It’s hard – if not impossible – to get a read on a team after just two games, but the Nashville Predators have looked impressively different in their debut games under new coach Peter Laviolette. Laviolette’s promised to bring more offense to a Nashville organization that’s seen their goal-scoring dry up over the years, but early signs suggest that the team’s just going to be more aggressive in every phase of the game – not just in terms of getting pucks on net.
This, of course, gets into the many different ways a team can improve on their Corsi%. One example I like to give is the stark contrast between that of Los Angeles and Chicago; two virtually equal teams at dominating control of play at five-on-five, but two teams that go about their business in entirely different manners. Los Angeles is a dump-and-chase heavy team – they prefer to sacrifice a bit of lethality when attacking in exchange for being able to set-up with more structure when defending the neutral zone. Chicago’s a polar opposite – nearly every possession through the neutral zone sees the Blackhawks carrying in with control, and it’s reflected in their ability to pile up the shot-attempts and goals year after year.
The first two games Nashville’s played are interesting in the sense that they seem to have really dialed up the force and frequency in which they harass puck-carriers coming through the neutral zone. In years past, I’ve felt as though Nashville played a more passive game, which let super-talented teams dictate the run of play.
Nashville’s first ‘real’ test came against a Dallas team that seems to be something of a lock to reach the post-season. The Stars attack in waves through the neutral zone, and their top-nine -- much like Chicago – seem to want to be in control of the puck as they attack the opposition. Sometimes, this is easier said than done.
The Predators put on a masterful performance against Dallas. Move away from the 4-1 score line and consider the following: Dallas, a team that averaged 24 even-strength shots per game last year, had just 15 against Nashville. A large part of this was Dallas’ inability to generate basically anything away from the Seguin line, which produced seven of those fifteen shots.
Nashville made a concerted effort to squeeze out passing lanes and attack puck-carriers as they traversed through the neutral zone. Their work against Dallas’ vaunted second line – Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Erik Cole – was particularly magnificent.
Consider the below table, which shows the performance of the Jason Spezza line as they came through the neutral zone against Nashville, which shows just how rare it was for the Stars' second line to enter the Nashville zone under control with the puck.
Stars Stopped in Neutral Zone
|NZ Dump/Chase||NZ Controlled Entry||NZ Failure/Turnover|
|Spezza Line On-Ice||17.9% (5/28)||17.9% (5/28)||64.2% (18/28)|
NZ = Neutral Zone
Knowing what we know about the importance of entering the zone with control of the puck as it pertains to shot-attempt generation through the seminal work of Eric Tulsky, and knowing what we know about the stylistic play of guys like Ales Hemsky, Jason Spezza, and Erik Cole, their success will directly correlate with their ability to enter the offensive zone with control. In games they aren’t able to do this – like Saturday night’s game against Nashville – they’ll struggle to have an impact.
Saturday’s poor neutral zone performance predictably manifested in their ability to generate shot-attempts. Here are the CorsiFor rates (per 60) for each of the players, with a three-year comparable to show how decisive the run of play really was.
Stars Shot Down
|Per 60 CorsiFor vs. Nashville||Per 60 CorsiFor 2011-14|
Now, this sort of volatility is going to happen when isolating for single games (or even a series of games) with any player or group of players around the league, but it does speak to how strong Nashville was at bottling up Dallas’ second line – a second line that spent most of the night either defending the Nashville rush, or futilely trying to gain the opposition’s zone with possession of the puck.
In terms of accreditation for slowing down the Dallas trio, the forward group seemed to do it by committee. Defensively, it was primarily the Seth Jones and Anton Volchenkov pairing, which saw almost 60% of their shifts against the Spezza group. A job well done.
Going forward, the key for Dallas will not be to abandon its strategy, but to really dig into what makes the attacking styles of Chicago (and, San Jose for that matter) so effective. Part of that is the forward group doesn’t have to do so much of the leg-work – there are many able bodies on the back-end that can spring forwards as they move north, and it makes defending the controlled rush just exponentially harder. In Dallas, there are questions about the blueline, and how far they can take Lindy Ruff’s team. I think figuring out the three best puck-moving combinations could be vital going forward. Unfortunately, it’ll take time – there are a lot of young bodies back there.
As an aside, I don’t think Dallas is going to have much trouble maneuvering through the regular season. The questions are about improvement, not about whether or not they’re a legitimate contender.
On the other side – well, something to watch for Nashville going forward, certainly. I think reasonable assessments can be made about newly-coached teams after twenty games or so. We’ll revisit then, and see if Nashville is sustaining their success.