Hockey

Needing to fire Peter Laviolette isn’t a huge surprise. Hopefully, it’s a feeling we’ll get here one day, as that will mean the Hawks hired him in the first place. He’s a good coach, maybe even a very good one, but his style tends to grate on players pretty quickly. He burned himself out in Philadelphia, but the Flyers haven’t really been the same since, and it’s kind of amazing he lasted as long as he did in Nashville. It’s no surprise they had their greatest success under him as well.

But eventually the time comes when the players are sick of his act, and the Preds clearly were. This is not a team that should be floating outside the playoff spots, or even anything close. It was built to compete for the Western crown, not slap-fighting with the Coyotes over the leavings. And yet here we are.

But hiring John Hynes smacks of GM David Poile only having half of a plan. He knew he needed to fire Lavvy but didn’t have any idea who should replace him. And then he was forced to hire what was out there, which was Hynes.

Hynes’s claim to fame is that he happened to be standing behind the bench when Taylor Hall went on a “Fuck Edmonton” world tour after being traded to Newark, earned a Hart Trophy, and dragged a thoroughly unimpressive Devils team to the playoffs where they were promptly thwacked by the Lightning. The Devils never came close to the playoffs since, and in fact that was the only year that the Devils even finished above .500.

Sure, Hynes was never given a real roster to work with, and maybe that’s the best he could do. He certainly helped transition the Devils from a war crime to a fast-moving team, but that was a few years ago. The Preds already were that. So why is he here?

Poile will tell you it’s to improve their defensive game, as they’d become lax under Lavvy. Ok, how’s that going? Under Lavvy, the Preds were still one of the better possession teams around, ranking 8th in the league in Corsi-percentage at 52.8. Under Hynes, they’re 22nd at 48.2. And they’re giving up five more attempts per game than they were before the firing. But hey, they’re also generating four less attempts too!

When it comes to xG%, the Preds under Laviolette were again top-1o, ranking 8th at 52.5. Hynes has managed to fuck that up too, ranking 20th since he was hired (behind the Hawks!) at 49.6. Oh, and their xGA/60 went from 2.08 to 2.37 since the change. This is going well! We’ll give Hynes this, at least the attack has stayed steady at 2.3 xGF/60 per game. He hasn’t blown everything up yet.

Hynes has even gotten better goaltending than Lavvy did, with Juese Saros has at least shown some competence of late whereas before Hynes was hired neither Saros or Rinne could find their ass with either hand. And yet the Preds have still gone just 10-8 under him, which isn’t exactly the bump Poile would have been hoping for.

This isn’t a team built to play defensively, and if it isn’t skating with its hair on fire it can be awfully open. But that’s how they were designed, with their go-go defense. Hynes hasn’t been helped by Ryan Ellis being out for his entire stay so far, but there’s more than enough here to do better with. It’s also not Hynes’s fault that Johansen and Duchene spend most of their time having money-fights in the dressing room, but he was probably brought in with the idea that he could get them to snap to attention. Still waiting on that one. This is still a team where a d-man leads them in scoring by 17 points!

There probably can’t be a more clear exhibit of how in the NHL if you get one job, you get 17. Hynes never did much in New Jersey and yet somehow ended up with a better team in Nashville. And when this goes balls-up, which is looking soon, you can bet he’ll get another job because someone will think if the Predators hired him he must be good. And so it goes.

Hockey

One of the things people marvel about the Nashville Predators is their stability. John Hynes, hired this week, is only their third coach in the 20 years of their history. They’ve only had one GM, and that’s David Poile. Something about southern loyalty or whatever. One might have to ask though…why?

Because when you total it up, the Preds record of success doesn’t really justify keeping things the same this long. There are two division titles, both in the past two years, and one Final appearance. The latter was their only journey even beyond the second round. It’s always spurious to judge a team merely on playoff success, because the sport itself and the playoff structure can be so random. But we’re talking about 20 years here.

On regular season parameters, the division titles could be a touch misleading. There have been regular 100+ point seasons, including three of the last five. If you’re gobbling up over 100 points, where you finish in the division is again, sort of random, basically however many overtime or shootout points you or the teams you’re competing with have gathered.

