2022 NHL playoff preview: Avalanche vs. Predators

The final week of the season was a parade of unfortunate circumstances for the Nashville Predators.

First, they lose Juuse Saros to an injury that means he’ll be out for the first round. Second, they blew a four-goal lead (!) to the Arizona Coyotes (!!!) on the final day of the season – needing just one point to avoid Colorado in Round 1.

The Predators did not get that one point. Combine that with the untimely absence of Saros and in front of them stands the tallest hill a team has had to climb since the history of this model (going back to 2010).

You know it’s bad when the odds have just a single digit.

For Colorado, this series is as close to a bye as a team can have, similar to last year’s first-round series against St. Louis. In that series, the Avalanche merely approached 90 percent. In this one, they eclipse it.

The Avalanche steamrolled the league despite dealing with injury issues all year. For Game 1, the expectation is that the team will be fully healthy – which is where we’ll see what this group can really do. That’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the league, especially the Predators.

The Saros injury is a real dagger here because his presence would’ve at least given the team hope. Nashville’s odds would’ve still been dire at 14 percent, but at the very least there would be a glimmer where, perhaps, the team’s heavy style could’ve frustrated Colorado to steal a win or two. Add a goalie capable of stealing a series and the series had the potential for spice.

This series, as it stands now, doesn’t have much of it. Eight percent is not zero percent, but damn if it isn’t close enough.

A reason the Avalanche are the heavy favorites in this series is their offense. Few teams can pile on the shots like Colorado can, and they’ve managed to keep up that level down the stretch while missing key players. Meanwhile, their shot quality has improved, and there’s more than enough scoring talent here. And that’s before having a fully healthy roster.

That’ll go against a Predators defense missing their security blanket in goal. It doesn’t help that they’ve allowed a slightly higher rate of shots and expected goals against over the last month of play either.

If Nashville had the offense to make up for what they now lack on the backend without their starting goaler, it’d make for a more interesting matchup – but they don’t. Even with marginal improvements over the last month in what they create, their goal-scoring has fallen short. A rebound in their shooting percentage should give that a boost, but it probably isn’t enough – especially when considering their opponent.

Colorado’s been one of the best at limiting quality chances against this season, and their goaltending has only backed it up. While that defensive play has trended down as of late, it probably isn’t enough of an opening for Nashville.

Interestingly enough, the Predators season-wide power play scoring is at a higher rate than Colorado’s this season. But that doesn’t account for top unit players on the Avalanche missing chunks of time throughout the year – or that they managed to have the better shot generation without them. With them, they clearly have the shooting talent edge, too. Plus it’s going up against a lackluster penalty kill that’s even weaker considering their goaltending situation.

No one’s leaned more heavily on their goaltender than Nashville this season, pushing their starter to 67 starts, or 82 percent of the games. It was precarious given the fact that Saros has never faced a workload close to this magnitude at the NHL level. That’s why they ran the risk of burning him out before the playoffs even began. But some teams have seen stellar postseason runs despite a hefty regular-season workload.

That’s what the Predators were clearly relying on here.

Through 68 games, Saros saved 12.6 goals above expected, earned throughout his 35 quality starts. He led the league with 11 steals, where his play bested the team’s final goal differential. He is the difference-maker the Predators need to even have a chance to get through this series. And unfortunately, they’re out of luck now.

Now it’s David Rittich’s net till the end of their season since chances are slim they make it past this series. Through 17 games played, he’s earned an .891 save percentage and allowed almost seven goals above expected. It’s a swing of 5.8 wins going from Saros to Rittich, to show just how dire the situation is.

Over the last few seasons, true or not, goaltending was viewed as Colorado’s biggest weakness. The Avalanche paid a hefty price to fix that in the offseason by acquiring Darcy Kuemper, and they were right on the money bringing him into the fold. Kuemper has had spurts of elite play in his past, but injuries made him a risky proposition. That reared its head a bit at the beginning of the season, but once he returned his play was exceptional.

For the season, Kuemper had a sparkling .921 save percentage that manifested into 16 goals saved above expected, the fifth-best mark in the league. It was his return from injury in December where he really started to shine. From that point on Kuemper saved 22.7 goals above expected thanks to a .927 save percentage. The goals saved mark was the second-best in the league over the time frame and the hot stretch is what drove his value up all the way to 4.2 wins.

That makes him the league’s sixth most valuable goalie and would’ve put him 0.6 wins behind Saros. That would’ve made this a pretty compelling goalie matchup. Not anymore.

