So, half way through the season, it is time to take a look at the components of the team and hand out mid-season grades.
Rookie Craig Smith has been a very pleasant surprise for the Predators, playing in all 41 games and spending some time with the top six forwards as well as getting some first unit power play time. Smith leads all forwards with 112 shots on goals (SOG). His 26 points (9G 17A) leads all forwards. Smith is a shoot first forward with lots of creativity who is still growing his game, but Predator fans have caught glimpses of the dynamism that he brings to the ice.
Patric Hornqvist is second in shots, with 108, good for 18 points (11G 7A), and thrives on his crash and bang style of play around the net. For Hornqvist to have success, he has to be in the dirty areas around the net, fighting for rebounds. More importantly, he has to have teammates that are shooting the puck frequently when he is on the ice for him to have an opportunity to do the tough work around the net. Hornqvist has continued his tough play, although he has disappeared for stretches, which has been more of a function of the playmakers around him rather than lack of effort.
It is interesting when you examine the shots on goal at the mid-way mark of the season. Among the forwards, the player with the third most shots on goal is David Legwand, with 71. That is a deficit of 37 shots between the second and third forward. Looking at the other top six forwards, Mike Fisher (7G 12A 19 points) has 69 SOG; Colin Wilson has (8G 15A 13 points) 65 SOG; Sergei Kostitsyn (8G 11A 19 points) has 39 SOG; and Marty Erat (8G 17A 25 points) has 50 SOG. This means that the top six forwards are averaging 2 SOG or less for the games they have played.
If there is a criticism of this group, it is that they have to shoot the puck more often. The talent and experience of this group of forwards would indicate that they can and should be putting the puck on net more often, and for this team to have success in the second half of the season, they are going to have to do this consistently.
Tied for second in goals with two others is Matt Halischuk, with 9 goals. Hustlechuk is the epitome of an opportunistic, grinding forward that thrives in the Predators system, and his offensive contribution has been surprising and welcome.
Like Halischuk, Jordin Tootoo is having a very strong campaign. Tootoo is the type of player that every team hates and covets. He is a high energy player that brings a punishing physical presence and can drop the gloves when necessary. The aspect of his game that has developed is that he is now added an offensive punch to his game. Tootoo has 19 points (6G 13A) and has emerged as a solid offensive player on the third line.
New call up Gabriel Bourque has only played five games, but has shown that he can be a very solid player. He is incredibly strong on the puck and has good hockey sense. I look for Bourque to be a solid contributor per game as the season continues to unfold.
Nick Spaling (5G 8A 13 points) and Jerred Smithson (1G 3A 4 points) have been solid in their checking roles and have chipped in with a few timely goals. Brian McGrattan has 2 points (2A) in 25 games. This has been about what I have expected out of these players.
There is offensive talent on this team. The problem for the Predators is that there are times where it doesn't show up consistently. It is no secret that the top six forwards have to generate more offensive chances and it starts with shooting the puck.
Any discussion of the Predators blue liners starts with the big two: Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. These two studs have combined for 54 points (Weber 9G 21A 30 points; Suter 5G 19A 24 points) and a cumulative +19 (Weber +12; Suter +7). Both players chew up the minutes, with Weber averaging 26:19 per game and Suter averaging 27:01. Both are solid in all zones and are called upon to shut down the opponents top forwards. The numbers bear out that they have been very good at doing that.
Once you get past these two, things get dicey for the Predators D corp. The remainder of the defensemen that have manned the blue line for the Predators are a combined -41 through the first half of the season.
The Predators made a strategic decision to give some younger players a chance to develop and secure starting roles, with Shane O'Brien and Cody Franson departing in the off season. It has been a painful learning process for some of these younger players, as well as some of the returning veterans.
Here are the painful numbers: Klein -12; Blum -14; Josi -7; Hillen -1; Buillon -5; Ellis 0; Laakso -1; Ekholm -1. Part of this is due to chemistry and new players learning how their partner plays. Again, this is part of the learning and growing process, but it has cost the Predators some games and precious points.
