Brian Donogh/Winnipeg Sun/QMI Agency
The NHL season is barely a month old, and there are certain teams that have shined bright in the early going. Two of them happen to be in the Central Division. Here’s what’s been going on in Nashville and Winnipeg:
After a very busy offseason for the Preds, they are showing the world that they are relevant again. They hired a new head coach in Peter Laviolette and acquired some new offensive talent in James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, and Olli Jokinen. This Predators team looks entirely different than last year’s. They are scoring goals at an unprecedented rate. The players are playing faster than ever, and shooting more than ever.
One of the biggest difference-makers has been James Neal. He is shooting at an incredible pace. He is third in the NHL in average individual Corsi per 60 minutes (average shots attempted per game) in close gameplay (tied or within one goal) with 22.82. Last season, the Predators’ leader in the same stat was Patric Hornqvist, finishing 28th in the league with 17.70. Neal is providing an offensive boost not found in Nashville in years.
Another player making an impact is rookie Filip Forsberg. He played less than 25 games with the Predators last season, so he is still considered a rookie. Under former head coach Barry Trotz, it looked as if Forsberg was restricted in a way. He wasn’t in a system that fit his play, and the stats showed it. Last season, when Forsberg was on the ice, the Predators registered a Fenwick for percent (shots attempted-shots blocked for vs. against) of 42.2% (zone start adjusted), while opponents had a FF% of 50.1% (zone start adjusted). This means that Forsberg did not make his team better while he was on the ice; in fact, he made his team worse. This season, the numbers tell a different story. While he is on the ice, the Predators’ FF% is 53.1% (zone start adjusted) while opponents had a FF% of 49.8% (zone start adjusted). In Laviolette’s system, Forsberg is making the Predators even better.
For a few years, the Thrashers/Jets franchise has been consistently mediocre. Not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a top pick and develop a superstar. This season, they may have a chance to turn it around. They got off to a bit of a slow start, losing five out of their first seven games. But, as the calendar turned to November, they began to string some wins together. They beat talented teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Blackhawks.
The biggest problem with the Jets is that they don’t have a true stud scorer like many teams in the league. The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane, the Predators have James Neal, but the Jets have no true scorer. They have a handful of skilled forwards, like Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, and Evander Kane. Many of their wins have been very low-scoring, even against offensively-inclined teams like the Blackhawks. As a result, their stats are low. Winnipeg ranks 18th in team FF% in close games with 50.1%. They are outshooting their opponents, but barely.
However, winning erases the need for all of these stats. If they can find a way to continue winning tight games, they will be an unexpected force come April. They probably won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll make life difficult for teams contending for a spot.
STATS COURTESY OF STATS.HOCKEYANALYSIS.COM