Play-In Preview #3: Nashville vs. Arizona

An Analytical Breakdown of the NHL's Play-In Round

Game #6 Preview: Arizona vs. Nashville

Let’s be real right off the bat: this isn’t a series that most neutral fans are going to be seeking out. But there are reasons to think it could be compelling. The Predators probably recognize that their contention window is narrowing, with Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund unrestricted on “July 1st” and Josi and Ellis at their absolute peaks right now, and are chasing a run. Meanwhile, the Coyotes are on the verge of their first ever playoff appearance under John Chayka’s, uh, interesting tenure. On top of the relief of finally reaching that goal, getting in would validate the Hall trade to some extent and protect them from having given up a lottery pick. Luck of a five game series aside, Arizona has a path to victory here thanks to their exceptional goaltending, but will it be enough? I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck.

Play-Driving

None of these teams is going to blow anybody away from a possession standpoint, both hovering around 50% xGF% at the end of the season, with Nashville having a small edge in quality chances, shot attempts, and quality games. The biggest gap between the two comes from the difference in actual goals for percentage and skater goaldriving (GF - xGA), driven primarily by the Predators’ high shooting numbers. This is a clean sweep for Nashville, but the silver lining for the Coyotes is their upward trend in both expected goals and goals since December contrasted with the Predators’ descent as the season has gone on. Winner: Nashville

Team Offence

If you wanted an illustration of what “regressing to the mean” looks like, the Nashville Predators’ monthly timeline would be a pretty good candidate. They got ridiculous shooting in the first half of the season, outscoring their expected goals by over a goal per 60 minutes in October and November. That calmed down in January and February and plummeted in March (albeit in a short sample). So their gaudy WAR, goals for, and shooting numbers are probably unsustainable. Nonetheless, even their expected goal numbers are superior to Arizona’s. As with the play-driving, the good news for the Coyotes is that they were trending upwards when the hiatus hit. They also have a slightly better powerplay. But it’s hard not to give the edge to the Predators. Winner: Nashville

Team Defence

Both of these teams are in a similar tier defensively, and had similar trajectories as the season went on. The Predators have the advantage in defensive WAR at even strength and on the powerplay, but Arizona is the superior team in terms of both expected goal and actual goal prevention. Their goaltending, consistently excellent for the past three seasons, was just outside the top five despite an injury to starter Darcy Kuemper, and the Coyotes outperformed their xGA in four out of six months. Before the hiatus, both teams were trending in the wrong direction, allowing more and more expected goals, but I still think this will be a pretty defensive series. Winner: Arizona

Forwards

Nashville’s forward group has a clear edge over Arizona’s. The Coyotes have a decent level of depth across their top nine, with decent threats on every unit. However, the lack of top-end talent is a huge issue, especially on the first line; Hall would have to suddenly regain his past form to elevate what projects as the 28th best top line in the league. The only advantage that Coyotes have is the second line (specifically offensively), and the defensive play of the fourth line. Aside from that, it’s all Preds. Their bottom six is the best in the league by a large margin, due in large part to the exceptional third line. In over 400 minutes, Grimaldi - Bonino - Smith had a jaw-dropping 72% GF% and a 57% xGF%, one of the most effective lines in the league. Turris and Arvidsson might not be the players they were a few years ago, but they are certainly nothing to sneeze at on a fourth line. Winner: Nashville

Defencemen

This matchup looks a lot different than it would have just a few years ago. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis each put together Norris Trophy contending seasons, and their pairing was predictably one of the league’s best with a 64% GF% and a 58% xGF%. A rapidly declining Oliver Ekman-Larsson (whose even strength performance is no longer even above average) can’t compete with that. However, the Coyotes do have a depth advantage; Jakob Chychrun had an exceptional season, and Niklas Hjalmarsson has been one of the league’s best defensive defencemen for the better part of a decade. Ekholm and Fabbro looks like a strong pairing on paper, but Fabbro’s utter lack of offence makes him a poor substitute for a 2017-era PK Subban. Finally, Goligoski and Demers might be aging but they make a much better duo than a washed up Dan Hamhuis and sub-replacement Korbinian Holzer. That being said, Josi and Ellis are going to play so much and are so much better than anything the Coyotes have that I have to give the Preds the overall advantage here. Winner: Nashville

Goaltending

Here’s where things really get interesting. Before getting injured in December, Kuemper was firmly in the Vézina conversation, continuing his exceptional tenure in the Coyotes with an excellent start to the season. He didn’t return to the lineup until late February, and he picked up where he left off at even strength. He was the 3rd best starter in the league at even strength and in all situations by dSv% despite some struggles shorthanded and average rebound control. Saros, on the other hand, started very poorly but steadily improved throughout the season, finally taking the starting job from Pekka Rinne. He ranks above-average overall, is very strong on the penalty kill, and has decent rebound control.

If Kuemper can play the way he did in the fall (and briefly in March) the Coyotes have the advantage here - they also have more depth in this position as Antti Raanta was solid this season as well. But don’t write off Saros, who got better and better as the season wore on. Winner: Arizona

Conclusion

This is a very different Nashville team than we’re used to seeing in the playoffs - they don’t have an overwhelmingly frightening top four, aren’t star-studded on the wing, and don’t have a Vézina candidate in the net. But they do have two Norris contenders on their top pair, and the league’s best third line and bottom six. This team probably won’t contend for a Cup, but they should be good enough to make it into the playoffs. The Coyotes have improved in 2020 while the Predators have stumbled both offensively and defensively; after four months off, it’s really not clear how that will impact things, but it’s worth keeping in mind. I can also see Kuemper stealing at least a game - and maybe the whole series - on his own. But Saros is more than good enough to hold his own, and the Predators’ overwhelming advantage outside of the net is reason enough to give them the edge here. Prediction: Predators in 4.