What Has Gotten into the Nashville Predators?

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 10: Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) is shown at the conclusion of the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals, held on October 10, 2019, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

For years, a shortage of firepower has reared its ugly head to foil the Nashville Predators at the worst possible moment. They played fundamentally sound hockey while boasting a deep and imposing blue line and terrific goaltending, but they lacked the weaponry required to get over the hump.

Early in 2019-20, they’ve left those scoring woes behind.

Through seven contests, the 4-3-0 Preds are currently sitting on the single most productive offense in the league. Seriously. They’re averaging a ridiculous 4.29 goals per game, which is dramatically higher than their 2.88 GPG last season. Signing star center Matt Duchene (9 points in 7 games) to a seven-year, $56 million deal in free agency is a massive upgrade for a team that has sought a legitimate 1-2 punch up the middle since it acquired Ryan Johansen (7 points in 7 games) in 2015-16, and the 28-year-old has delivered. Duchene is capable of putting defenders on their heels because of his speed, vision and craftiness. Few forwards are as effective at using their edges to create space either, so he’s a threat in virtually any setting.

The odd part of this addition is that Nashville has adopted Duchene’s identity rather than integrating him into its system. A structured and methodical approach has been replaced by an all-out flurry of rushes and gambles. The club still controls a decent share of the shot attempts (50.8%) at 5-on-5, but its hold on the scoring chances (47.8%) and high-danger opportunities (44.3%) has weakened after it decided to throw caution to the wind. Head coach Peter Laviolette has seemingly given his troops a longer leash to increase the tempo and push for offense.

Nashville has never looked this creative. We know about Duchene’s talent, but the team’s arsenal hardly stops there. Diminutive winger Viktor Arvidsson (6 points in 7 games) has been the second-most efficient scorer in the NHL at even strength over the past three seasons, Filip Forsberg (8 points in 6 games) is a rangy finisher who frequently lands on highlight reels, Mikael Granlund (4 points in 7 games) is a slippery playmaker who seems more comfortable in his first full campaign in Nashville and Johansen is a slick, big-bodied setup man. Elsewhere, Craig Smith (1 point in 7 games) is usually a solid complementary scorer and veteran Kyle Turris (5 points in 7 games) should perform better in a lesser role. Even defense-oriented forwards Nick Bonino (5 points in 7 games) and Colton Sissons (4 points in 7 games) have abandoned some of their stinginess in favor of this attacking philosophy.

On the back end, you don’t need to convince Roman Josi (6 points in 7 games) to join the fray. He finished in the top five among blueliners last season in scoring chances, high-danger bids and expected goals, and he’s in that same neighborhood to start 2019-20. Nashville’s captain is always eager to push the pace in order to place his teammates at a numbers advantage, and as a result, his shifts often resemble fire drills.

The difference this year is that the rest of the blue line is getting in on the act too. 6’4”, 215-pound stalwart Mattias Ekholm (5 points in 7 games) is fresh off his finest offensive season — one in which he was also the squad’s best all-around rearguard — but his aggressiveness through the first six games has been a bit…jarring. Instead of picking his spots judiciously, the 29-year-old is just barreling down the ice in search of a chance. Ryan Ellis (9 points in 7 games), who worked diligently to transition from an offensive stud in junior to a steady two-way blueliner in the NHL, is reconnecting with his younger self. He ranks second in the league in points from the blue line and finds himself surrounded by names such as John Carlson, Brent Burns, Dougie Hamilton, Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly. Dante Fabbro (2 points in 7 games) isn’t PK Subban, but he has the wheels, the talent and most importantly, the latitude to force the issue from time to time as well.

This bolder style has definitely yielded more goals. On the flip side, the Preds’ defense has never looked so porous. It’s slipped from 2.59 (4th) to 4.00 goals against per game (28th) due to the club’s newfound willingness to trade chances.

Frankly, Laviolette’s men are borderline unrecognizable right now. After long embracing a slow and steady grind, they’ve grown happy to engage in track meets. Games are unfolding at a dizzying pace, there are opportunities left and right and Nashville may finally boast the scoring potency to keep pace amid the chaos. It’s without question exciting stuff, but is it effective? Moreover, is it sustainable? The Preds are currently sitting on a 13.0 on-ice shooting percentage (1st), which is nearly twice as high as last season’s 7.7 (20th). Signing Duchene was huge, but you have to imagine that figure will normalize as the year progresses.

At the moment, that scintillating conversion rate is compensating for some slippage between the pipes. Nashville’s on-ice SV% has plummeted from fifth to 24th. Its high-danger SV%, which has become especially important given the team’s stylistic shift, has fallen from 86.7 (1st) to 82.9 (15th). Hopefully, that represents a temporary blip for an otherwise strong duo in Pekka Rinne (2.76 GAA, 90.8 SV%) and Juuse Saros (4.74 GAA, 85.3 SV%). After all, it’s October. There’s still ample time to settle into this new approach.

Then again, striking that balance is no easy task. Most teams never quite get there.

Maybe the Preds just aren’t built for this free-wheeling madness. To this point, it feels like they’ve plugged one major hole only to open another can of worms. Can they thrive — or even survive — as a high-octane unit if it comes at the expense of their three-zone discipline?