Scouting the Enemy: Breaking down the Vancouver Canucks’ Round 1 opponent with Predators writer Bryan Bastin

Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Lachlan Irvine
5 days ago
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
The Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators may not be strangers to each other, but they’re not exactly familiar foes either.
A lot has happened since the Predators and Canucks’ first playoff meeting in 2011. Both went to a Stanley Cup Final and lost to a team wearing black and gold. Both won President’s Trophies. And both have experienced the highs and lows of a franchise needing an organizational refresh.
Heck, neither team was really expected to be in this position for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both were expected to be in the mix for a wild card spot, but the Canucks and Preds had each effectively sewn up their postseason spots before April. Rick Tocchet’s structured system led Vancouver to its first division title since 2013, while Andrew Brunette took a team in the midst of a retool on a half season odyssey to the big dance.
The Predators are still stocked with plenty of big names local fans will recognize. Filip Forsberg scored 48 goals, a franchise single season record. Roman Josi had an 85-point campaign as a 33 year-old defenceman with a lot of miles on his body. Ryan O’Reilly fit perfectly into the Predators system, after a tenure in St. Louis where he won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. And Juuse Saros has continued to be Juuse Saros, even if his numbers haven’t been as eye-popping as in recent years.
But in a seven-game series, so much of that goes out the window. So in order to get to understand the team the Canucks will be lining up across from over the next two weeks, I decided to call up someone who knows the Predators a whole lot better.
Bryan Bastin has been covering the Preds since 2019 for On The Forecheck, having fully latched onto the team during their magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. Bastin’s experience in data analysis translated over perfectly to hockey, right as advanced stats became more and more common in the NHL zeitgeist. Bryan and I crossed paths during our brief time writing for the San Jose Sharks site Fear the Fin, and today he sat down with me to break down how the Predators got here, essential things Canucks fans should know about them, and what the keys to winning this series will be for both sides.
Lachlan Irvine: First of all, how surprised are you at the way this season went for the Predators?
Bryan Bastin: Before the season I didn’t have very high expectations for the team, but that was by design. [Predators GM Barry] Trotz came in and basically tore things down, at least the some of the major parts. Ryan Johansen got traded, Matt Duchene got bought out, guys like that, and we all thought this was going to be the rebuilding year that fans had asked for. And what we saw from them at the beginning of the season, especially in the first few matchups with Vancouver, was kind of what I expected.
But I think Andrew Brunette’s system fell into place, and we saw after that legendary canceled U2 concert that they went from a team that had gotten demolished by Dallas 9-2 to an 18 game point streak to put them squarely in the playoffs. And they never really looked back after that. He’s got them playing really, really exciting hockey.
Bruno is a is an analytics guy. He said he spent a bunch of time reading things and consulting with people who actually work on some of the analytics and stuff in soccer. And you see that in their play. They’ve scored a ton of their goals by getting to those high danger areas, they also work really well from behind the net doing that north-south passing that’s worked extremely well. And they they play smart. I think that a lot of matchups, especially against playoff teams, you see that the forward depth doesn’t quite match up with other teams. But they’re able to still succeed because of how smart they play.
You’ve seen first hand how Barry Trotz likes to coach a team. How intriguing has it been seeing him as a rookie GM build a roster for Brunette that’s so much more offensively minded?
I think that Barry Trotz has done a good job of letting Brunette implement the way he wants to play. You look at that Florida team he coached and yeah, the talent gap between them and Nashville now is pretty significant. But that’s the same style of hockey you’re seeing here, and the fact that you can get that with a team with Michael McCarronJeremy Lauzon and Cole Smith, getting them to fit into this efficient high danger offense, I think is really impressive.

