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Newly signed forwards could find career rejuvenation with Nashville


Jul 15, 2014


At the end of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Nashville had a handful of centers in their lineup already en route to the opening bell of the 2014-2015 season. Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Paul Gaustad, and Calle Jarnkrok all have the potential of playing center for Nashville in the upcoming year, but figuring out who was going to be placed where was already a problem for the pundits.

Most, including myself, thought that with the loss of Mike Fisher and prompt signing of Olli Jokinen would keep things status quo for the Predators going into the summer months leading up to preseason. At first look, the signings of Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy throw a huge wrench in trying to figure out line placements for October. Even after tearing the roster apart and attempting to find out where the new faces would be best-placed, it still resembles a murky bog at best.

As I try to dissect where Nashville’s three new forwards will excel on the current roster, I find that each player’s past could hold a key into why the Predators feel each will excel in their new environment., an absolute gem of a resource for all types of NHL statistics (especially those relating to possession, competition, and deployment), brings up some fascinating similarities between Jokinen, Ribeiro, Roy, and three centers who are no longer with the organization.

(Note: I’ll be touching on many advanced statistic terms in the remaining parts of the article. If you are unfamiliar with advanced hockey analytics, I encourage you to read James Nelson’s guide to understanding them. It’s basic, to the point, and truly helps to “crack the code” in developing a basic understanding)

At first glance, seven centers in an organizational lineup is a tad extreme, even for Nashville. However, the Predators utilized the services of seven players classified as a center in the 2013-2014 season:

Matt Cullen
Mike Fisher
Paul Gaustad
David Legwand
Craig Smith
Nick Spaling
Colin Wilson

While some were used more than others, the fact still remains that they used seven centers. That doesn’t include the acquisition of Calle Jarnkrok in return for David Legwand near the end of the season, either. In their usage, it was clear which players were used in which circumstances. Their stats alone echoed that.

Paul Gaustad is a great example. Last season, Gaustad was started in the defensive zone 49.7% of the time he was on the ice. No other center, or any player on Nashville’s roster for that matter, came anywhere within 10% of that number. With Gaustad centering Nashville’s fourth line, it’s to be expected that his role would be primarily composed of defensive zone starts. David Poile and Barry Trotz, while he was head coach of the Predators, both have made the fact that Gaustad would continue in that role well known.

On the other end of the spectrum, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson saw considerably less on-ice starts in the defensive zone than nearly ever player on the team. Yet, both enjoyed relatively high start percentages in both the neutral zone and offensive zone. While it worked wonders for Craig Smith, the same can’t be said for Colin Wilson.

What stood out as odd though was the near-balanced deployment for David Legwand, Nick Spaling, and Mike Fisher. With Legwand and Spaling now with new teams and Fisher out for a considerable amount of time, the trio were Nashville’s all-purpose centers last season:

Mike Fisher: 30.3% offensive zone starts, 32.0% neutral zone starts, 37.7% defensive zone starts in 75 games with Nashville last season

David Legwand: 32.3% offensive zone starts, 34.8% neutral zone starts, 32.8% defensive zone starts in 62 games with Nashville last season

Nick Spaling: 31.9% offensive zone starts, 36.5% neutral zone starts, 31.6% defensive zone starts in 71 games with Nashville last season

Now, compare those numbers to how Nashville’s newest signees were deployed last year:

Olli Jokinen: 29.9% offensive zone starts, 34.4% neutral zone starts, 35.6% defensive zone starts in 82 games with Winnipeg last season

Mike Ribeiro: 48.2% offensive zone starts, 32.2% neutral zone starts, 19.6% defensive zone starts in 82 games with Arizona last season

Derek Roy: 41.4% offensive zone starts, 34.5% neutral zone starts, 24.1% defensive zone starts in 75 games with St. Louis last season

Immediately comparing the two, it doesn’t make much sense to consider these three as replacements. All three of the new forwards experienced one of their worst seasons in the NHL last year, statistically. It showed on the ice in their production:

