Analysis: Why are the Preds so offensive?

Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 10:45pm
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It was no secret that the Nashville Predators did not bring in any offense prior to this season — not with a top free-agent signing, a trade, or the return of a scorer who fled to Russia. Their hope was to find it from within.

Following early victories last week, including a 5-3 win at Edmonton, there seemed little doubt that they have done exactly that.

The Edmonton game was the 17th in 47 outings this season that Nashville scored at least four goals, and it lifted them to 10th in the league at an average of 2.81 goals per contest. It also put them on pace for 230, which would be just the fourth time in franchise history they scored at least that many.

Since a 4-3 victory over San Jose back on Nov. 17, the Predators have not gone more than three games in a row with fewer than four goals.

At the same point last season, they had just 10 games with four goals or more. They had a stretch of 17 straight from late November to early January in which they scored three goals four times and fewer than that in the other 13.

Fourteen of this season’s top 15 scorers were with the organization a year ago, and 13 of those 14 spent at least part of that campaign on the Predators’ roster. Last season’s top nine point producers all returned, and no one with any significant NHL offensive credentials was added.

So what’s behind the upturn in offensive output?

A combination of health, opportunity and simple improvement seems to have provided the formula.

Some players are getting their first real NHL opportunity and taking advantage. Others are playing, unlike a year ago when health issues kept them out of action. Still others simply are producing at a level they have not in previous years.

In most cases, the comparisons to last season’s team, which finished 24th in the NHL in goals-per-game, are obvious. Take a look at where the Predators have found additional goals this season (all statistics through last Tuesday’s game at Edmonton):

Patric Hornqvist (right wing)

With a team-leading 18 goals, he is on pace to become just the fourth player in franchise history to score 30 in a season.

He also is a virtual lock to join David Legwand, Martin Erat, Shea Weber and Alexander Radulov as the only players drafted by the Predators to score 20 in a season for the organization.

In fact, unless he gets hurt or melts down, he is likely to surpass Radulov’s 26 goals in 2007-08 (Rads’ last season before defecting to Russia) for the most ever scored by a Nashville draft pick.

The 23-year-old Hornqvist had just two goals in 28 NHL appearances last season, his first in North America. He had that many in his second game of this season and two other times since has scored two in a game.

Most importantly, he has been productive regardless of whether he has been plugged in on the top line because of injury or played down in the lineup. In 2008-09, the Predators’ most versatile forward likely was Vernon Fiddler, who scored 11 goals for the season.

Marcel Goc (center)

Signed as a free agent shortly before the start of training camp, the 26-year-old got his ninth goal last week at Edmonton.

Modest though that number might be, it was one more than his previous career-high for a season and two more than he scored in the last two seasons with San Jose combined — a fact that he attributes to more playing time with the Predators (more than 18 minutes per night in recent games) than he ever got with the Sharks. His goal total also was as many as Radek Bonk scored in 66 games in 2008-09.

Because of his faceoff proficiency and defensive dependability, Goc effectively was a younger, cheaper replacement for Bonk who already has paid serious dividends. He has been particularly productive on the road, which means he has made the opposition pay for its efforts to match up against Nashville’s top lines.

Steve Sullivan (left wing)

Sullivan’s offense — in this case, 10 goals in 47 games — is no surprise to anyone. Keep in mind, though, last season he was not even in the lineup until the second half, and 47 games into the schedule, he did not yet have a goal.

The fact that he has been healthy enough to be one of only three Nashville players to have appeared in every contest thus far has been a significant bonus. His consistent presence has meant the team has had at least two top forwards every night even though Erat, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont have missed some time with injuries.

Martin Erat (right wing)

The most consistent knock against Erat through the years has been that he too often carries with the puck and looks to pass rather than get to the net or shoot.

With 10 goals in December, he briefly assumed the team lead and used his speed more consistently in the proper way. The 28-year-old entered this season with nearly twice as many career assists (201) as goals (102), but with 35 games to play in this one he had more goals (15) than assists (13).

At his current pace, he will score roughly nine or 10 times more than he did in 2008-09 and will surpass his career-high of 23 set in 2007-08.

Cody Franson (defense)

No one ever will confuse this rookie defenseman with Shea Weber when it comes to the ability to blast the puck at 100 miles per hour or more.

That said, the 22-year-old has three goals in the first 35 games of his NHL career. That’s as many goals as Weber and his defense partner, Ryan Suter, combined for in their rookie season.

It’s also one fewer than Greg Zanon had in all of 2008-09. In fact, it’s one fewer than Zanon had in his final two seasons (160 games) with the Predators.

Jerred Smithson (center/wing)

Still a defense-first player and a key penalty killer, the 30-year-old collected six goals in 37 games before being sidelined by an injury. That already was the second-highest total of his career.

Even if he gets two or three more for the remainder of this season, he will at least double his 2008-09 total at a roster spot where such jumps just are not expected.

So, can this trend of career-best possibilities continue, and does it need to continue to give Nashville a real chance of moving deeper in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? The answer seems to be: yes and yes.

Then again, it doesn’t matter who scores, just that you do score. And right now, scoring is not a problem for the Predators.