Qualifying round preview: Nashville vs. Arizona

The Predators and Coyotes hope forward upgrades will translate to playoff berth.

The Vegas Golden Knights will face St. Louis, Colorado and Dallas in the upcoming round robin tournament, the results of which will determine conference seeding heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which are set to begin Aug. 11.

But most Western Conference teams that just made the trek to the Edmonton bubble will be facing elimination in best-of-five qualifying series. As we approach the resumption of the NHL season, we’ll take a look at each of the four qualifying series. Next up is Nashville vs. Arizona.

Nashville and Arizona split the season series, with each team winning one game in regulation; the Coyotes won the Oct. 17 meeting 5-2, while the Predators took home the Dec. 23 game by a final score of 3-2.

Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators made a few big changes last summer by trading P.K. Subban and bringing in Matt Duchene on a massive seven-year, $56 million contract in an effort to add more scoring.

The Predators got off to a strong start early on, going 8-3-1 in October, but insufficient goaltending quickly led to lost opportunities, and Nashville followed that up with a 4-7-2 effort in November. Ultimately, the Predators finished the season with a 35-26-8 record, good for fourth in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference. They will take on Arizona, the No. 11 seed, in the qualifier round.

The Predators averaged 3.07 goals per game and gave up 3.10, good for 16th and 19th overall, respectively.

Captain Roman Josi led the entire team in scoring with 65 points, a Predators record for points by a defenseman in a single season (let alone a shortened one). The next-highest total was 48, which belonged to Filip Forsberg; the Swedish winger saw a dip in goal-scoring despite maintaining comparable production over the last few seasons, which were shortened by injuries.

Duchene finished third on the team with 13 goals and 42 points, which was a disappointing output, particularly since he scored 70 points in 73 games last year. However, he finished second on the team in Corsi For percentage (54.83) and first in penalty differential, drawing 29.

Mikael Granlund, another relatively recent acquisition, saw roughly a 20 percent drop in production compared to last year, though that was partly due to usage (his ice time went up significantly later in the year). It was another tough year for Kyle Turris (9-22—31), who has not lived up to his billing as the second-line center Nashville traded for and signed back in 2017. He had the second-worst expected goals rate on the team among skaters who played at least 30 games.

Viktor Arvidsson, last year’s surprise sensation who scored 34 goals and 48 points in 58 games (he was on pace for 48 goals), had a very disappointing campaign this year. Most of it can be explained by ongoing injuries, but the raw numbers were underwhelming. He managed 15 goals and 28 points in 57 games; Nashville is hoping he’ll bounce back now that he’s healthy, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t.

The Predators had one player with more than 50 points (Josi, 65), three players who topped the 40-point mark (Josi, Forsberg, Duchene), 10 players with at least 10 goals and 12 players with 30-plus points.

Though special teams were a significant problem (Nashville ranked 25th on the power play and 28th on the penalty kill), it was goaltending that held the Predators back this year.

Despite having two of the best defenders in the game, the Predators gave up 3.05 goals per 60, which ranked 19th in the league. The fact that the team’s expected-goals-against-per-60 rate was 2.61 indicates struggles in the crease; the differential (.44) was the fourth-worst among the 24 qualifying teams, trailing only Minnesota (0.79), Montreal (0.51) and Toronto (0.48). For reference, Arizona’s differential was -0.1.

Pekka Rinne had the worst statistical season of his career and eventually lost the starter’s job to Juuse Saros, who struggled early on but put up strong numbers in the second half of the season, especially down the stretch.

The team made a coaching change in January, firing Peter Laviolette and replacing him with John Hynes, who became just the third coach in franchise history. The Predators went 16-11-1 under Hynes; though the goaltending improved, the defense started bleeding shots and chances, and Nashville’s possession stats dropped across the board.


Elite top pairing

Defense is both a strength and a weakness for the Predators, but the team’s top pairing of Josi and Ryan Ellis is one of the best in the league.

