So why one but not the other?

It wasn’t long ago that everybody and their dog were predicting that the Minnesota Wild, first place in the entire NHL at one point, would come crashing back down to earth and fall to bubble playoff team status.

As fellow Canuckistanian Backhand Shelfer Daniel Wagner brought up on Thursday, the Nashville Predators are another team that exhibit similar signs as the Wild when it comes to the quality of their hockey team.  “The golden statistic for most advanced stat lovers early in the season is Fenwick Tied,” wrote Wagner.

Most of the teams near the bottom of the Fenwick Tied rankings are teams in a similar position to the Wild: out of the playoffs or struggling on the bubble. The one exception is the only team below the Wild: the Nashville Predators. The Predators are currently sitting 5th in the Western Conference and are 10 points clear of the 8th place Los Angeles Kings. They actually have 7 more points than the 3rd place San Jose Sharks, who are in first place in the Pacific Division.

So what is it about the Nashville Predators that make them so special? How come they get a pass from guys like Gabe Desjardins, Derek Zona and Robert Vollman, people who were all too happy (along with myself) to make it rain in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

After all, it’s not like this isn’t a new thing for the Predators. We know how successful they’ve been on a tight budget over the last few seasons with Barry Trotz getting maximum value out of the scrubs that David Poile acquired and signed. They are last place in possession this season, but they were 9th in 2011 and 8th in 2010. What’s their secret and why do they get the free pass?

We know how predictive Fenwick Tied can be, after all. Despite it’s counter-intuitiveness, a team’s ratio of goals, saved shots and missed shots with the score tied at 5-on-5 can predict which NHL teams will and won’t make the playoffs, sometimes as early as 40 games into the season.

Theory #1 – Fewer warning signs

It wasn’t only the low tied goal-scoring ability of the Wild that raised warning signs. It was a combination of many things that made their collapse so obvious. They had a very low goal-differential compared to their record and a low number of clear victories, defined as wins coming in games decided by two or more goals, empty netters omitted.

From Sportsnet’s Luke Fox on December 10:

Fifteen teams have scored more frequently than Minnesota. Fine. So they must be doing it on defence. Right? Five teams have allowed fewer goals than the Wild. Fine. So it must be a combination of offence and defence, right? Seven teams with a better goal differential sit below the Wild in the overall standings.

Besides often, the Wild know only one way to win: barely. Each of their last 11 victories has been by two goals or less. Eleven of their league-best 19 total wins have been the result of a single red light in their favour.

Nashville aren’t in the same vein as Minnesota in that regard, so while they’re being dominated in possession, their +12 goal differential matches their Western Conference ranking as far as points per game. They are also 12-10 in games where a clear victory was awarded (those are tallied by the excellent Edmonton Oilers’ blog Copper & Blue) which is the sixth highest win percentage in the Conference.

Theory #2 – Low Events

Some buildings don’t tally shots on the same level as buildings do. While we don’t have missed and blocked shots available at a team level per 60 minutes from BehindTheNet.ca, we do have the opportunity to filter through a bit of data thanks to TimeOnIce.com set up by Vic Ferrari.

[Home script - Away script]

The idea here would be that if there are fewer shots recorded in general, it would be tougher for the Nashville Predators to hold a lot of possession. In total, an average of 17.1 shots are counted as misses on both teams per game at the Sommet Center Bridgestone Arena, while on the road, that number slightly increases to 18.4. So perhaps a few extra Fenwick events are tallied in another building that wouldn’t get tallied in Nashville, but the team is still doing quite poor on the road where the arena bias would suss itself out.

That said, Nashville are 20th in total shots recorded per game and tied for 20th in total goals recorded per game as well. That means that the Predators are good at keeping games very low-scoring and relatively low event, and they are 17th in the league in total events (both teams) when ahead by a goal.

However I’m not sure that this theory works out all that well, because Minnesota rank below the Predators in all these categories. It does however give us some insight into why these teams may have surpassed expectations this season.

Theory #3 – Modest position in standings

Pekka Rinne has quietly emerged as one of the NHL's top goaltenders.

We are discussing a team that is 5th place in the Conference, not one that is first or second in the entire NHL. Every year, a team will sneak into middling playoff positioning despite otherwise poor underlying numbers. Last season, Anaheim was the 5th 4th seed thanks to a fluky second-half run despite being 26th in Fenwick. A year before, the Colorado Avalanche, 29th in the league in Fenwick, entered the playoffs and took the top-seeded San Jose Sharks to six games.

These sort of blips will happen every year but we’re not discussing a team that is running away with the league or have a 104% PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage at even strength). The Predators have a modest 101.2% PDO, slightly elevated due to both the fact that Sergei Kostitsyn scores everything he shoots and Pekka Rinne is a very good goaltender who has historically put up good save percentage numbers. After all, Nashville are 4-6 in their last 10 and would play a very tough St. Louis Blues team without home ice if the playoffs started today.

Theory #4 – A proven record of success

You can’t really argue against success, and Nashville has seen a lot of it lately. Tyler Dellow at mc79hockey.com tallied up team records post-lockout, and Barry Trotz’s Predators have the fifth most wins in the league, behind just New Jersey, San Jose, Vancouver and Detroit.

But it isn’t at just a team level. While Minnesota was held in it thanks to excellent goaltending by Niklas Backstrom, his save percentage was as high as .935 on November 17th, well away from his career average of .918. Pekka Rinne in Nashville, while he has played at a slightly higher percentage than his career average this season—a .925 save percentage on the season, career average of .921—it isn’t too far removed from his career numbers. Now, if he were carrying last season’s clip of .930 around this year, people might begin to question it, but there’s evidence to suggest that after playing 232 NHL games that he’s one of the league’s best in net.

As for the rest of the team, it speaks for themselves. They’ve been a very good possession team in the past and had success getting into the playoffs. The difference this season is really in possession, but that could also just be a one-year blip on the radar screen and they’ll get back to controlling the puck next year.

Theory #5 – “Shot Quality”

Mike Colligan has written about how the Pittsburgh Penguins have worked with James Neal’s shooting locations over the summer. We know that the Penguins use a system for predicting the number of goals scored based on the location of the shooter along with other variables (and we know it because one of their staffers admitted it).

Is Sergei Kostitsyn's shooting percentage sustainable? Probably not, but it's worth discussing.

Could the Predators be doing something similar? They don’t need to take a lot of shots because they’re trying to set up the good one. The top-seven Nashville forwards in time on ice per game all have shooting percentages of 10% or higher and the top five are all over 12%. You don’t get similar numbers like that among some of the league’s top offences in Philadelphia or Vancouver, so perhaps there is something that the Preds have picked up on in their own players’ tendencies.

Of course, this could also be an outlying season. It wouldn’t surprise me if a few players were provided better shot locations including Sergei Kostitsyn, the league’s top shooter in the last two seasons. It will take a few more seasons to be able to tell if this is really a sustainable skill, however.

So why do we think that Nashville is winning, or why is nobody seemingly discussing their slide? For any of the reasons listed above individually or a combination of a few factors?