NHL column: Mikael Granlund, Juuse Saros and changed powerplay is the recipe – Nashville ignores analyzes and tips and is in the race to the playoffs

Mikael Granlund is one of the NHL’s ten most effective centers and is Nashville’s most versatile forward. Granlund plays powerplay, boxplay and is the only Predators forward who averages over 20 minutes per match. Goalkeeper Juuse Saros, in turn, is the team’s most important player. The blue and white duo’s strong autumn form is a big reason why Nashville is doing much better than tipped.

Finland’s Swede Robin Salo is this week the main snack in Yle Sport’s NHL podcast. Mattias Simonsen and Anders Nordenswan also speak to AHL Finns and wonder that for a decade and a half, Aleksander Ovetjkin has been allowed to hit pucks unhindered from exactly the same point.

After the sleazy home loss to Vegas on Thursday night, Nashville slipped to the wrong side of the playoffs. Until then, the Predators had stubbornly stayed among the teams that were on their way to the season’s goal – and that was something that went against really all tips.

After last season, the Predators looked like they were entering a phase of new construction. Stjärnbacken Ryan Ellis and goal thief Viktor Arvidsson were eliminated at the same time as the icon Pekka Rinne ended his career and no significant new names came in the opposite direction.

The club’s only GM so far (since 1998) David Poile has nevertheless stubbornly insisted that Nashville can succeed here and now. To underline his position, he coined a completely new term: “Competitive rebuild”. No one but Poile knows what it means, but the season has started well.

David Poile speaks in Nashville's home arena.


David Poile, esteemed club leader. And eternal optimist.

Bild: Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

After 19 games played, Nashville had a victory percentage of 55.3 and for example during the last normal NHL season, 2018/19, it would have been enough for the playoffs from the Western Conference. Admittedly with a wild card, but still. All tickets to the playoffs are enough.

What now inspires optimism for friends of Nashville is that Predator’s game system has been incorporated, all five can realize it and three key factors for success work: powerplay, goalkeeping and core players’ performance.

However, Nashville takes on too many expulsions – fifth most of the league’s 32 teams – and does not have the pieces to compensate for setbacks with real goal parties at the other end.

It’s certainly a truth with modification – when it comes to powerplay, the Predators have really partyed.

Awesome powerplay with a changed system

Expulsions to Edmonton do not pay off – everyone knows that. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid make sure the Oilers have the league’s deadliest powerplay – almost 40 percent of PP opportunities lead to goals. However, it may come as a surprise how strong Nashville is in powerplay.

Before the losing game against Vegas, the Predators were actually the second best PP team of the season. 28.9 percent of the opposing team’s expulsions had led to goals for Nashville. Against the Golden Knights, the team swamped a number of PP chances and the percentage is 27.3 and the placement dropped a couple of pinholes.

It’s still a trifle: last season, only eight teams had a worse PP percentage than Nashville’s 17.8. The season before, Nashville’s powerplay was the sixth worst in the NHL and in the 2018/19 season, it landed in last place out of 31 teams with 12.9 in PP percent. As you know, many matches are decided in powerplay.

Where did that happen then? According to an analysis article on the NHL’s own website mobility is the main reason for Nashville’s reborn powerplay. Previously, the players applied for their designated PP positions and the game became static, predictable and relatively easy to defend against.

Now the players actively exchange positions with each other during a powerplay and position themselves flexibly according to what the game and the situation invite. This has led to you succeeding in tearing apart the decimated team’s boxplay formation and playing to more shots from the best possible position.

In addition, Nashville wins the most PP draws in the entire league this season (64 percent against 51 last season), which often directly leads to a good shot, or to control of the game.

An important change is also that the hill that directs powerplay – read: Roman Josi – is now in the middle and not close to the rim that Ryan Ellis liked to do.

And then there are other good guys on the ice when the Predators play PP. A key player in Nashville’s powerplay is Mikael Granlund, who is making the season of his life.

Granlund is better than ever

The question is whether 29-year-old Mikael Granlund, who is in his tenth NHL season, is not the biggest positive exclamation point among Finns this autumn?

The former prodigy has now established herself in the role of center. It was in that position that he broke through in the past, but during the years in Minnesota he was moved to the edge.

Now center-Granlund is back and also as Nashville’s leading midfielder. This means that he is the team’s playing time king among the forwards and is on the ice in both powerplay and boxplay as much as he just goes ashore with.

Granlund has thanked for the trust. It is not only in Predators that Granlund stands out. 19 points in 19 games places him at the time of writing in a shared ninth place among all NHL centers. He is also the most efficient blue and white center right now.

The playing time average of 20.35 is among the top 15 among the league’s centers and of the Finns, only Barkov has cut a larger load. Time to state the fact: Mikael Granlund has, a little in the shadows, sneaked in among the center elite in the NHL.

Mikael Granlund passes the puck.


Mikael Granlund is playing hockey of his life right now.

Bild: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY/All Over Press

Coach John Hynes’ confidence, the game system that requires hard work all over the ice and extremely suitable teammates. These are the cornerstones of Nashville becoming the right environment for the guy who already looked like he was heading downhill in his career.

Granlund works very well together with another player that many have already figured out – Matt Duchene. The men are first and second in Nashville’s internal scoring: Duchene has 8 + 12, Granlund 4 + 15 and a large part of both of them ‘fine starts depends on how they find each other on the ice.

The other core players who must deliver if Nashville is to succeed are the team’s only superstar, team captain Roman Josi, finally healthy top forward Filip Forsberg, fullback Mattias Ekholm, center Ryan Johansen and the team’s most important player: Juuse Saros.

Of that quintet, Ekholm, with a new lucrative long-term contract in his back pocket, has a lot to improve on, while Josi is as good as ever and skilled Ryan Johansen finally seems to have shaken off his weakness. Forsberg scored two goals in the comeback, so he looks sharp.

Saros in turn has mostly been really good.

Saros can still raise the bar

With 926 minutes played so far, Saros’s league is playing time six. The save percentage of 91.7 is good, but not brilliant. If you compare him with the others in the dozen who have played over 850 minutes so far, he is still seventh.

Saros rises a pinhole to a split six with John Gibson when comparing the average of goals conceded: 2.53 for the duo.

In other words, Saros definitely belongs to the league’s goalkeeper elite, has a high routine level and gives his team the opportunity to win almost every night. At the same time, everyone who has seen Saros really hot knows that there is still more in him – in the winters of 2020 and -21, he was for a long time the league’s best goalkeeper.

Juuse Saros waves to the audience.


Juuse Saros is currently the NHL’s only Finnish first goalkeeper.

Bild: Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

This is Saro’s first season as a given number one. He knew in good time that it would be so, which often becomes a real test for the goalkeeper’s psyche. Saros has passed the test gallantly and now that the season again seems to be a single long fight for the Predators, it feels likely that the fighter Saros will only get better.

Something that ordinary statistical meters do not show is how well Saros plays when it comes to winning here and now. All NHL goalkeepers are extreme winners, but even the Predators goalkeeper stands out in that group with how good he gets when matches stand and weigh.

Fully lit and coal stove at the same time. That’s the recipe for the ideal goalkeeper – and a definition of Juuse Saros.

Thanks for reading.

Sources: naturalstatrick.com, nhl.com, leftwinglock.com, tennesean.com

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