When Peter Laviolette was hired to be the new coach of the Nashville Predators, one of the things general manager David Poile charged him with was improving the offense.
The Predators had a distinct defensive identity under former coach Barry Trotz, and are still a team built from the net out. With goaltender Pekka Rinne and a defensive corps that features Shea Weber (who is out Games 3 and 4 with a lower-body injury), Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis, Nashville has plenty of talent from the blue line down.
What Laviolette has done is taken those assets and re-appropriated them. The Predators defensemen combined to score 193 points this season, up from the 171 they scored last season. Laviolette has used the same ingredients but changed the recipe, and the results for the Predators have been nearly half a goal more averaged at even-strength per game (2.52, up from 2.25), the highest-scoring even-strength blue line in the League, and a team that no longer has to keep a game low-scoring for it to win.
The defensemen will need to continue to contribute when the Predators play the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of their Western Conference First Round series on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN).
"I think we're all excited to help out offensively and to push the puck ahead," defenseman Mattias Ekholm told the Predators website during training camp. "A lot of us on defense are more offensively-inclined guys, so we'll fit right in to a more offensive role. If we can help push the puck through the neutral zone and toward the goal then that's going to free up our forwards."
Ekholm, like Jones, was one of four Predators defenseman to set a career high in points this season.
"This is only my second training camp, so it's been pretty easy for me to see the difference between the coaching [styles]," Jones said in September. "With guys like Weber, Josi and the others who have the skill to put the puck in the net, I think being able to help the offense as a defensemen is a good thing."
Nashville's defensemen have taken to this new system, and have gotten much better at making a defensive play and then activating up ice. On this goal against the Minnesota Wild, Josi breaks up a play in his own end, before finishing one at the other.
Josi gets his stick in the passing lane, and forces a turnover. He also identifies three Wild skaters up ice, and pushes the puck into an area where he can retrieve it and catalyze a rush.
Nashville carries the puck across the red line 4-on-2. Josi has his head up and processes the spacing, understanding that he can pull up and become the trailer. With forward Matt Cullen driving the center lane hard, space should be created for Josi to get open.
Cullen does two things by driving to the net: He carries a Wild skater with him and he creates traffic in front of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. By maintaining his wide position, forward Calle Jarnkrok gives linemate Viktor Stalberg enough space to find Josi. And from there, Josi does the rest.
It isn't only about the goals the Nashville defensemen are scoring. Laviolette has created more neutral zone structure, implementing schemes that feature them and allow them to move the puck up to the forwards quickly, like on this Filip Forsberg goal against the St. Louis Blues.
Each step of this play is choreographed. Weber skates the puck back into his own zone and the gears begin to turn. He sends the puck cross-ice to Josi and, by doing so, forces the Blues to skate toward the other side. Meanwhile, Forsberg is beginning his course near the benches.
Josi accepts Weber's pass and immediately turns his attention back to the other side of the ice. With St. Louis moving left-to-right, a two-line pass would be difficult to execute, but Forsberg is acting as a decoy, skating directly through the path of Josi's pass, disguising it.
Now forward James Neal has the puck, and Nashville has drawn defenseman Jay Bouwmeester up ice, creating space for Neal to lay a pass into. Forsberg, in the middle of his route, has enough speed to skate past forward Paul Stastny and into a high-quality scoring chance.
These were pieces that, for the most part, were always at the Predators disposal. Jones has progressed in his second NHL season, and Poile acquired defensemen Cody Franson prior to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. With defensemen that play with this skill set in Laviolette's newly installed system, Nashville has a different dynamic, the likes of which has made it a much better offensive team.