Every season, teams go through peaks and valleys. This includes even the teams that end up with huge amounts of success. Looking at the Predators 9-3-2 start, around the League, the question will be asked: Are they for real? Or are they just hot? It's a fair question. Life in the Western Conference is brutal. There are tons of quality teams, and it's early. But here are a few signs to point at in terms of whether the Predators can sustain things over the long journey:
1. Strength of Schedule: It doesn't have the significance in the NHL that it does in say, College Basketball or even College Football, so I'm not trying to lobby for an "at large bid" to the Big Dance here, but the Predators have done well despite playing a tough schedule.
As of Monday morning, the combined records of the 10 teams the Predators have played (they've played the Flames, Stars, Blackhawks, and Jets twice each) have a combined record of 78-52-16.
During the last road trip, the Preds faced some teams playing extremely well. The Oilers and Canucks were on four-game winning streaks when Nashville came to town. The Blues had won seven straight. The two losses were to the Flames (6-2-2 in their last 10) and the Jets (7-1-2 in their last 10). All but one of their games have been against the West, largely considered to be the deeper of the two conferences.
The Predators have had success thus far, and it isn't because they have beaten up on poor teams.
2. Even Strength: The Predators have outscored their opponents at even strength through 14 games, 27-15. That is the second best ratio in the league (1.86) behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pretty stingy, especially defensively. In fact, Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton have combined for a .954 save percentage during 5-on-5 play, the best in the NHL. Sustainable? We'll see, but most of the game is played at even strength. (Remember my article about the hype of Peter Laviolette's "play going forward" system? As mentioned, goal prevention is just as important as more offense).
3. Possession: It's a simple premise, and it's not everything, but possession is becoming more of an emphasis than ever in the NHL. The Predators have made strides in this area. Rob Vollman of www.hockeyabstract.com illustrates this here.
The basic message is this: the more you have the puck, the better your chances of winning. You can't score if you don't have the puck, and if YOU have the puck, you can't be scored upon. In college basketball, the legendary Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina built a coaching philosophy based on "total possessions", and the quality of those possessions. In baseball, Billy Beane and the "Moneyball" Oakland A's built a roster around On-Base Percentage, and OBP (On Base plus Slugging). These stats eventually became much more mainstream, and the same is happening with possession stats in hockey.
One example of this progress for Nashville is the improvement of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekhom. The young defense pairing has taken a huge step forward in their all-around play, which is reflected in the possession based "Corsi" stat. Corsi, for those not versed in "fancy stats,” tells us how many shots are attempted (whether they are on goal or not) for and against your team while you are on the ice. Ellis and Ekholm are ranked 1 and 2 on the team in Corsi, giving Peter Laviolette a second pairing to go with horses Shea Weber and Roman Josi.
Last Saturday in St. Louis, it was Ellis and Ekholm drawing heavy duty against the red hot Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues. This allowed Josi and Weber to focus on the big, physical first line of Alex Steen, Paul Stastny, and David Backes. The young duo held the "Tara-Senk-Show" to one goal, while Josi and Weber shut down the Stastny line.
4. Untapped Wells: Despite all of the success, there is room for improvement. Special Teams in both areas can be better. Players who are capable of scoring with their track records have yet to break out. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen and Calle Jarnkrok, while playing very solid all-around hockey, have yet to light the lamp. Mike Fisher, a solid 20-goal-type scorer, hasn't played yet. He has been practicing and his return looks like it's coming into view.
Do these things mean a guaranteed run of success? Unfortunately, there is no such thing in this League. Nothing is certain. But there are some good indicators that this Predators team has a formula that can work over the long haul.