Special team play is always a key to success in the National Hockey league. This year, with a compressed schedule, the teams with the best special teams units might have an even bigger advantage.
On the surface, this would seem to bode well for the Predators. Nashville had the No. 1 power play (21.6%, best in franchise history) in the NHL last year and the penalty kill ranked 10th at season’s end. Nashville was one of three teams that placed both units in the Top 10 (Pittsburgh and Vancouver were the others).
Replacing Ryan Suter was always going to be a challenge. The condensed schedule magnifies that challenge. In an 82-game season, you can have a sub-.500 month and be all right. Under the unique circumstances the schedule creates this year, one bad month could kill any hope of making the playoffs. This makes replacing Suter more difficult.
Suter led the team in power-play ice time (3:41 per game) and power play assists (22) last season, and he was on the ice for 45 of the 54 power play goals the team scored.
Suter missed 15 games over the last two seasons. In those 15 games the power play converted 7.6% of the time. In the 149 games with Suter, the power play converted 19.7% of the time.
Suter and Shea Weber developed great chemistry during their seven seasons playing together. That chemistry was no more evident than their work together on the power play. Suter’s hockey IQ and passing skills were the perfect compliment to Weber.
The good news is Weber and his booming slap shot are back. Weber has scored more power play goals than other defenseman since the start of the 2005-2006 season.
The other positive is the stocked cupboard. The team’s top two young defensemen – Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi – have offensive ability. Finding that chemistry Suter and Weber had will be key. With a shortened training camp and no preseason, that will be a challenge early on. Josi’s puck skills should complement Weber in due time.
One other factor as it relates to the condensed schedule is playing time. Weber and Suter logged 200-plus more power play minutes than any other defenseman on the roster. As the season progresses, Coach Trotz might look for opportunities to rest Weber. With Josi and Ellis, the Predators have enough skilled depth to take some of the load off of Weber and use Ellis a power play or two more often.
The Predators re-signed their top two trade deadline acquisitions, Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad, so the penalty kill should be in good hands. With Gill in the lineup, the PK was a stellar 51-for-57 (89.5%). With Gill and Gaustad, the PK was an otherworldly 34-for-37 (91.9%). As long as the two are healthy, the Predators have enough other pieces to fit around them.