They probably won’t set their league’s single-season win record, but the 2016-17 Nashville Predators will finally provide hockey’s answer to the Golden State Warriors.
The Washington Capitals drew this tag last season thanks to their Presidents' Trophy-winning campaign, but the comparison was flimsy even before the Caps’ short playoff run. Relying so much on Alex Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby—hockey’s answer to the isolation scorer and rim-protector, respectively—is antithetical to Golden State’s team-first, ball-distribution offense.
After the P.K. Subban-for-Shea Weber trade, the Predators have the Warriors’ same winning combination of an innovative system and the personnel to execute it. And like Steve Kerr’s system, Peter Lavioette’s succeeds by redefining positions. It allows defensemen to play more like forwards, pinching as far as the goal line in the offensive zone and carrying the puck end-to-end. Granted, Nashville is not the only team to give their defensemen the green light to do this, but the Predators make it a feature, with at least one player abandoning the blue line on every offensive possession.
For those hockey fans who don’t watch basketball: Golden State improved from a good team to a budding dynasty in large part thanks to its ability to play “small” better than any other team. By using speedy skill players at the frontcourt positions traditionally manned by hulking Shaquille O’Neal-types, the Warriors create match-up problems on offense.
The trade-off in a basketball team going small seems to be the length they give up on defense. But the benefits far outweigh the costs. And like defensive defenseman in hockey, the classic big man in basketball is going the way of the dinosaur. Consider this explanation from Deadspin of how Draymond Green makes the Warriors’ smallest lineup work:
But this version of the Warriors plays smallball better than just about any team ever has, and it works because of Draymond Green. Look, I’m a Warriors fan and have spent the entire season stanning for Green, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Despite being much closer in size to a small forward than a center, Green really frustrates guys with half a foot and 40 pounds on him. Their eyes light up and they try backing him down, only to find that he is strong with a low center of gravity, and rebounds well too.
This description reminds me of a player Nashville already has: Ryan Ellis. The defenseman generously listed at 5’ 10” was supposed to be the offensive dynamo that bigger forwards could take advantage of in Nashville’s zone. Well ask Wayne Simmonds how that worked out for him.
Ellis on Shea Weber’s Predators, however, was like Draymond Green on a Warriors team that had kept Monta Ellis instead of Stephen Curry. On a great team, a role player who perfectly fits a system is an All-Star. On a good team, he’s a curiosity.
During last season’s playoffs, Ellis and his partner Mattias Ekholm, along with Mike Fisher’s forward line, created a group of five that terrorized opponents like Golden State's “death lineup” or "lineup of death" (their smallest configuration, with Green at center). This goal, on which Ellis plays like a fourth forward, was typical:
The problem with the Preds was their starting lineup, the one they went to before they went "small." The weak link was Weber.
While the B-Unit had the right personnel to realize Laviolette’s exciting vision for how hockey should be played, Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg suffered from Weber’s misadventures at getting the puck out of Nashville’s end. The first step to having an exciting offense is ... being on offense. Weber played defense entirely to prevent the other team from scoring (which he did well), not to quickly convert defense into offense. This strategy hurts at both ends, however, as prolonged shifts in the defensive zone—even well-defended ones—eventually lead to more goals against and fewer opportunities to score.
That’s why trading for P.K. Subban so dramatically transforms the Preds. First, he makes the team much better. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the statistics are pretty cut-and-dry on his being an upgrade over Weber. Secondly, Subban’s ability to rush the puck and play up in the offensive zone allows the Preds to consistently play the style they had employed for only a third of their games.
That’s not to dump on Weber, a player I once un-ironically counted as a childhood hero. As I wrote in my deep dive on his average advanced statistics, Weber is as good as anyone away from the puck—protecting the slot, preventing zone entries, winding up for one-timers. But he handled the puck like live hand grenade. And if a team is going to be the Golden State Warriors of hockey, everyone has to touch the puck, especially its best players.
I wrote a similar piece on P.K. Subban from the opposite perspective—trying to figure out why the Canadiens always seemed annoyed with him. I used a football metaphor to explain the disconnect, and for the sake of clarity, I’m going to limit this piece to two sports. But I did conclude that “he could also be the best player in the league if someone would just let him loose.” The Canadiens were right—Subban fell sometimes short, but within the stupid parameters they set for him. Weber will succeed in playing the safe game they desire, in which the player makes no obvious errors. And they will lose a lot of "mistake-free" games.
The Predators, on the other hand, could perfect a style exemplified by the Sharks' Brent Burns last season, in which defenseman have to be accounted for defensively as forwards. But even San Jose signed Paul Martin to play with Burns as a safety measure. The Predators will likely be going all out with Subban, Roman Josi, and forwards Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and James Neal. How's that for a lineup of death?