Olli Jokinen: 18 goals, 25 assists (Sixth worst season when playing 50+ games at the NHL level)

Mike Ribeiro: 16 goals, 31 assists (Second worst season when playing 50+ games at the NHL level)

Derek Roy: 9 goals, 28 assists (Worst season when playing 50+ games at the NHL level)

As well as in their possession stats (in this case, Fenwick):

(Note: ExtraSkater defines Fenwick For as “a measure of the number of unblocked shot attempts by a team or player. It’s the same as corsi, but excludes shots that are blocked”)

Olli Jokinen: 229 Fenwick For events

Mike Ribeiro: 138 Fenwick For events

Derek Roy: 164 Fenwick For events

In that respect, though, the Fenwick For of Jokinen/Ribeiro/Roy compared very closely to that of Fisher/Spaling/Legwand who recorded 226, 109, and 189 Fenwick For events last season respectively.

Unfortunately, with the statistics that ExtraSkater provides, they only go back through the 2010-2011 season, yet that is more than enough to explain what Nashville may possibly see in these three centers and why they will more than effectively replace Fisher, Legwand, and Spaling.

Beginning with the 2010-2011 season, it’s necessary to examine each player’s best season in that timespan (including the lockout-shortened 2012-2013). For Olli Jokinen it was his 2011-2012 season with the Calgary Flames, where he registered 23 goals and 38 assists in 82 games (fifth best year in his career). For Mike Ribeiro it was his 2010-2011 season with the Dallas Stars, where he registered 19 goals and 52 assists in 80 games (third best season of his career). For Derek Roy, it was his 2011-2012 season with the Buffalo Sabres, where he registered 17 goals and 27 assists in 80 games (sixth best year in his career).

While Roy’s 2011-2012 season was actually second-worst in his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres, it still helps explain my ultimate point.

First, let’s start with each player’s Fenwick For events for those respective years:

Olli Jokinen (2011-2012 with Calgary): 277 Fenwick For events

Mike Ribeiro (2010-2011 with Dallas): 227 Fenwick For events

Derek Roy (2011-2012 with Buffalo): 232 Fenwick For events

All over 200 and considerably higher, meaning they forced more unblocked shots on net in those seasons than last year. Now, take a look at how they were deployed:

Olli Jokinen (2011-2012 with Calgary): 30.6% offensive zone starts, 37.7% neutral zone starts, 31.7% defensive zone starts

Mike Ribeiro (2010-2011 with Dallas): 32.2% offensive zone starts, 38.8% neutral zone starts, 29.0% defensive zone starts

Derek Roy (2011-2012 with Buffalo): 30.0% offensive zone starts, 37.8% neutral zone starts, 32.2% defensive zone starts

What you see above is balanced deployment, just as in the case of the three forwards they are most likely replacing from last year’s roster. When each player saw relatively equal time in all three zones, their offensive production tremendously increased.

Could this be the effect that Nashville is trying to replicate in signing these three?

From what I’ve gathered just by looking at recent statistical patterns, Nashville has cumulatively replaced Fisher, Legwand, and Spaling for the upcoming season over the course of the previous two weeks. While there is zero guarantee that the Predators will put Jokinen, Ribeiro, and Roy in the same situations as their predecessors, it’s reasonable to assume that doing so could potentially provide Nashville with a statistical depth they haven’t seen for nearly a decade.

All three players were signed to low-cost one-year deals with the Predators after poor outings with their previous teams. All players are trying to prove they still have something left in the tank. In the case of both Ribeiro and Roy, it could even be a last chance. These are all low-risk, high-reward signings for Nashville.

Poile has always been a man that doesn’t jump to rash decisions and will sign players that best fit the organizational makeup of his team. While it’s yet to be seen how Peter Laviolette’s “offense first” system will work for the Predators, the analytics already show that Nashville may have received an early Christmas present with the three new forwards added to the lineup.