’s SP is .927. They have similar ability, and you won’t find many who wouldn’t want Rinne between the pipes in a post-season contest.
What really made that Kings Stanley Cup team in 2011-12, though, was their ability to drive possession and wear teams down. Sure, Quick was outstanding in the post-season and earned his Conn Smythe Trophy, but the Kings were a smothering offensive team that ran through opponents and out-possessed teams in all but seven of 20 post-season games. After 40 games, the underlying numbers for the Predators are eerily similar to the full-season totals for that Cup-winning Kings team.
Heading into the post-season, Los Angeles’ 5-on-5 numbers were as follows: a shot attempts for percentage of 54.8 percent, offensive zone start percentage of 32.4 percent, 6.03 shooting percentage, .929 SP and a PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — of 99. At 5-on-5, Nashville currently has a shot attempts for percentage of 54.2 percent, offensive zone start percentage of 32.9 percent, 6.47 shooting percentage, .924 SP and a PDO of 98.8.
If you want an idea of how Nashville has been perceived, look no further than oddsmakers. Most had the Predators as a middle-of-the-pack team with an outside shot at winning the Cup. Prior to Wednesday’s trade, Bodog had the Predators at the same odds as the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks. Neither of those teams are in the post-season as of this writing. In fact, the Sharks are seven points out of wild-card spot and three points out of a divisional seeding.
None of this is to say it’s worth running to Las Vegas to throw down your life’s savings on the Predators, but Nashville’s a much better team than their record would suggest. The Predators will most likely have to work their way through a division that contains a Blackhawks team that has won three of the past six Stanley Cups, the high-flying Dallas Stars, a St. Louis Blues team that has a lot to prove and the stingy Minnesota Wild. There’s a possibility the Predators crossover to the Pacific Division for the post-season, though, but that could mean a date with the Kings in the first round, and it’s hard to overlook Los Angeles as Stanley Cup favorites this season.
The Johansen trade certainly moves the needle for the Predators, though. Getting a legitimate top-six center who’s only 23 is a tremendous pickup for Nashville, and that Johansen is coming off of a career year and stands to be a more central piece of the Predators’ offense bodes well for his production. Johansen should provide the offensive improvement Nashville was looking for.If Rinne can find his form, the Predators could be even more lethal in the West. As for losing Seth Jones in the Johansen acquisition, the Predators' wealth of blueliners means Jones' exit doesn't sting quite as much.
A lot can happen between now and the post-season, but if you’re looking for a sleeper pick to take home the Stanley Cup, you shouldn’t look much further than the Predators.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)