Still, this isn’t like the Lightning who kept losing to the eventual champion. The Preds lost to those same Hawks in ’15 that the Lightning did, and outplayed those Hawks for at least three of those six games and saw Pekka Rinne undo all that work. But last year they lost to the ultra-boring Stars and the year before that it was the Jets, and each of those then bit it in the next round.

Still, after 20 years, you’d think more than one Western Conference championship would be required to keep David Poile in the GM chair. And he may be out over it now.

Poile fired Peter Laviolette, because the Preds have been amongst the favorites for a few years  and are currently out of the playoff picture. The pressure is clearly being felt, and expectations are clearly not being met. This isn’t just a good time for home and visiting fans alike anymore. The feeling that the Preds might miss their window is starting to get palpable in Tennessee.

How much responsibility does Poile take for this season? Or last? Well, last year is a mixed record. The pickup of Mikael Granlund made all the sense in the world on paper. Is it Poile’s fault that Granlund completely flattened out upon arrival? You could make the argument either way. The acquisitions of Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds only made the Preds slower and dumber, and harkened back to the 1st round pick given away for Paul Gaustad. It’s something that Poile has had a weakness for during his entire tenure. They certainly didn’t provide enough dash to get through the blockade the Stars were putting up in the first round.

This year? Again, Granlund not adapting to a team and style that should have hit him between the eyes isn’t totally on Poile. He sacrificed PK Subban because they had depth on the blue line, which they always seem to have, so they could sign Matt Duchene. And yet even with Duchene, no forward is scoring at a top-tier, first-line forward rate. Forsberg leads with 30 points in 36 games. Duchene has 29 in 39, which is kind of what he’s always been. This has been a bugaboo of the Preds for a while, no true game-breaker up front other than maybe Forsberg, and you still have to do some back-bends to call him that.

But then, most GMs’ and coaches’ fortunes simply hinge on PDO, and mostly on their goalies. The Preds do everything mostly right. They’re top-ten in Corsi and expected goals percentages. They have the puck most of the time. What they can’t get is a save, and especially on the penalty kill. The Preds have a .798 SV% on the kill, which has sunk both Rinne’s and Juuse Saros’s overall SV% below .900. Is that on Poile? Because if you go by the chances their PK is giving up, the Preds actually have a good kill. But it doesn’t matter if the goalies let every chance in. Certainly no one was advocating for the Preds to make changes in the crease in the offseason, if Rinne is turning into dust now.

But it’s never that simple in these calculations. If the Preds miss out, you have to feel there will be a house-cleaning. One wonders what Poile thinks he’s going to get out of John Hynes, who only had a good season in New Jersey when Taylor Hall said so. It reeked of a desperate move without a plan. Was Hynes really in the wings all the time to replace Laviolette? If so, why? Lavvy certainly has a shelf-life, but is it his fault that Rinne nor Saros couldn’t stop a sloth on the penalty kill? Did Poile only pull the trigger when Hynes became available?

Maybe Hynes knows how to get Ryan Johansen away from the postgame spread and playing like a top line center again. Maybe he can juice Viktor Arvidsson. But what’s clear is that the Predators aren’t content to be everyone’s cute little getaway anymore, and perhaps for the first time since they actually played games, they might be on the lookout for a new GM.

 

Hockey

vs

Game Time: 7:30PM CST
TV/Radio: NBCSN, NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
David Poile Is A Scumbag: On The Forecheck

If the Hawks record and stagnant roster weren’t a self evident indication of how rudderless and sclerotic this Organ-I-Zation has been since its most recent playoff ouster at the hands of tonight’s vistors, the Nashville Predators, then the fact that the Preds fired Peter Laviolette earlier this week while remaining ahead of the Hawks in the standings should drive the point home. But it remains unchanged that the Hawks are still outwardly holding the product on-ice to a playoff standard, and tonight poses yet another opportunity to gain points on a team they are currently (on paper) battling for a playoff spot, an opportunity which will surely end up being pissed away in creative fashion as so many others have the past two seasons.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 9-12-5   Predators 17-8-1

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: WGN

KISS MY GRITS: On The Forecheck

There’s no such thing as sympathy in the NHL, so even if you’re getting your dick knocked in the dirt night after night, the next team on the docket is going to be real excited to repeat the punishment. So it is for the Hawks, who head from one division favorite to another and the one actually on top, the Nashville Predators. And even in their beat-up state, you fear how quickly it could get out of hand if the Hawks don’t straighten the fuck up. So, cheerful, eh?

