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A Devils Fan Rooting Guide for the NHL Qualifying Round: Nashville and Arizona

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The New Jersey Devils are not returning to play in August. But the eight series will be worth watching and there are Devils-related stakes at hand. This edition of the rooting guide focuses on the series with the most stakes for the Devils: the Nashville Predators versus the Arizona Coyotes.

NHL: DEC 23 Coyotes at Predators
Arvidsson! Raanta! Qualifying Round!
Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On August 1, the National Hockey League will return to playing games in Toronto and Edmonton. The top four teams in each conference will play for seeding while the fifth through twelfth place teams will be battling to get into the playoffs altogether. Those series are known as the Qualifying Round. The New Jersey Devils were worse than that at the time of the NHL Pause back in March. Therefore, they will not be returning to play. They did not even qualify for the Qualifying Round. While the New Jersey Devils are not involved in these games, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to them all beyond just having any kind of professional hockey in North America (and literally being on all day for at least four days). Since there are eight weekdays until the start of the Qualifying Round and there are eight series, I will be giving you a Devils fan-centric rooting guide for each one.

We will continue this series with the other series in the Western Conference that will have an impact the New Jersey Devils. This post is about the upcoming series between the Nashville Predators and the Arizona Coyotes.

The Series Information

What you need to know about the series in general.

The Records: The Nashville Predators (35-26-8, 56.5% Point%, 6th in West) vs. Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, 52.9% Point%, 11th in West)

The Pre-Pause Season Series: These two were only able to play each other twice in the regular season. The home team won each game in regulation. Links go to the Gamecenter page at NHL.com:

Game 1: October 17, 2019 - Coyotes 5, Predators 2 in Glendale, Arizona

Game 2: December 23, 2019 - Predators 3, Coyotes 2 in Nashville

Game 1 represented a time where Coyotes fans could have some hope. The Coyotes limited Nashville to 25 shots and Darcy Kuemper stopped 23 of them. Phil Kessel scored his first and second of the season, both on the power play. Jakob Chychryn scored his first goal of the season, also on the power play. Carl Soderberg scored his first near the end of regulation to secure the decisive score. Game 2 was more in Nashville’s favor. It certainly was not easy as Arizona scored with just under nine and a half minutes left in regulation to make it 3-2. However, the Preds put up 44 shots and beat Antti Raanta twice. Roman Josi set up the game’s first goal, which came from Filip Forsberg, and scored what would end up as the eventual game winner in the third.

The Broadcast Schedule: From NHL.com:

Game 1: Coyotes versus Predators, August 2, 2 PM ET - USA, NHL.TV, SN360, FS-TN, FS-A

Game 2: Coyotes versus Predators, August 4, 2:30 PM ET - NHLN, NHL.TV, SN1, SN360, FS-TN, FS-A+

Game 3: Predators versus Coyotes, August 5, 2:30 PM ET - NHLN, NHL.TV, SN360, FS-A+, FS-TN

Game 4: Predators versus Coyotes, August 7, TBD

Game 5: Coyotes versus Predators, August 9, TBD

Note that local channels are carrying the games in this and in other series. This was not on the broadcast schedule at NHL.com until Thursday night, so please keep that in mind going forward.

Games 4 and 5 may not be necessary as it is a best-of-five series. If they become needed, timing and broadcast information will be determined later. I like the convenient times for the first three games. They will cover the afternoon. Allowing for late lunches, early dinners, or those who partake in a brunch-style meal in the mid-day. Some call it linner or some call it dunch. Either way,

A Quick Analysis: Arizona has been in the news this past weekend and it is pretty bad. So I will go over Nashville first.

Sure, the Predators had a big change in 2019-20 too. They fired head coach Peter Laviolette and hired John Hynes on January 7, 2020. I am sure you have some thoughts about Hynes himself. How has the team performed under Hynes?