That Colorado has such a rock between the pipes makes all its firepower that much more threatening. The Avalanche just have too many weapons up front that will be extremely tough to contain for the Predators.

That starts with the top line starring Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog – one of the league’s very best. The trio is incredibly productive with MacKinnon scoring at a 111-point pace, Rantanen scoring at a 101-point pace and Landeskog at a 95-point pace. That they all missed time makes their totals look less imposing than they actually are, but it’s not often a team has a full line of players capable of scoring 90 points or more.

When healthy this trio can deliver big value. Together this year they have a 58 percent expected goals rate and have outscored opponents 19-9 at five-on-five. We all know what these three are capable of, but to really drive home just how good they are, their combined worth is 13.6 wins… 1.2 wins more than all 12 of Nashville’s forwards.

What’s more absurd, maybe, is the gap between these two clubs is bigger than just that top line. Colorado’s next nine forwards are on par with Nashville’s entire forward corps.

A lot of credit for that has to go to the out-of-nowhere breakout from Nazem Kadri who scored 87 points in 71 games. That gives the team three players scoring at a 100-point pace or more – and five above 90. That’s absolutely ridiculous and that type of production makes him one of the best second-line players in these playoffs. It’s difficult to discern how much of that is sustainable given Kadri has never come close to approaching those heights, but on this team and on the top power play he seems more than capable of being a high-level producer.

There’s also Valeri Nicushkin’s emergence as an elite power forward. His ability to drive play has always been there, but this year saw his production take the next step, solidifying himself as a dominant two-way force. With limited power-play time, Nichushkin managed 52 points in 62 games, all while playing Selke-caliber defense. His 58 percent expected goals rate led the team, which says a lot on a team like this. He’s an absolute menace on the puck.

Nichushkin’s explosion gives the Avalanche five star-level forwards, something only the Maple Leafs can also say. But on top of those five, there’s also Andre Burakovsky who quietly had a 60-point season in the team’s top six. That he didn’t earn much power-play time makes that all the more impressive as his 2.61 points-per-60 actually ranked third on the team behind Kadri and MacKinnon. The top two lines are absolutely loaded and to Nashville we say, good luck stopping either of them, let alone both.


Matt Duchene. (John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)

The Predators’ star power up front consists of Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene. Yep, that’s it.

For Forsberg, a stellar offensive season has come at the right time since he’s in for a raise this summer when his contract expires. He finished 24th in the league in scoring with 84 points in 69 games. Adjusting for the actual minutes he played moves his scoring rate up to ninth at 4.04 per 60, which is actually the best of any player in this matchup.

The winger is a volume shooter with a deceptive finish that sent pucks into the back of the net a career-high 42 times this season. At five-on-five, Forsberg’s isolated impact on both ends of the ice is the best it’s been in years. Not only can he shoot, but he can be a dangerous passer too.

Duchene, on the other hand, is finally playing up to his price tag after a dismal season last year in Nashville. A shift from center to wing has clearly paid off for the skater who concentrates most of his shots to the quality areas of the ice and has been finishing far above expectations with a career-high 43 goals. Duchene’s puck-carrying abilities help balance the workload of that first line between him and Forsberg – two of the only forwards on this squad who can generate rush chances and cycle shots.

Mikael Granlund rounds out that top line and tends to be the passer between his wings. Together in their 490-plus five-on-five minutes, they’ve been the most reliable line in offensive creation and have scored at an even higher rate. But there are some cracks back in their own zone. Not only do the Predators’ leading forwards not stack up to Colorado’s, but the team’s offensive generation is absolutely dull without them on the ice.

Aside from that top line, the Predators don’t boast many forwards who can bring the puck into the offensive zone with control. And unsurprisingly, that leads to little offense in transition when their best players aren’t on the ice. Rookie Tanner Jeannot has been one of the bright spots in the Predators’ middle-six. He scored 24 goals and 41 points, and about 80 percent of that came at even strength. But aside from him, there’s a lot to be desired.

If the cliche that center depth wins championships holds true, then the Predators are absolutely in trouble because they lack value down the middle – especially between their middle six. Their second line projects to be the weakest in the postseason, with a collective 2.4 projective wins between them.

Even aside from all the star-power Colorado has, the team also has an edge in the bottom six thanks mostly to the savvy acquisition of Artturi Lehkonen. He’s another analytics darling who drives play really well and can influence scoring chance rates at both ends of the ice. He fits in nicely with J.T. Compher and Alex Newhook on a solid, albeit ordinary third line.

On the backend, the marquee matchup is between Cale Makar and Roman Josi.