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A lot of this team this season is more a product of making good with what they’ve got, more so than fitting into a system. Burnette’s system has really been strong for Nashville. You look at their second best line and it’s former Milwaukee Admirals guys like Luke Evangelista and Tommy Novak. And these are guys that’ve come in and quietly become maybe the second best offensive line on the team. and I think that you look at guys like Evangelista, who’s very much a technique guy and pretty speedy. Tommy Novak, if you look at him just looks like just a dude, but every time that the puck gets on his stick, I’m pretty certain he’s gonna score. And that’s not something I can say about a lot of of Predators players.
What’s one thing that Canucks fans absolutely have to know about this team?
That this is no longer the team that’s built around its defensive core. And it’s funny to say that considering they’ve got Roman Josi, but they won the President’s Trophy when they had a defensive core of Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban. That’s just not Nashville’s identity anymore. It’s not a team that’s built around taking a ton of point shots from the blue line, it’s not a team that’s going to come in to every power play with two defenseman and three forwards. It’s a team that’s really, really led by its forward group.
Nashville’s had in the past lines like the JOFA line, which was Johansson, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or a couple years back with Duchene, Forsberg and Mikael Granlund. But I don’t think there’s actually been a more efficient and better producing line than this season with Forsberg, Gustav Nyquist and Ryan O’Reilly, the last two guys who’ve found the Fountain of Youth somehow and had almost career best seasons. And to a lesser extent, it’s not necessarily a team where if you can just beat Juuse Saros, then you can beat the Predators. I still think Saros is going to be maybe the most important player for Nashville in this entire series, but it’s not that same type of reliance on him that maybe Canucks fans are used to seeing.
As far as former Canucks go, you not only have Luke Schenn on the roster, but also Anthony Beauvillier who was a big part of a Bo Horvat trade only a season ago. How are the former Canucks doing fitting into this team?
BB: I have a soft spot for Beauvillier, but he’s been fine if not mostly invisible. There are a couple games where he gave up some back breaking goals. But he hasn’t been much of a factor. I don’t even know if he’ll start or play in the first few games to be honest, and that’s fine. I don’t think they’re losing too much there.
And then there’s Luke Schenn. Every fanbase has one or two guys that they just cannot stand, they cannot abide by the fact that they are in the lineup. I think Luke Schenn is that guy, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s probably for good reason.
I think that he’s been maybe one of the worst players this season. I think that he’s played now 63 games, which I think is probably 63 games too much. I like what he does physically and there is a role for that for him, and there’s not been too much that’s been glaringly bad in the majority of those games. But the problem is that when you notice Luke Schenn in a game, it’s never for a good reason. I don’t think he fits in this offense at all or this system at all. If Canucks fans are really missing a guy like him, we’d have probably have no problem just keeping him there in Vancouver once the series is over. I think that most people are ready for him to go.
We will always have time for Luke Schenn, we loved him here. Aside from Schenn, Canucks fans are already familiar with stars like Josi, Forsberg, O’Reilly and Saros. If there’s one or two players on the Predators who Canucks fans need to keep a serious eye on, who are they?
I think Gustav Nyquist gets the least amount of attention, and he just had a 75 point season. He’s been kind of the glue guy for that top line. But I think I have to come back to Novak. He’s one of the handful of players that got a new deal during this season, and I think it’s been 100% worth it. He’s got 36 goals in his career, and half of those came this season. 45 points for a guy that was was a third round pick in 2015. It’s taken him a while to get to Nashville, but he just brings a ton to this team. The biggest thing about him last season was that his offense was almost as good as it is this year, but he was a defensive black hole. This season, he’s completely turned that around. And I think that Novak is going to be one of those guys that you know is going to be an MVP of this series if Nashville ends up winning.

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Their third line isn’t a liability, it’s a line that can come out there and provide secondary scoring. Evangelista has been one of my favorite young guys on the Predators for forever now, and I’m glad to see him kind of really stepping out. It doesn’t matter what line number they are, those guys are going to come out there and I think catch Vancouver by surprise.
Let’s put yourself in the shoes of the Canucks’ coaching staff. You’re Rick Tocchet or one of the video coaches in the room, what is the game plan to beating Nashville?
BB: I would say one of the big things would be to play physical and try and get Nashville to commit some penalties, they’ve really struggled shorthanded this season. They’re a team that tries not to be on the penalty kill too often, but that’s unfortunately kind of been a reality for them. And when that happens, they’ve just not been great. I think that’s been Saros’ sore spot is on the penalty kill. I think that would be one focus, and I would be willing to bet that Josi is not going to be on the ice at the same time as that top line most of the time. That way they can kind of spread that out.
But I think they’re also going to have to really try to hold Nashville up in transition. I think that’s been one of the things that some teams have done really well because they’re a good team in transition. The Predators really like getting to the high danger areas, that’s what they’re excellent at. And I think teams that are really good basically let Nashville move the puck around the perimeter, but they they crowd the area around the crease. I think that’s going to be the thing that Vancouver really should focus on, and then just trying to limit Filip Forsberg as best they can.
What does Nashville have to do to win this series?
BB: They’ve got to be able to match Vancouver’s depth, and that’s going to be interesting to see. I think that one of their more effective lines besides that Novak line is their third line of Mike McCarron, Kiefer Sherwood and Cole Smith. It’s your big hitters line, and they’ve been strangely more effective in this year than they have previously. But if there’s one player that’s going to take this series from being ‘Canucks in 5’ to ‘Preds in 6’. it’s Juuse Saros. I think if the Predators can get 75% of what we’re used to seeing from Saros, I think this is a much more competitive series.
Any predictions for this series?
We will definitely see McCarron and Zadorov fight. [laughs] I feel pretty confident in that.

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