For the second installment of this series, let’s shift things over to the Western Conference to discuss the Coyotes vs Predators. The Coyotes are looking to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season when they beat the Preds in the Conference semi-finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champs (LA Kings). The Predators will be looking to enact some revenge, but do not let the seeding mislead you, these two teams were only separated by four points (Preds with a game in hand) and they split their season series at one win a piece.
This series will not have the same firepower as the Hurricanes vs Rangers one we discussed last week as there are only two players with over 50 points in this series, one of which is a defenseman. The Predators finished smack in the middle of the league in terms of Goals For with 3.07 per game this season but they only had one player finish with 20 or more and that was Filip Forsberg (21 goals). What Nashville lacks in top level production has been offset by a deep forward group with 10 players scoring over 30 points, all averaging roughly a half point per game. Depth scoring and a physical style of play have been the Preds mantra this season which you will see in this video.
The Coyotes are built in a bit of a similar way, they failed to get much production from their forwards this season ranking 23rd in the league in Goals For (2.71) despite bringing in guys like Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall. As you will see in this article, the Coyotes rely on team defense from all five guys on the ice and they generate the majority of their scoring chances off the rush but fail to establish sustained pressure in the Offensive Zone. The Yotes do have a lot of young emerging talent in guys like Schmaltz, Dvorak, Garland and Crouse who will all need to build off their regular season and produce at a higher rate if they want to win.
The Predators take the edge on Forward due mainly to the fact that they still have a lot of the same guys who went to the Stanley Cup final in 2017 while the Coyotes have very little experience outside of Stepan, Soderberg and Phil the Thrill.
If you have read any of my previous articles this one should come as no surprise, it’s the Predators without question. Starting with Norris candidate Roman Josi as the pillar of this group, he is paired with Canadian World Junior’s legend Ryan Ellis who is an incredible, tough two-way defenseman. Ekholm is one of the best shut down guys in the league and he will be relied upon to help Fabbro get through some of the playoff jitters as he only has six games of experience. These four will be expected to shoulder the majority of the work load but the Preds have some solid third pairing depth with names like Hamhuis, Holzer, Weber and Tinordi.
This is not to say that the Coyotes do not have their own skill on the back end, but as I mentioned in the forward’s breakdown, this team relies on team defense from all five guys on the ice. Arizona has significantly more playoff experience on their blue line than they do up front in guys like Ekman-Larsson, Demers, Hjalmarsson and Goligoski all have previous experience with different clubs, winning a couple of Stanley Cups between them as well.
Like I said, nothing against the Coyotes defense, I just think that the Predators top four are that good.
Before even reading any of this article or taking a moment to reflect on this season, I am willing to bet most people said Nashville has the edge but you would be wrong. Pekka Rinne has been a rock for the Predators for years but as he gets up there in age, a young Juuse Saros has emerged as the starting goaltender. This is not to say that he is not a capable goaltender, but as you will see, Darcy Kuemper is the backbone of the Coyotes roster.
For Arizona to have a chance they will need Kuemper to continue his unbelievable play from this season. The Coyotes finished fourth in Goals Against this season (2.61) and despite Raanta playing a few more games for the Coyotes, Kuemper was in fact the team’s best player every time he played. He finished the season with the third best Goals Against Average (tied at 2.22) and Save Percentage (0.928) in his limited capacity. Playoff success starts with the goaltender in my opinion, making this a very big advantage for the Coyotes.
The Predators have one of, it not the worst Special Teams units of the 24 teams remaining in the Return to Play which was a contributing factor to the firing of Peter Laviolette back in January. Their offensive struggles this season were very apparent on the Power Play as they only converted 17.3%, ranking them 25th in the league. Things only get worse on the Penalty Kill as the Preds were only successful at killing off 76.1% of their penalties ranking them near the bottom in the league (29th overall). I do not have the splits under Hynes vs Laviolette, but the Preds will need to drastically fix this or they risk special teams being the reason they fail to make the playoffs.
The Coyotes Power Play was decent, ranking middle of the pack in the league at 19.2% (18th overall) but as you guessed, they really separate themselves from the Predators on the Penalty Kill. Ranking fifth in the NHL this season, the Coyotes killed off 82.7% of their penalties, a far cry from where Nashville finds themselves proving that Tocchet’s team defense philosophy applies to every facet of the game.
Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller
The Coyotes took Keller seventh overall back in 2016 with the expectation that he would be a key member of the team’s core. After a 20+ goal and 60+ point rookie season, Keller’s numbers have dropped the past couple of seasons despite becoming a more complete player on the ice. Keller’s offensive upside is undeniable, he previously held the record for points with the USNTDP before that mark was beat by Jack Hughes last season. If the Coyotes are going to win, their best players need to be their best players and that includes Keller who will need to find another gear and get back to scoring at the rate he did in his rookie season.
Nashville Predators: Dante Fabbro
Nashville has been a defensive factory over the last five or six years, constantly shipping guys out to make room for prospects they have coming up. In his first full season with the Preds, Fabbro immediately took the spot of PK Subban who was traded to New Jersey and fit in very well despite not having the same offensive upside. If Fabbro can shut down the opposition’s top lines and put up a point of two offensively, this will go a long way in solidifying what could be the best defense core in the Qualification Round.
Forward – Predators
Defense – Predators
Goaltender – Coyotes
Special Teams – Coyotes
X-Factor – Coyotes
Winner – (6) Nashville in 4
Quickly I forgot to mention Rangers in 5 in my last article, but getting back to the series at hand, despite the Coyotes having three of the five categories, I just think that playoff experience will shine through for the Preds. The Coyotes will get some much needed experience of their own, they still have a very young team at the moment that should be ready to make a deep push in a couple of years. I think that Kuemper will win one game for his team and keep them competitive in the others. I predict Game 1 will go into OT with Nashville taking the win, leaving the Coyotes to wonder what could have been.