Rather than dwell on the negative, let's take a look at some positive aspects.
Roman Josi has played 20 games and has started to emerge as a very solid player. He is a smooth skater, handles the puck well, and has great vision. He has a surprisingly wicked shot, and when Shea Weber was out of the line up, played on the first D pairing with Ryan Suter and acquitted himself very well. I believe Josi will continue to develop and will emerge as a very capable blue liner for the Predators.
Ryan Ellis has played five games, and his offensive prowess has started to emerge. He is very adept at handling the puck and has handled well the physical rigors of battling with bigger forwards by being positionally sound. Ellis is making a strong case to stay up with the Predators rather than return to Milwaukee.
Kevin Klein's play of late has been sound. Klein is often vilified for being on the ice when the other team finds the back of our net. His +/- says that this is a problem. Often, however, Klein has been victimized by the mistakes of his partner (see: Blum, Jonathan) or a break down by a forward. Klein is serviceable and will continue to log some big minutes for the D corp. Klein is putting in just over 20 minutes a game on the second pairing.
Jack Hillen is smallish, but he is a battler. Hillen averages 13:49 per game in ice time, he rarely makes an egregious mistake that victimizes the team.
The bubble player is Jonathan Blum. Blum has been given every opportunity to seize control of a roster spot, but unfortunately for him and the team, his play has at best been highly inconsistent. He runs the risk of losing a roster spot to Ellis and could find himself being returned to Milwaukee.
If the defense corp solidifies behind Weber and Suter, this team will be very dangerous not only in the regular season, but in the playoffs.
That is a very big "if".
SPLIT GRADE: Weber/Suter A+ EVERYONE ELSE: D+
For the Predators, their rock in the net is Pekka Rinne. Rinne has appeared in 37 games this season, and has a 2.61 GAA and a .917 save %. Rinne is 20-11-4, with 3 shutouts. These numbers are not as good as his Vezina nominated season of a year ago. To understand why, read the section above about the Predators defense. Rinne continues to be very strong in net, and his play has stolen several games for the Predators in the first half of the season. He is a battler that is positionally sound, possesses an amazing glove hand, and is capable of making some spectacular saves. Rinne's even demeanor and humbleness belie his quiet confidence, evidenced by his outstanding play not only during regulation, but in shootouts. The Predators should take comfort in the fact that Rinne only seems to get stronger as the season progresses.
Anders Lindback is a very serviceable backup. He has appeared in 8 games and has a 2.75 GAA and a .893 save %. Lindback will be called into action more in the second half of the season as the Predators will have several back to back games on their schedule.
The coaching staff saw long time assistant coach Brent Peterson leave the bench due to a battle with Parkinson's disease, and Lane Lambert joined the staff from his Head Coaching position in Milwaukee. Head Coach Barry Trotz and long time assistant Peter Horachek continue behind the bench. Trotz and his staff are outstanding in their ability to get the most out of the players on their roster. Trotz is a master motivator and has the uncanny ability to push the right buttons on this team. More importantly, he has the attention of the players as to what is important and gets the best out of them in that regard. There has never been a concern that Trotz has "lost the room', and given his tenure behind the bench, that is a singularly impressive feat.
As to that tenure- Trotz is the second longest tenured coach with one team, behind Lindy Ruff of Buffalo by four months. To give some perspective to that feat, consider this: since Trotz was hired as Head Coach, there have been 170 coaching changes in the NHL through last night.
One cannot discount the benefit of that stability. Players know what to expect out of the staff, and that is very important. I think that is one of the primary reasons that the players produce for Trotz and the staff.
Look for Trotz to do some of his best coaching in the second half of the season. Barring decimating injuries, I expect Trotz and the staff to get the team to perform even better in the second half of the year.
I will do another report card at the end of the season, and it will be interesting to compare the grades to this one.