Josi was nominated for the Norris Trophy after a very impressive season that saw him lead the team in scoring and finish second among defensemen in goals (16) and points (65), trailing Zach Werenski and John Carlson, respectively. He led the Predators in power-play production with 23 points and finished third in the NHL in average ice time at 25:47 per game. He finished second in points per game (0.94), once again trailing Carlson.

But Ellis was fantastic in his own right, leading the Preds with a 57.1 percent expected goals rate (Josi managed a 54.5-percent rate) and matching Josi’s 62.1 percent goal share at 5-on-5.

Ellis also finished third in the entire NHL with 4.1 wins above replacement, trailing only Artemi Panarin (4.4) and Elias Pettersson (4.2). He chipped in 38 points in 49 games in a season that was limited by injury.

Josi and Ellis managed a spectacular 58 percent expected goals rate and 64 percent goal share when they were on the ice together at 5-on-5.

Mattias Ekholm is also a solid rearguard for Nashville. Some of his numbers aren’t overly convincing, but that’s more of a reflection on his linemates than it is on his ability.

However, after Ekholm, there’s a huge drop-off, which is where defense becomes a weakness for Nashville.

Ekholm’s primary partner, Dante Fabbro, improved somewhat as his first full season progressed, but he’s better suited as a third-pairing defenseman at this point in his career.

The Ekholm-Fabbro pairing should have been more effective, but it was a bubble line possession-wise and a sub-par line in terms of goal differential.

After Fabbro, things get significantly worse, as any version of the Predators’ third pairing is the worst in this series.

That lack of depth theoretically precipitated the trade-deadline deal that sent Matt Irwin to Anaheim in a package for Korbinian Holzer, though Holzer isn’t exactly a step up.

Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber and Jarred Tinordi are the other main defensemen, with Hamhuis likely to start on the left side alongside Holzer. Fabbro (11), Hamhuis (8), Tinordi (5) and Weber (3) combined for 27 points in 193 games, good for a collective points-per-game pace of 0.14. Offensive upside isn’t a necessity for depth defensemen, but it becomes an issue when so many defensemen fail to drive play and fail to score.

Fortunately for Nashville, the Predators have one of the best pairs in the league that carries the offensive load (Ekholm chipped in 33 points as well). But Josi and Ellis can’t be on the ice the entire game, which leaves holes and vulnerability.

Other than Josi, Ellis and Ekholm, every other Predators defenseman finished with an expected goals rate under 50 percent on the year (all were below 46.7 percent at all strengths, including Ekholm, though that’s more a result of his partner since he led the team in most categories in 2018-19).

Arizona certainly can’t match the talent level of Josi and Ellis, but the overall matchup on defense is closer than it should be given Nashville’s supporting cast.


The Predators had one of the more effective offensive groups in the league, notwithstanding the fact that Nashville didn’t get superstar performances from any forwards this season.

The Predators finished ninth in the league in overall shot share (51.45 percent) and fifth in shots per 60 at 5-on-5 and at all strengths (32.21, 32.62). They finished 11th in the league in expected goals percentage (51.53) as well as seventh in goals per 60 (2.76) and sixth in goal share (53 percent) at 5-on-5.

The true crown jewel of the Predators’ offense is the third line, however, which had an incredible season this year. Nick Bonino, Craig Smith and Rocco Grimaldi formed one of the best third lines in the league. Not only did they combine for 97 points, but their possession numbers were stellar.

Specifically, the line produced a 54.78 Corsi for percentage, a whopping 72.5 goals for percentage and a 57.1 percent expected goals rate, leading to 4.3 goals per 60 and 3.05 expected goals per 60. That last discrepancy could indicate a slight regression is in store, but at least two of the three players are proven scorers.

It’s nothing new for Smith (18-13—31) to be classified as an underrated producer; had the season finished, it’s safe to say this would have been his sixth season with 20-plus goals.