  • Since January 7, the Predators went 16-11-1 per NHL.com. Their 33 points puts them tied with Columbus for the seventh most in the NHL in that time frame. In contrast, Arizona went 9-13-4. Their 22 points were the third fewest earned since the day of Hynes being hired. (The Devils earned 32 points, so thank you Mackenzie Blackwood.)
  • The special teams were not so successful under Hynes. Nashville converted just 18.1% of their power plays; the 20th best in the NHL in this timeframe. Their penalty kill success rate of 79.3% also rated 20th in the NHL. Arizona’s power play was a bit worse since January 7 (~.1% worse) and their penalty kill was much better.
  • According to Natural Stat Trick, Nashville’s 5-on-5 team rate stats were just not good. All of their percentages were below 50%, which all means their opponents accomplished more in the general run of play. Shooting attempts? 48.67% CF%. Shots? 49.06% SF%. Scoring chances? 47.49% SCF%. High danger scoring chances? 44.47% HDCF% (oof). Expected goals? 48.93% xGF%. Actual goals? 47.12%. This team earned a lot of points in spite of their performances in the most common situations in hockey. If you have been reading this blog for the last five seasons, then a Hynes-coached team getting bopped in 5-on-5 hockey should not shock you. What is astounding is that Arizona was not much better. They did yield some better percentages than Nashville, but only one was actually above break even. Which was shots for% at 50.26%. Their xGF%, SCF%, and HDCF% were better than the Preds but still were not good.
  • Nashville also had some poor shooting luck in this timeframe. Their team shooting percentage was just 6.98%, the eighth lowest percentage in the NHL since January 7. Do not complain to the Coyotes about it. Their team shot at 6.48%, the fifth lowest.
  • Ah, here is a reason why Nashville was able to amass so many points: goaltending. Nashville’s goaltending tandem of Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne were great. More specifically, Saros was great and Rinne was not a calamity. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage was a very good 92.46%, the tenth best in the NHL. Arizona was not far behind at 92.41%. They managed this thanks to Adin Hill stepping in for 11 great appearances whilst Kuemper was hurt.

While the Predators were generally out-done in 5-on-5 and did not score a lot of goals in either even strength (just 54) or power play situations (just 15), they were able to get enough to stay in a lot of their games under Hynes. Only five of their 28 games went beyond regulation (2-0 in shootouts, 2-1 in OT) so I get the sense the Preds were able to stay on the right side of the proverbial knife’s edge. Arizona, not so much. Still, I can see how some would look at stats like this and think Arizona has a real chance to hang with Nashville. Their record aside, it is not like the Predators were stomping through opponents since Hynes took over.

Of course, things in Arizona are more unsettled than ever. This past weekend, it was reported that GM John Chayka was no longer the GM and President of Hockey Operations of the Coyotes. He was not fired. He quit. Last Friday. The team’s official statement stated as such in one of the frankest and bluntest such statements you will see in professional sports these days. Yesterday, Elliotte Friedman provided more detail on the matter in his 31 Thoughts post at Sportsnet on Monday. The issue is that another team - possibly New Jersey - contacted Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo for permission to interview John Chayka. The GM signed an extension earlier in the season and, as per Friedman, helped convince Merulo to buy the Coyotes. Understandably, the owner said “no” to the other team, thinking he locked up Chayka and bought the team so why would he risk losing him. Chayka was mad about this decision; apparently, it was not a GM or even necessarily a job in hockey. The relationship fell apart over the past couple of weeks and so Chayka quit and Merulo reached out to Gary Bettman, who has the Return to Play tourney starting this weekend, to manage the split. Out of all of this, Steve Sullivan - yes, the ex-Devil - is the interim GM although Friedman hints that ownership may be more closely involved than before if Alex Meruelo Jr. is in the picture. (By the way, no, Chayka was not a finalist or interviewed for the Devils’ GM job.)