Let’s start with the Hawks. Henri Jokiharju will return after an illness, and looks to be paired with Duncan Keith again. The Keith-Forsling Axis Of What The Fuck? never really worked, though it didn’t work for the same reasons that the Keith-HarJu pairing has struggled at times. Both players are inclined to be aggressive and get up the ice, and only one is supposed to play that way. The HarJu is more defensively inclined than Forsling though, and overall this pairing has done ok this season. So it’s good and proper to have it back. But you can look forward to more tweets from us about Keith having to change his game when he gets caught outside the circles again.

That slots Forsling down with Gustafsson in what can only be called “adventure time,” and Brandon Manning and Brent Seabrook are paired in what can only be called “fuck my life.”

Cam Ward looks to be the starter, which is fine because Crawford hasn’t been all that good and could use the extra day. The lines are going to pretty much stay the same, with Dylan Strome at least starting between Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. Jeremy Colliton went away from it in the 3rd against the Jets but will give it another go. To maximize what they do well and to eliminate as much of what they don’t as possible, they really should only start exclusively in the offensive zone. Toews’s and Kampf’s line can do the defensive starts if need be, and you don’t want any of Kane, Top Cat, or Strome there either.

Right, the Predators. The headline, other than their marvelous and expected record, is that a good portion of their team is on a trainer’s table. Kyle Turris, Viktor Arvidsson, and PK Subban all will miss out tonight, and Arvidsson is a long-term casualty. It’s put a dent in their mojo, as they’ve lost three of the last four, including getting capsized at home by the Coyotes and getting trounced by the Blues. So if there was ever a time to catch the Preds, it would be now. If the Hawks were anything resembling a coherent outfit, that is.

If there’s a bone to pick with Nashville, is that they can look a touch short on scoring. With Arvidsson out, Filip Forsberg is the only player with more than eight goals in the lineup. Ryan Johansen has gone back to “Treat Boy” status, and Ryan Hartman isn’t going to continue to shoot the lights out forever. Subban was chipping in a bit from the back, points-wise at least, but he’s out now too.

Another quirk of the Preds is that their power play is just as bad as the Hawks’ somehow. It won’t get any better with Subban out, but then again there isn’t a power play that the Hawks’ kill can’t cure.

Given how the Hawks play defense, there’s no reason to think that Peter Laviolette won’t turn the Preds up to 11 and pressure them all over the ice. The Hawks simply can’t match their speed, though they played them pretty tough last year, going 2-2-0. Still, if the Hawks can find their way past what will be a furious forecheck (they can’t), they can get some rushes and chances in the open ice behind it.

Of course, waiting there is Pekka Rinne, coming off collecting his first Vezina and dead-set on getting a second. He’s your clubhouse leader, as he leads the league in GAA, SV%, even-strength SV%, and difference between his expected save-percentage and his actual. He’s simply been brilliant, so you can have a great game and still lose because you can’t pierce him. Which is great for a team like the Hawks that struggle to score.

It’s the Flames tomorrow night, who are playing some of the best hockey around. Which means if the Hawks can’t find another gear and some stability in their own end, they’d be a Top Cat miracle goal from losing seven in a row and 15 of 17. Not that 14 of 17 is that much better.

The season is on the very edge of the precipice. Maybe they should act like it on the ice…or perhaps they’ve already accepted their fate.