Bonino (17-18—35) was part of the famous HBK line and won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, but 2019-20 was his best offensive season with the Predators. He matched his production from last year in 14 fewer games, and it was his highest goal total in three seasons in Nashville.

Grimaldi is the least experienced and has the lowest profile of the three, but he set career highs across the board with 10 goals, 21 assists and 31 points.

One interesting development out of camp is that Hynes is putting the JoFA line back together despite the fact that it got limited time this season (124 minutes at 5-on-5) and wasn’t that effective. In the past, the trio of Ryan Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson was quite potent; in 2018-19, the line managed a 57.35 percent expected goals rate and made up three of the top four scoring leaders on the team (along with Josi). Hynes is hoping they will rediscover that success now that they’re healthy and reunited.

That leaves Duchene with Granlund and Turris on the second line; that line wasn’t overly strong this season, as they managed a 48.76 expected goals percentage. However, Duchene recorded 10 points in 10 playoff games last year with Columbus, and Granlund could get hot and take advantage of his increased ice time.

But even Nashville’s fourth line has talent, as Calle Jarnkrok scored 15 goals and 34 points while playing up and down the lineup; he could be moved up to the second line if Turris struggles early on.

However, the fourth line does have quite an anchor in Austin Watson, who could end up in the lineup for Game 1 because of his agitating style. Watson finished last on the team among regular skaters in most possession metrics, including goals against per 60 (4.19), goals for percentage (36) and expected goals percentage (37). Other options for that fourth-line spot include Colin Blackwell and Yakov Trenin, but it appears to be Watson’s for the time being.

It’s not as though Watson plays eight minutes a game, either. In fact, his average time on ice per game was 11:37 during the regular season (for reference, that’s more than Tomas Nosek, Nicolas Roy, Ryan Reaves and William Carrier). But that’s part of Nashville’s overall tendency to not lean heavily on its star players, at least when it comes to the forwards. On the season, no Predators forward averaged more than 17:48 per game.

Once Hynes took over, Granlund averaged 19:07 per game (the highest among forwards), while the rest of the forwards saw 16:45 or less.

It will be interesting to see if Hynes changes that up moving forward, especially if he wants the JoFA line to get going.


Goaltending uncertainty

On the whole, the Predators got brutal goaltending this season, which cost them many games, especially early on.

Among goalies who played at least 30 games, Rinne finished 44th out of 45 with an .895 save percentage, and his 3.17 goals-against average was good for 41st. Both were the worst marks of his career.

The 37-year-old gave up at least four goals in 14 games and five-plus in seven. He started just five total games in February and March, getting pulled in two of them.

That’s because Saros took over the crease in the second half of the season, and his numbers improved significantly. However, he was problematic for Nashville for much of the season as well. He gave up at least four goals 11 times and put up similar numbers as Rinne early on.

That being said, he got the nod 14 times and played in 16 games in the last six weeks of the season, at which point he was the de facto starter, without question. In that time, he went 10-4-0 and recorded a 2.02 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. If you include January, those numbers were slightly lower (2.22, .934) but still solid, though Rinne got twice as many starts in that month.

Even so, Saros led the entire NHL in goals saved above expectation from January on (13.19).

That was quite a difference from earlier in the year. In fact, the numbers are particularly staggering when you separate the last six weeks of the season. Rinne got even worse in limited action, while Saros put up rather impressive numbers in an increased role.

Nashville goaltending: A tale of two seasons

PlayerTime frameGPStartsWinsLossesOTLSOGAASV%HDSV% (5v5)GSAx
Rinne10/3 - 1/3131301711333.050.8950.866-17.72
Rinne2/1 - 3/105513104.010.8960.806-3.64
Saros10/3 - 1/31242078413.170.8940.764-11.43
Saros2/1 - 3/101614104032.020.9400.83612.63

But the starter for Game 1 remains up in the air, which makes Nashville’s goaltending a potential liability, especially compared to Arizona’s, which is rock-solid.