Josi’s been the most valuable player in Nashville this season. His scoring has been prolific, reaching heights for defensemen the NHL hasn’t seen since Ray Bourque hit the 90-point mark in 1993-94. Finishing the year with 96 points in 80 games, Josi didn’t just finish at the top of the scoring charts among the position, but 12th overall in the league. That boosted his GSVA to fourth among defensemen, behind only Makar, Charlie McAvoy, and Victor Hedman.

That scoring was incredibly impactful on the team’s offensive generation as he earned a point on 63 percent of the goals he was on the ice for. He was one of the best power play quarterbacks in the league, directing play from the point and keeping plays alive with his ability to hold the blue line. With 37 power-play points, he earned a point on 71 percent of the team’s scoring in those situations.

At five-on-five, the Predators have been very tactical with his usage to put him in the best position to succeed. His mainstay partner, Dante Fabbro, has been more responsible for puck recoveries back in the defensive zone so Josi’s focus could be on playing to his strengths. That includes his exceptional puck movement out of the defensive end and into the offensive zone which somewhat helps make up for what most of their forward group doesn’t do.

As great as Josi has been this season, Makar has been better. Time will tell if awards voters feel the same way due to Josi’s historic point production, but Makar influences the game a bit more at both ends of the ice in tough minutes. Of course, it’s fair to say there aren’t many tough minutes when you play on this team, but it’s still notable that Makar does what he does in a matchup role.

It’s not just the fact that he scored 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games this season, it’s how much better a very strong team is when he’s on the ice. At five-on-five the smooth skating defender brings Colorado’s expected goal rate up to 57 percent and the Avalanche also earn 65 percent of the goals. Makar is extremely influential in reaching those heights as he has the ability to command the game with the puck on his stick. And off. He might be the league’s best puck-mover, but his ability away from the puck took another step this year and made him a transcendent force. He was the best player on one of the best teams and that says a lot for a team this stacked.

Of course, it helps to have Devon Toews suited up next to him. By GSVA, Toews ranked fifth in the league this season and that’s not all just because he played with Makar. He’s incredibly apt defensively, a strong puck-mover in his own right and incredibly productive as well. Very few defenders are as well-balanced as he is. He’s a perfect complement to Makar and together the duo makes up the best pair in hockey. Again, the top pair’s collective value of 8.4 wins completely outshines Nashville’s entire defense corps which is worth 6.3 wins in total.

And then there’s the rest of Colorado’s defense which is pretty damn deep itself. Obviously, Makar and Toews are the crown jewels here – but a quartet of Samuel Girard, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and Erik Johnson is pretty tantalizing after them. It’s also a perfect mix of talent on both pairs.

Girard and Byram are the puck-moving cogs here and will make sure the puck gets up to the team’s talented fleet of forwards. Manson and Johnson are the tough customers who can defend down low, play things safe, and allow the more dynamic defenders to roam. It’s a tried-and-true mix and it’s exemplified perfectly here. The addition of Manson should especially help Girard who had a tough playoff and has regressed a fair bit this season after a breakout last year. He can be a lot better and a return to form can be another boost for this talented Avalanche team. As if they needed more help.

The Predators’ defensive depth below Josi isn’t too bad – until reaching that third pair. Fabbro is a complementary partner whose role is strategic to help their number one play at a high level. Mattias Ekholm and Alex Carrier are a fine second pair. A strength of Ekholm’s game is retrieving pucks and moving it out of the defensive zone, whether he simply clears the zone or sends a breakout pass. What also helps is the duo’s ability to limit carry-ins against, with both rating above-average among defenders in the league.

But that third pair together projects to a value of minus-0.9 wins thanks mostly to Jeremy Lauzon, who the Predators questionably acquired for a second-round pick. He’s physical, sure, which teams tend to want for the postseason, but his teams tend to create little to no offense when he’s on the ice. And his defensive play isn’t strong enough to make up for it. Playing Mark Borowiecki instead is a slight improvement in value. Matt Benning rates out slightly better but isn’t anything to write home about, either.

The Bottom Line

There has not been a more lopsided series in the analytics era. It wouldn’t have been that way if not for an injury to Saros, but unfortunately, that’s the way it goes sometimes. What’s left for Nashville is an otherwise average team with a sub-replacement level goalie behind them – a group that just doesn’t stack up well at all to the powerhouse Avalanche.

It would be amazing theater for the Predators to make this one interesting, winning a game or two to keep things entertaining. But with the way the Avalanche have been rolling, it’s difficult not to see this one being short.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and NHL

(Top photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

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