Game #27 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 23-19-7   Predators 29-11-7

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN Nationally, NBSCN Chicago locally

MANY MORE OF THEM LIVE NEXT DOOR: On The Forecheck

When you biff what should be the easier part of your schedule, that means you have to get it done against the harder part of the schedule. But hey, why not go for degree of difficulty when you’ve got nothing else to lose? The Hawks begin a pretty tricky stretch of the campaign tonight, with their post-All Star break slate taking them to the West’s best team (yes they are, fuck off Vegas) before heading back out West which didn’t go so well last time. And if the Hawks have any designs on making something of this season, they don’t get any mulligans anymore.

And this is probably not the time to be catching the Predators, even if this comes one game early for Filip Forsberg’s return (not that he regularly torches the Hawks or anything). They’ve won seven of the last eight, and the only loss in that time was losing a game of pitch and toss to the Lightning. So yeah, they haven’t been beaten in regulation since January 2nd. They just got done thwacking the Devils in New Jersey before the break when they barely cared. If you’re looking for a silver lining, and you’ll have to dig, these wins haven’t exactly come against world beaters. The Yotes twice, the Kings, the Oilers, and the Panthers are the trophies on the wall for the month of January. Fuck, even the Hawks beat the Oilers twice.

While the Preds only sit one point back of the Jets and have three games in hand on them and are thus poised to show them a clean pair of heels right quick, there are cracks in the foundation underneath this team. While usually a staple of Peter Laviolette team, this team metrically is not very impressive. They’re exactly a dead-even possession team at 50 CF%, and they actually give up way better chances than they create with a pretty paltry 47.7 xGF% as a team. If you go by scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance percentages, they’re in the bottom third of the league in those as well.

Some of this can be attributed to Ryan Ellis only having played the last couple weeks, but that can’t explain it all. As good as Ellis is in both ends of the ice, one player is not making this up or at fault. The Preds don’t create as many chances per game as you’d assume they do given their speed and depth. Pekka Rinne has had to pull their ass out of a sling pretty often, and when he hasn’t Juuse Saros mostly has. That’s who the Hawks will get tonight as Rinne is preserved for a couple more days after the break.

The Preds lack of punch could be a matter of just pacing until the spring. It could be that Ryan Johansen has looked like the over-fed pile of earlobes that he did at times in Ohio and not the dynamo who’d eat your heart last spring. Totally not a coincidence that he signed a new contract that pays him $8 mildo until the sun swallows us all this summer, then.

The Preds have been picked up by their depth though, with Fiala, Smith, and Jarnkrok all scoring more than 10 goals off the top line. And as they do, they pour goals and points in from the back end, with PK Subban leading them in scoring and Josi and Ekholm both having more than 20 points as well. The return of Ellis only exacerbates this, and though Josi and Ellis are playing together at the moment Lavvy always has the option of splitting them up and having scoring threats on all three pairings. They’re about the only team in the league that can threaten that.

For the Hawks, there don’t appear to be any changes from last Thursday’s demolition of the Red Wings, and nor should there be. We want to see Top Cat get more chances to play with actual talent, and if anyone is going to wake up Brandon Saad it’s Patrick Kane. The third line is still something of a jumble but the 4th line is definitely more interesting as a speedy Pollock painting than whatever it was Wingels and Bouma did (though Wingels is still ahead of Sharp on the third line, which is fine). Anton Forsberg gets the start after being solid enough against Detroit.

This month is filled with games against teams either right around the Hawks or ahead of them, aside from Vancouver on Thursday and they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory last time they were there. They see the Flames twice, Ducks, Stars, Wild, Kings and Sharks. This ain’t do disco, this ain’t no time for foolin’ around.

 

Game #50 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Everyone’s darling. It’s always so much fun when the Canadian media “discovers” that hockey can be enjoyed somewhere else other than some main artery in Toronto or that one strip of bars in Calgary where everyone wears a jersey because they don’t actually own anything else. Of course, this also happened in 2012 when the Canucks played the Predators in the 2nd round and they were shocked to discover the Nashville fans had better and more fun traditions than, “two college kids ripping off a game from It’s Always Sunny,” and “waving a towel.”