Rinne is an experienced veteran who is three years removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and two years removed from a Vezina. His playoff numbers in the last two years (3.08 goals-against average and .904 save percentage) were not compelling, especially considering last year’s early first-round exit.

Saros has long been touted as the future of the Predators, but he took several steps towards making that a present reality this season. There’s no denying that he was far superior to Rinne this year, especially in the second half. Not only was he better than Rinne, but his save percentage and goals saved above expected were among the highest in the NHL. He may not have the playoff experience, but he was the better goalie in 2019-20.

The pause and subsequent four-month hiatus from hockey is what complicates things. Will the reset be enough to help Rinne recharge and come out strong with a blank slate, or will he exhibit more of the same? Saros was red-hot at the time of the pause, but there’s no guarantee he can pick up where he left off.

There are arguments for both goalies, especially since Saros got off to such a slow start this year (he gave up 14 goals in his first three starts). But the Predators haven’t gotten good postseason goaltending in the last few years, and no one in Smashville wants a third straight year of an early summer (so to speak).

Arizona isn’t exactly an offensive dynamo, but the Coyotes have the clear edge in net.

Special teams

Considering how well Saros played down the stretch, it’s fair to say that the Predators’ biggest weakness is special teams efficiency.

Though the power play was a step up from the dismal 12.9 percent rate from 2018-19, it still left a lot to be desired at 17.3 percent, which was good for 24th overall in the NHL.

The Predators ranked third in expected goals percentage on the power play (91.41) but 25th in actual goals percentage (82.98).

The penalty kill was even worse, though, thanks in large part to the goaltending.

The Predators finished 28th in the NHL while shorthanded, maintaining a 76.1 percent effectiveness rate. It’s the second-worst showing in Predators franchise history and worst among seasons with at least 49 games (a.k.a. not the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season).

The penalty kill is generally a strength of Nashville’s, but this year it was nothing short of abysmal. The only teams that were worse were Buffalo and Detroit (Ottawa was tied for 28th at 76.1 percent).

But a major factor in the penalty kill was the goaltending; there’s no doubt Rinne and Saros should shoulder much of the blame for giving up 8.85 goals against per 60 while shorthanded despite the team’s rate of 6.63 expected goals against per 60.

Things improved in the second half of the season, especially at the very end of the year when the Predators killed off the final 15 penalties of the season (Saros’ back-to-back shutouts against Dallas certainly helped).

Aside from that stretch, the penalty kill was a massive issue for Nashville this season. The power play certainly wasn’t strong, though it was better than last year’s and not as damaging as the penalty kill. However, the power play will be going up against the fifth-ranked Arizona penalty kill (82.7 percent), so it’ll be tough to break through no matter what.

Matching up against Vegas

The Golden Knights won two out of three meetings against the Predators this season, including a wild last-minute comeback in November and a solid 3-0 shutout victory in February. They are 5-4-0 all-time against the Preds.

Like Nashville, Vegas’ penalty kill struggled mightily this season. The Predators finished 28th overall, but Vegas was just one spot higher on the list at 76.6 percent.

Saros has had a lot of success against Vegas over the last few years, going 3-1-1 in five games and recording a 2.19 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. His 43-save shutout in Vegas’ inaugural campaign may have skewed things, but he’s been relatively consistent, giving up 11 goals in five games.

However, Vegas has the edge in goaltending, at least on paper, even if the playoffs are unpredictable. The Knights have one of the strongest goalie tandems in the league, and no one knows which versions of Rinne/Saros are going to come to play starting next week.

Though regular-season results don’t necessarily translate to postseason play, here’s an overview of the three 2019-20 contests between the Knights and Predators.

Oct. 15, 2020: Vegas vs. Nashville (5-2 NSH)

Despite holding a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes, the Knights proceeded to give up four unanswered goals, three of which came in the first 6:52 of the second period. Bonino scored a power-play goal four minutes into the third period to give the Predators a commanding 5-2 lead, which they held on to for the rest of the game.

