In my first post ever on this blog, I discussed how much I respected the organizations of the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning, and their abilities to do more, with less. The 21st, and 23rd highest payrolled teams in the league each won playoff series’ last year in small markets.
Well, I theorized maybe that the teams had learned how to maximize the efficiency of each player. That maybe both teams understood that basic puck possession is what led to goals and to wins. I loved that both teams won despite not having traditional star players. I loved that Nate Thompson and Adam Hall became defensive stars for the Lightning and that Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Kostitsyn came out of nowhere to become scorers with the Predators.
The two teams are not good this season. Spare me your tripe about both teams being .500 teams—Nashville are 10-7-4 and Tampa are 9-9-2—the teams are a combined 19-22 when it comes down to it. But team records really don’t mean all that much this early in the season. Sometimes teams have disproportionate records to their level of play, but that isn’t the case with my two adopted Moneypuck teams.
One of the best ways to predict future success of a team is to count their shot differential at even strength with the score-tied. This eliminates a lot of things: refereeing effects, score effects, variance, all that stuff. It’s repeatable and it’s a good indicator of team performance. So how come Nashville and Tampa Bay are doing so poorly in this regard? Nashville has taken less than 44% of all the shots and missed shots that have taken place with the game tied at even strength. Tampa has taken just over 44%. Those are pretty modest numbers compared to last year.
In fact, last season, Tampa Bay was 7th in this “even strength score-tied Fenwick” percentage and Nashville was 9th. This season, the teams are 26th and 27th. So what happened in there? Which players just explicitly upped and left the Lightning and Predators organization? Unfortunately, to full explain what happened to these teams, it might take 40 full psychology evaluations and a whole lot more words than I can fit into this column, but I’ll try and speculate as best I can, because, hey.
For Tampa, the Adam Hall-Nate Thompson-Dominic Moore trio that I like so much has really struggled to get much going. They are taking on tougher minutes this season and it really isn’t paying dividends, as in, it isn’t really opening up the offense. I generally like the idea of playing defensive forwards against opposing top lines to allow your scorers: your St. Louis’ and your Stamkos’, to have a little more cushion up front, but the reverse effect has happened in Tampa.
St. Louis and Stamkos aren’t controlling possession like they were last season. After controlling 52.9% of the shots combined last season while they were on the ice, the pair have dipped to just 43.6%. Is this due to their own play or due to the fact that the dominant third line can’t get anything going this season? Time will tell if they’re able to improve in Tampa.
So tougher minutes from the third line in Tampa haven’t panned out. As has not the loss of Joel Ward helped Nashville. While Ward is putting up a decent season thus far in Washington, taking on their toughest minutes and opening up Alexander Ovechkin to do, well, nothing so far, he’s handicapped the Predators by leaving. Him and Steve Sullivan were arguably the best two regular forwards on Nashville last season possession-wise, and by ditching to Washington and Pittsburgh, respectively, the Predators weren’t able to replace the two cheaply like I thought they may have.
Colin Wilson, who broke out in last season’s playoffs, as well as Hornqvist, are the only two Predator forwards in positive possession territory. The rest, well, kind of stink without the help of the third line. Even stalwart defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who dominated last season with the score tied even playing tough minutes, can’t seem to get into positive territory (Weber is at 45.3% and Suter is at 43.6%) so far this season.
What really sucks for Nashville is that they’ve been wasting a terrific opportunity. The goaltending at even strength has been terrific this season, with Pekka Rinne putting up a .935 save percentage at even strength thus far, compared to a .932 through all of last season. The team’s shooting percentage at all strengths, sixth in the league so far this season at 10.4%, has failed to generate any sort of extra goals for Nashville, due to their inability to control the shot clock.
Both teams have unfortunately taken a nose dive to start the season and time is running out ere the two teams can turn their fortunes around and start generating positive possession like they could last season. Else-wise, I may have to begin cheering for other possession darlings with low payrolls. Right now, I’m eyeing the Phoenix Coyotes and Ottawa Senators.
So watch out, ‘Yotes and Sens fans.