Whatever, the Nashville Predators made the most noise they ever have in the playoffs last year, and outplayed the Penguins for a good stretch of the Final. But in the same vein as, “didn’t, lawyer fucked me,” they went the, “if only Pekka Rinne was actually as good as we keep telling people he is” route for defeat excuse. Here’s the thing though: Pekka Rinne is still here. And he’s a year older.

Nashville Predators

’16-’17 Record: 41-29-12  94 points (4th in Central, lost Final to PIT)

Team Stats 5v5: 51.3 CF% (5th)  51.3 SF% (7th)  50.7 SCF% (14th)  7.8 SH% (13th)  .926 SV% (9th)

Special Teams: 18.9 PP% (16th)  80.9 PK% (15th)

Everything Else

Here was a headline that caught me somewhere uncomfortable the other day:

“Ryan Johansen’s Blockbuster Deal Could Set Up Predators Dynasty”

Ambitious stuff for a team that’s been past the second round exactly once, don’t you think? Look, I get it. Best top four on the blue line in the league, arguably. A raft of fast, young forwards not bereft of skill. A pretty good coach, though has a track record of flaming out quickly in places. A rabid fanbase and unique (whether you think it’s good or bad) atmosphere that tends to cloud the judgement of neutral observers (don’t tell me that doesn’t happen). A division where everyone appears to be standing still at best, if not falling backwards. Really, who else in the Central has an upward trajectory at the moment? So it’s easy to fall in love with Nashville.

But let’s take a look, shall we?

Everything Else

When I said I couldn’t quite get a handle on this series, I wasn’t saying I expected to see the weirdest Final game of my lifetime (and feel free to correct me on this one). We may never see a team that has won three rounds to get here go 37 minutes(!) without a shot again. And we’re even less likely to see any team come close to that and still win. That was an all-timer. But I suppose in a building where less than a week ago an entire crowd was going apeshit over a puck that went on top of the net and not in it, anything is possible.

I actually had some flashbacks to the 2010 series against the Predators watching last night, and even some of the one in ’15. You’ll recall seven years ago in the first three games the Preds simply sat on the boards at the points in the Hawks’ zone, essentially trapping there instead of in the neutral zone. They dared the Hawks to go up the middle or try and find the time for flips out to center, and it took Brian Campbell’s return and a wake-up from Quenneville (and a small, boneheaded play from Martin Erat that I certainly don’t think about every single day) for the Hawks to crack it.

It was some of the same stuff last night.

Everything Else

Of what was on offer, Penguins-Predators is by far the most palatable matchup, and will probably provide the best hockey. And it will look really odd on high definition televisions, which I’m here for. And it also probably provides the most talking points. I’ll try and get through them all, if I can remember them.

-This postseason has seen the most discussion of “styles” that I can remember, whether it was how boring the Senators were to whether or not the Penguins have somehow cracked a “counter-attacking” style against the Caps and a few other things. I suppose the one downside–there are assuredly others that I want to ignore–of a lot of hockey writers being soccer fans was making connections between a team like Leiceister City winning the Premier League and a hockey team trying to do the same thing.

The problem with this thinking is it’s a lot easier to sag back in soccer and still be a good defensive team than it is in hockey. If you’re causing all the shots to come from 25-30 yards in soccer, that’s fine and if someone crashes one in that’s more just bad luck. In hockey goals from points shots that are screened or deflected are far more common, so it’s best to just not give them up at all.

Both Ottawa and Pittsburgh are in the bottom half of playoff teams when it comes to scoring chances against per game, so both have needed strong goalie performances to get where they are. Same with high-danger chances. They’ve been ok, but hardly great. Meanwhile, the Predators have been highly effective in limiting the types of chances teams get, which is probably the big advantage in this upcoming Final.

Everything Else

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Game Time: 8:30PM CDT
TV/Radio: CSN. CNBC, SportsNet 1, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Returning Conquering Heroes: On The Forecheck

Let it never be said that the core group comprising this era of hockey in this city can’t find new ways to surprise its adoring, albeit psychotic and reactionary public. After one solid game they probably should have won, and one that started fine but got away from them in a hurry, they head on the road down 0-2 in a series for the first time under Joel Quenneville.