Nov. 27, 2019: Vegas @ Nashville (4-3 VGK, OT)

In one of the most dramatic games of the season, the Knights blew a 2-0 lead by giving up three straight goals, the last of which came just over a minute into the third period to give Nashville a 3-2 lead.

It appeared as though all hope was lost until Max Pacioretty stunned the Predators by knotting it up with just 0.3 seconds remaining in regulation, sending a game Nashville had all but won to overtime.

In a desperate last-minute scramble, Mark Stone sent a no-look behind-the-back feed to Pacioretty, who wristed it into the net just before time expired.

In overtime, Nate Schmidt intercepted a pass in the defensive zone, which set up a 2-on-0 with Paul Stastny at the other end. Stastny slammed home the game-winning goal at 1:52 of extra time for the win.

At the time, the victory snapped Vegas’ three-game losing streak as Malcolm Subban secured his first win of the year.

Feb. 1, 2020: Vegas @ Nashville (3-0 VGK)

In a strong defensive effort, the Knights gave up just eight shots in the first 40 minutes of play and a total of 19 in the game. The game-winner came 5:14 into the second period when Chandler Stephenson beat Rinne on a breakaway for his 10th goal of the season.

Projected lineup

Forsberg — Johansen — Arvidsson
Turris — Duchene — Granlund
Grimaldi — Bonino — Smith
Jarnkrok — Colton Sissons — Watson

Josi — Ellis
Ekholm — Fabbro
Hamhuis — Holzer


Arizona Coyotes

In an up-and-down year, the Coyotes went 33-29-8 for a points percentage of .529, which was the team’s best in six years; it helped them finish in fifth place in the Pacific Division and 11th in the Western Conference. After finishing the year on a 5-5-0 run, Arizona was a team on the outside looking in leading up to the NHL pause, but the Coyotes have a real opportunity to change the organization’s fortunes after missing the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Ironically, the last time the Coyotes made it to the playoffs (2011-12), they defeated the Predators in five games in a second-round matchup before ultimately losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in the Conference Final.

Since then, the team has steadily undergone a transformation and has been building towards an opportunity such as this for several years now.

Arizona made a few significant moves this year in order to upgrade their forward talent by acquiring Phil Kessel in the offseason and trading for Taylor Hall during the regular season. Both were seen as significant upgrades and immediately became the most elite players on the roster. Neither performed as such this season, though; Hall was the most consistent Arizona forward after his arrival, but he wasn’t the game-breaker he’s been throughout his career, while Kessel had one of the worst seasons of his career.

The hope is that a fresh start and the playoff-like atmosphere will do the trick.

Despite splitting his season between New Jersey and Arizona, Hall took a step back in production and never took off in Arizona, scoring 10 goals and 27 points in 35 games with the Coyotes for a total of 52 points in 65 games.

Hall won the Hart in 2017-18 after recording 93 points in 76 games but has since failed to play 100 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. He has yet to rediscover his elite scoring touch in Arizona, but it’s unclear whether that’s because of Arizona’s system, the players around him or just an adjustment period after returning from several injuries.

In Kessel’s case, his drastic drop in production is partly due to a significant downgrade in linemates. After recording 70, 92 and 82 points in his last three seasons with Pittsburgh, Kessel managed just 14 goals and 38 points in 70 games in the desert. Even if the season had continued, he was on pace for just 45 points, which would have been his worst output since 2007-08 anyway.

It was evident that Kessel missed playing with Evgeni Malkin, and the difference between his power-play production in Pittsburgh and Arizona was night and day. Kessel recorded less than half as many points on the man advantage this year compared to last year. His 14 goals were the lowest total since his rookie year with Boston, though he recently admitted that he was nursing a nagging groin injury all year; that should be better after several months of rest.

