JGD 9: Prey?

The Predators are in town for game five of the Jets’ six-game home stand. Nashville was a mess last year, taking 14th in the West and 27th in league. Their -28 goal differential was miles worse than even Winnipeg’s -16. (Yay for being no worse than plain-old-bad!) In aggregate, the team is well on its way to another disapppointing season with a Division basement -5 goal differential through 8 games, early injuries, mediocre special teams, and an even strength goals for percentage of just 40%. And yet a late (highlight reel) goal in Montreal last night by 4th overall pick Seth Jones puts the Preds into 4th in the Central standings. 

What’s more, the team’s three losses have come against some of this season’s hottest starters – the Avs, Blues, and Leafs. In fact, the team opened the season on back-to-back losses to divisional opponents Colorado and St Louis. Since then, the Preds are 4-1-1. Their shot attempt differential tells a story of a team that is possessing the puck and driving the play like a top 10 team. The Nashville "No Goals" Curse remains, but as always, this club is hard to earn 2 points against. The Predators are a team the Jets absolutely must win games agianst to get a sniff at the post-season.  


All lines from DailyFaceoff.com.

Jets Forwards

  • Kane – Little – Wheeler
  • Ladd – Scheifele – Frolik
  • Cormier – Jokinen – Peluso
  • Wright – Slater – Halischuk 

I’m not positive this will be the lineup again, and the scratches against St Louis were announced very last minute. But the team won with the lineup, so perhaps it will return.

We talked in the post-game about this, but the team won by having a very short bench and luck. The top two lines were around 20 minutes each, and Wright, Jokinen, and Halischuk soaked up their usual 12-14 minute share while being mostly benched in the third. This team can compete when it doesn’t play it’s depth players. But obviously no team can play 82 games that way. Scratching Tangradi and Setoguchi wasn’t a solution, even if it led to 4 minutes of hard-nosed hockey to start the game on Friday.

The solution is icing the best possible lineup, but that’s not something Claude Noel does as a rule. Whatever we see tonight, the truth is that even with Tangradi and Setoguchi in, the team still has 3 to 5 forwards who are struggling to play NHL quality hockey, and at least 3 of them (depending on your point of view) have always struggled to play NHL hockey. 

If I was the GM, I’d trade coach favourite James Wright. I think Noel needs a fresh perspective on his lines.

Jets Defence

  • Clitsome- Byfuglien
  • Enstrom – Bogosian
  • Stuart – Postma
  • Pavelec
  • Montoya

Trouba thankfully only suffered a neck strain in Friday’s game against the Blues. He’s out a couple weeks. And that gives the Jets plenty of time to see just how thin they are at defence. We looked at how this defence group is doing just yesterday. It’s not good news.

Paul Postma grabbed a job and a contract on the back of a good season in the most sheltered role the team could find. His mistakes were still frequent and his gaps iceberg large, but he (almost) scored a little on a team that couldn’t, and he moved the puck on a team that typically chased it like so many dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit. I don’t believe he can be an NHL defenceman on a winning club. He reads the play poorly, and compensates by not making decisions at all. But apparently other teams were interested in him during the off-season, and of course I would be happy to be wrong.

The real problems so far this season come from Mark Stuart and Grant Clitsome. Clitsome has been a disasterous defenceman. He isn’t reading pressure, he has his head down, he’s falling, and of course, he’s turning the puck over at a very damaging rate. He got pulled from the lineup and then returned. He was moved to Byfuglien’s line for St Louis, but during the game was put with Bogosian so that Enstrom could return to play with Buff. Will it happen again?

Stuart, meanwhile, has the 3rd worst corsi % in the entire NHL among defencemen. You don’t have to believe in advanced stats to know that when you’re in Chris Butler territory, you’re not doing well. When other teams badly outshoot your team while you’re on the ice, it’s a problem. Stuart’s puck play is the main problem, as he just can’t make a play with the disc. But he does block shots. So at least he’s being punished for his poor play.

Byfuglien and Enstrom are incredible and spend so little time defending compared to the others. Bogo is fine too. It’s the depth that’s the problem for the Jets.

Predators Forwards

  • Wilson – Legwand – Hornqvist
  • Bourque – Cullen – Smith
  • Nystrom – Spaling – Forsberg
  • Stalberg – Gaustad – Hendricks

Again, this Central Division opponent has depth at forward the Jets can only dream of having. Missing is Mike Fisher – the team’s forward leader in points and minutes – and Rich Clune, who is kinda the opposite. Coach Barry Trotz rolls his lines for the most part, with even strength ice-time ranging from 14:20 for Fisher to 10:20 for Stalberg. Clune is an outlier in just a few games, and even his 7:53 average EV ice time is more than Jim Slater and three other Jets. 

The Predators’ fourth line are all players who played larger roles on other teams. Gaustad is yet another Buffalo refugee in the Central division, and of course, Stalberg was a sought after free agent who signed in the off-season for $3M. 

The Predators’ best line, however, has been Gabriel Bourque/Matt Cullen/Craig Smith. I put their first names in because you might not know them. They have a combined 10 points, +9, and corsi numbers to make you blush. They also get the team’s zone-start advantage – an honour Trotz bestows upon one line annually that he chooses to do the scoring for the whole team. Cullen came over from the Wild, and has always had slick hands and a nose for space. Craig Smith had a putrid sophomore year last year, with just 12 points in 44 games. His bounce back is critical to the team’s recovery. Gabriel Bourque is also in his third NHL year, but has never put up many points, even in the QMJHL. Sometimes generously listed at 5’10" and 200lbs, Bourque is a speedy forward with a lot of grit. Think Brenden Gallagher, only without the mouth. 

As always with the Predators, there isn’t a lot of creativity in this lineup. But everyone can make and take a pass, play positional hockey, and take advantage of opportunities. That’s dangerous for the Jets.  

Predators Defence

  • Jones – Weber
  • Ekholm – Klein
  • Bartley – Ellis
  • Hutton
  • Rinne

The goaltenders are unconfirmed so far today. We await further news. For now, I’ve put Carter Hutton in, who has yet to start a game. On the road in Winnipeg in the second game of a back-to-back seems like a perfect time.

You can see the challenge this team has. Depth evaporates on the blueline. Nashville is still an incredible defenceman factory, as Jones is joining 5 other Nashville draft picks and an undrafted Free Agent signing (Bartley) in the team’s top 7. Currently missing is Roman Josi with a concussion. But it’s a top-heavy group, and Trotz is giving Weber over 25 minutes, Jones over 24, while Bartley and Ellis are getting just 14. In general, that’s not a problem, and Ellis was always considered a powerplay specialist because of his size. But on the second night of a back-to-back, the team risks fatigue.

Weber has been taking huge minutes for years, but Jones is new to it. The Jets need to keep the game close to prevent Trotz from resting his troops, and they need to get aggressive along the end boards. I don’t mean "HIT SOMEBODY!" I mean, their two man forecheck has to approach with speed and their offensive swarm has to be constant. Turnovers come from tired decisions, and this group runs the risk of putting tired brains on the ice. 

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