POSSESSION-- THE PREDATORS BIGGEST QUESTION MARK
by Willy Daunic
As some of you may know, I enjoy analyzing stats (Darren McFarland is laughing right now-- IF he takes the time to read this). In hockey, stats are not always easy to come by. There aren't that many of them, and the basic ones don't tell the whole story (By the way-- if you ever want to get a rise out of Predators TV analyst Terry Crisp, ask him about the merits of plus/minus. Let's just say he doesn't like it). A "stay at home defenseman" cannot quantify his value by his goals and assists.
Fortunately, like in other sports (particularly baseball), there are those that are coming up with stats that can get a better illustration for the true value of the player. It is very difficult, because just like trying to evaluate an offensive tackle in football, in a team game you are relying on the players around you. You can't do it alone. Hockey Prospectus (www.HockeyProspectus.com) is among the groups trying to make statistical breakthroughs in hockey. One of the key minds behind this is Rob Vollman, whom has been a frequent guest on the Predators Pre Game show the last couple of seasons.
One thing that Vollman preaches as one of the most important indicators of team success is something that is quite logical but often not focused on (not unlike On Base Percentage was for decades in baseball until Moneyball changed things). It's a concept that Crispy (who ironically is "old school" and loves to rip on me for looking at stats too much) taught me years ago. We were watching practice one day late in the 2007 season and the Predators were among the best teams in the league having acquired Peter Forsberg (this was before the rash of injuries that would doom that team). I asked Crispy "what do you think this team's biggest weakness is?". Without hesitating, he took a piece of paper and spelled out one word: P O S S E S S I O N. Then he began scribbling some X's and O's as to why the Preds were vulnerable in that area.
I don't think I totally got the X and O part that Crispy drew up, but it's a pretty easy concept overall:
If your team has the puck, the other team can't score.
Now-- back to Vollman. He has started calling himself "The Human Buzz Kill" every time he comes on because recent Predator teams have baffled him due to their weakness in the area of possession. He consistently preaches doom for Nashville because of this, yet the Preds seem to have an uncanny knack for overcoming it. According to HP's stats, Nashville ranked 2nd to last in the NHL last year in puck possession in the following category: 5 on 5 situations in which the score is close. This is the most true indicator of a team's ability to control the game over the long haul. Nashville had the puck only 46% of the time in this situation, yet still ended up with the 4th seed in the Western Conference. More often than not, the team with the puck more (not coincidentally) will have more shots. But look at the Predators record over the last 3 seasons when being outshot by their opponent:
W L OTL
The Predators have been outshot in 58% of their games over the last 3 years, but they have been able to win 54% of those games plus get a point in 15 other contests. It is impressive, but continues to concern Vollman. In fact, if you read the Preds preview in HP, it's downright terrifying. Vollman believes is that eventually the law of averages will catch up to Nashville, and they will regress. How were they able to overcome this lack of possession time? Here you go:
1. Pekka Rinne
2. Pekka Rinne
3. High Shooting % (another category stat heads believe you can't count on consistently)
4. Great Power Play (#1 in the NHL last season)
5. Relatively good health (156 Man Games lost- #1 in the NHL according to HP)
6. The Preds' knack for "keeping the other team to the outside". The concept is "bend but don't break". Not ideal, but they are good at it.
7. Pekka Rinne
So can they keep this up? It's a legitimate concern. Losing Ryan Suter won't make it any easier. But players that Nashville acquired late in the season and then re-signed (Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad) should help because they will be available for the full season. A good way to gain possession of the puck is to win the faceoff, which is Gaustad's specialty. But the best theory of how the Preds can improve is the collective improvement from the young core of players that gained valuable experience last season (Gabriel Bourque, Nick Spaling, Matt Halischuk, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Craig Smith, and Colin Wilson). Their continued development will be critical.
We'll be checking in with "The Human Buzz Kill" a few times this season. We'll see what the numbers look like. Of course, the only numbers that REALLY matter will be W's, L's, and Pts.