The player who ended up leading the Coyotes in points was Nick Schmaltz, who was on pace for his second-best season and best since 2017-18. The former Blackhawk, who led all Coyotes in points per 60 (2.14), finished one point ahead of Clayton Keller, who was the only other player to hit the 40-point mark. Keller has taken a step back over the last two seasons after a strong 65-point rookie campaign, but he’s a skilled forward capable of rebounding.

Conor Garland’s first full season with the Coyotes was a strong one, as the 24-year-old fireball scored 22 goals and 39 points in 68 games, good for third overall on the team. Garland could be a surprise X-factor for Arizona as he led the team in goals and game-winning goals (5) and is not afraid to go to the dirty areas despite his 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame. The Coyotes were better when he was on the ice, and it was noticeable on most shifts.

He led all regular Arizona forwards in expected goals percentage (52.91), goals percentage (56.92) and goals per 60 (1.2), and he was in the top five in possession categories across the board.

Another name that goes overlooked is Christian Dvorak, who set career highs in goals (18) and points (38) this season. Dvorak is now centering the top line and skating with Hall, and he led the Coyotes in goals per 60 (3.11). Lastly, Lawson Crouse scored a career-high 15 goals and matched his output from last season in 15 fewer games.

It will be interesting to see if the recent organizational shift involving the resignation/quitting of (former) general manager John Chayka will affect the team’s performance, especially since he’s the one who did so much to get them here. Much has been made of the still-developing story, and it’s a story unlikely to die down in the media given the nature of the public split. However, the coaching staff likely will do what it can to shield players from fielding questions about the situation, at the very least.



Like the Predators, the Coyotes used several goalies this season.

However, unlike the Predators, the Coyotes did so solely because of injuries, and they have two stellar options on hand.

Arizona finished third in goals against at 2.61 per game thanks in large part to the strong play of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Both Kuemper and Raanta were excellent this season, with Kuemper getting legitimate Vezina consideration before his injury in December after going 15-8-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He played in just four more games after returning in late February.

Raanta also played very well, though Kuemper’s numbers were stronger, so he’s the likely starter for Game 1.

On the season, Kuemper finished second in the league in goals saved above expectation (8.71), while Raanta was 13th (5.64). Kuemper finished third in the NHL in save percentage (.928) and tied for second in goals-against average (2.22), while Raanta finished sixth in save percentage (.921) and 16th in goals-against average (2.63).

The Coyotes weren’t awful defensively, but the goalies were forced to cover up a lot of mistakes and face a high volume of shots. In fact, Arizona was a bottom-10 team with a 48.47 high-danger Corsi percentage while ranking 19th in high-danger Corsi against per 60 (10.99).

Arizona’s style lends itself to low-scoring games; in fact, the Coyotes tied for first in the league in empty-net goals with 16. Without a doubt, Arizona needs the excellence in net to carry over to this series in order to have a shot at advancing.

Penalty kill

The Coyotes are a defensive-minded club that wins (or loses) by committee. One of the team’s greatest strengths is its penalty kill, which arguably is the most lopsided factor in this series.

That’s because the Coyotes were outstanding while shorthanded, finishing fifth in the league with an 82.7 percent effectiveness rate. That’s great in its own right, but especially compared to Nashville’s 25th-ranked power play, which was the third-worst percentage among qualifying teams.

Arizona managed an 85.7 percent kill rate in the final six weeks of the season, which ranked fifth among qualifying teams.

The Coyotes finished just under Nashville in expected goals against per 60, as the Predators ranked 19th with 6.63 and the Coyotes ranked 18th at 6.61. As a reminder, Nashville gave up 8.85 goals against per 60 while shorthanded.

The Coyotes, on the other hand, gave up 6.22. So while the Predators’ goalies/penalty kill gave up almost two goals per 60 more than expected, Arizona’s differential was -0.39. The Coyotes were one of eight teams in the NHL and one of seven qualifying teams (Boston, Carolina, Chicago, Calgary, Vancouver and the Rangers) to give up fewer goals per 60 than expected while shorthanded.



The Coyotes are not a high-scoring team. Part of that is because the team has lacked elite forward talent in the past. Kessel and especially Hall were supposed to change that, and they still might. Several lines have displayed strong chemistry in camp, and there are players capable of breaking out. The team’s hunger for a trip to the postseason could ignite an otherwise-average group. But while there were some improvements this season, the Coyotes are still one of the lower-scoring teams in the league, and it’s been that way for a while.

This year’s 2.71 goals-per-game rate was the team’s highest since 2010-11 (2.76). The Coyotes have been near the bottom of the league in scoring in each of the last several seasons; this year saw them “jump” to 23rd overall, though they had the third-lowest goals-per-game rate among qualifying teams.

The Coyotes have a lot of team speed and use that speed to create chances off the rush. However, the team is not great at finishing those chances, and there are a lot of wasted odd-man rushes. The fact that the chances are there is a good sign, but finishing is everything in the playoffs.

The power play was slightly below average (18th) for the year but a bottom-10 unit (24th) after Jan. 1, and the numbers at 5-on-5 weren’t much better.

In fact, Arizona’s 24th-ranked goals-per-60 rate (2.26), 20th-ranked expected-goals-per-60 rate (2.25), 24th-ranked Corsi percentage (48.37) and 16th-ranked goals percentage (50.2) are further indications that Arizona has a bottom-10 or average-at-best offense.

By contrast, Nashville is sixth in goals percentage (52.96), seventh in goals for per 60 (2.76), sixth in Corsi for per 60 (59.42) and 10th in Corsi percentage (50.95).

Should the Coyotes’ goaltending falter, or at least provide decent-but-not-spectacular play, the Coyotes don’t have a particularly strong system to fall back on, even if there are question marks surrounding Nashville’s goalie situation.

Average defense

The Coyotes’ defense isn’t bad, but it’s not great; in some respects, it’s not necessarily a weakness.

But while Nashville only has three reliable defensemen, at least two of them are elite. Nashville’s defensive depth (or lack thereof) narrows the margin between these teams defensively, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lot to be excited about for Arizona.

The team is more responsible defensively, and the goaltending has been fantastic. However, none of the seven main Arizona defensemen did much to stand out this year. Ilya Lyubushkin had strong numbers in sheltered third-pairing minutes, though his physicality brings a special element to the blue line.

However, none of the other six finished with an expected goals percentage above 50 (Jakob Chychrun’s was the highest at 49.25), and the same was true for Corsi percentage, which included Lyubushkin.

Chychrun, the 22-year-old taken in the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, finally was healthy enough to get almost a full NHL season under his belt. He set career highs in goals (12) and points (26), led all Coyotes defensemen in scoring and took over as quarterback on the top power-play unit.

But it was another down year for captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had his worst power-play production since his rookie season with just seven points, down from 19 last season and 27 in 2015-16. To be fair, a lot of that was because he lost his spot on the top unit, but he did manage just 2.35 points per 60 on the power play, which was the lowest rate of his career.

Ekman-Larsson hasn’t looked like a No. 1 defenseman in a while, especially not since signing an eight-year, $66 million contract. He had offseason knee surgery and never looked quite right this year, and he was dealing with lingering pain. But while he does get tougher usage, he has looked like a shadow of his former self, and he certainly hasn’t been the same electric player he once was.

At his best, he’s a star player, but he hasn’t played near that level in a while. The talent is there, but t’s hard to know which version of OEL will show up in Edmonton.

Ekman-Larsson wasn’t the only defenseman who dealt with injuries this year, though. Niklas Hjalmarsson played just 27 games, and Jason Demers missed 20. Everyone is reportedly healthy heading into the qualifying round.

The goaltending covered up a lot of mistakes, but the Coyotes finished eighth in shots against per game (32.4), eighth in shots against per 60 (31.69) at 5-on-5 and 10th in expected goals against per 60 (2.36). Their 59.66 Corsi-against-per-60 rate was the sixth-highest in the league.

When it comes to this matchup, Arizona is at a disadvantage defensively because of Nashville’s offensive style. The Predators are a strong cycle team that scores a lot of rebound goals, especially with Josi and Ellis firing away from the perimeter.

But the Coyotes are near the top of the league in cycle chances against per game and have one of the highest turnover rates in the defensive zone. The map of Arizona’s unblocked shot rates lines up with Nashville’s offensive tendencies, which could lead to extended time in the offensive zone for the Predators.

That will put even more pressure on Kuemper and Raanta, and it could spell trouble for Arizona, especially without an elite puck-mover on the blue line.

Matching up against Vegas

The Golden Knights went 2-1-0 in three games against the Coyotes this season, winning just once in regulation. They have an all-time record of 8-4-0 against Arizona.

Both teams have strong goaltending. One reason the Coyotes’ netminders would be tested in a potential matchup against Vegas is because the Knights led the league in expected goals percentage (56.07) and finished second in Corsi for per 60 (61.7) and first in Corsi percentage (54.76). Vegas also led the league in high-danger chances per 60 (12.57).

The most glaring difference between these two teams is the penalty kill, as Arizona finished fifth (82.7 percent) and Vegas finished 27th (76.6 percent).

Arizona thrives in tight 2-1 games, but that’s something the Knights can go along with. The Knights also can keep up with some of the highest-scoring teams in the league, so they’re adaptable.

It seems especially unrealistic to try to project Arizona’s regular-season performance onto a potential playoff series. This is a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2012, and there’s only one player on the roster from that team (Ekman-Larsson). It’s a relatively young team and a hungry team; hunger is not something one can measure, and as eager as the Knights are to rectify last year’s debacle and make a run for Lord Stanley’s prize, there’s no doubt Arizona would put up a good fight.

Oct. 10, 2019: Vegas @ Arizona (4-1 ARI)

In the fourth game of the regular season, the Golden Knights suffered their first loss in Arizona in franchise history. Shea Theodore scored with just five seconds left in the opening frame to make it a 2-1 game, but the Knights proceeded to give up two more goals in the second period in a 4-1 defeat. Garland scored two goals in the contest.

Nov. 29, 2019: Vegas vs. Arizona (2-1 VGK, SO)

Both teams scored in the second period in a tight matchup. Alex Tuch scored his second goal of the season with a power-play strike roughly eight minutes before Chychrun tied it up later in the frame. When overtime wasn’t enough to decide it, Jonathan Marchessault and Tuch converted in the shootout to give Vegas the win.

Dec. 28, 2019: Vegas vs. Arizona (4-1 VGK)

A quick-strike second period helped Vegas come away with a victory in the third and final meeting between these teams.

The first period featured some wild back-and-forth action with some glorious chances for both sides.

But Stone made a tremendous individual effort to open the scoring.

Michael Grabner responded by finishing off a perfect passing play, but Pacioretty’s behind-the-back pass from behind the net left Stone wide open on the doorstep for his 15th of the season and second of the period.

Vegas took an early 4-1 lead less than two minutes into the second period with goals from Stephenson, who scored 12 seconds in, and Stastny, who lit the lamp at 1:54.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 27 of 28 shots for a .964 save percentage as the Knights went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill and 2-for-3 on the power play.

Projected lineup

Hall — Dvorak — Garland
Carl Soderberg — Schmaltz — Kessel
Crouse — Derek Stepan — Keller
Vinnie Hinostroza — Brad Richardson — Christian Fischer

Ekman-Larsson — Demers
Chychrun — Alex Goligoski
Jordan Oesterle — Hjalmarsson


Nashville vs. Arizona schedule

Game 1: Sunday Aug. 2 at 11 a.m. PT
Game 2: Tuesday Aug. 4 at 11:30 a.m. PT
Game 3: Wednesday Aug. 5 at 11:30 a.m. PT
Game 4: Friday Aug. 7
Game 5: Sunday Aug. 9

Who do you think will win this series?