What does this mean for the series? Anyone who looked at Arizona’s page at CapFriendly for 30 seconds would tell you that this roster is going undergo some changes. Plenty of the players who will take to the ice this coming weekend were signed by Chayka and some of them for very long and lucrative deals. The others could be more motivated to show Sullivan and Mereulo that they should be kept. This would include head coach, Rick Tocchet, who certainly has not covered himself in glory behind the bench in Glendale. They could just as easily be distracted or nervous over an uncertain future in Arizona. Given that they are in this series at all because 24 teams are in the Return to Play format, there is no reason to think they are particularly good. They certainly were not world-beaters in 5-on-5 hockey, they were not scoring a lot in the last three months, and even with Adin Hill, Kuemper, and Raanta playing well, the team seemingly found ways to not win games. Goaltending is the one thing about Arizona that is quite good - and Nashville may be able to match that provided Saros starts off well in this short series.

You cannot say that Arizona is uneventful off the ice. On the ice, well, they could be better. It will be up to Nashville to crash the net, do not let Arizona control the tempo, and put as much doubt as you can into the Coyotes early. And I am leaning on Nashville because of the stakes involved in this series.

The SB Nation Blogs: For anything Predators related, please visit On the Forecheck, where there are hopes the team wins this series and goes to the playoffs like they were on pace to do prior to the pandemic-caused NHL Pause. For anything Coyotes related, please visit Five for Howling, where they are likely hoping for some stability of anything off-ice for a change.

The Stakes at Hand for the Devils

We know these two teams are playing for a playoff spot. But what is in it for the Devils?

Thanks to Ray Shero, the former Devils GM, and Chayka, who just quit the Arizona job, the Taylor Hall trade gave have Arizona’s first round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to New Jersey - with a significant condition. The condition is that the Devils will get this pick as long as Arizona’s pick is not first, second, or third overall. From the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, the first overall pick will go to one of the eight teams that lose in the Qualifying Round. This means if Arizona loses their series and wins the second lottery, then the Devils do not get Arizona’s first rounder in 2020. They would get their 2021 first rounder, which is unprotected.

Since Arizona finished with the 11th worst record, that would be a massive gut punch. To see the Devils on the verge of getting a second pick high in the first round just come down to a lottery drawing is anxiety-inducing. To see Arizona win it would just be hard to swallow. If there is a draft where you want to have more than one selection in the top twelve picks, the 2020 NHL Draft is a great one.

To that end, would we not want an Arizona win to at least secure their 2020 first rounder? The issue is that it would be no higher than 16th overall at that point since they would be in the actual playoffs. The choices are: Coyotes lose and win lottery and I am sad, Coyotes win and I am a little annoyed the first rounder moves deeper into it, or Coyotes lose and lose lottery and I am very happy because the Devils would get two high picks in a strong first round. I want the third option. Yes, I am betting against a team with Hall in a lottery. Hall does not seem to want to stick around as if Arizona can actually afford it with their salary cap.

There is another conditional pick impacted by this series. The Hall trade also gave New Jersey a conditional third rounder in 2021. There are two ways this pick can be upgraded. The first is that Arizona wins a playoff series. This is only possible if Arizona wins this series. If it happens, then the 2021 pick becomes a second rounder - and the 2020 first rounder will be even later in the first round (24th overall at best, I think). I would be annoyed but the second rounder would be a nice bonus. If Hall re-signs with the Coyotes, then the third round pick also becomes a second round pick. While Mereulo has already reached out to Hall to talk turkey, I highly doubt he stays. I am not expecting that to happen. If both somehow do happen, then the third rounder becomes an unprotected first round pick in 2021. This was not as unlikely back in December but I do not anticipate Arizona winning this series and I think Hall is going to be a very popular man when free agency begins in early October.

If you want one of these other situations, or would be fine with them, then that is fine. Make no mistake, the stakes in this series are serious for the Devils. If there is one series to pay attention in the Qualifying Round, then make it this one.

The Second NHL Draft Lottery Possibilities

We know that Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. That pick is owned by one of the eight losing teams from this Qualifying Round. So there will be a second lottery to determine it. How should we react if the loser of this series wins this one?

If the Coyotes win the Second Draft Lottery: A lot of words would come out of my mouth that are not allowed on this blog. I would almost rather Our Hated Rivals get Alexis Lafreniere than Arizona. Shero’s dealing of Hall is questionable if only for the fact that we know now he was on thin ice when the deal was made. He was let go about a month later it happened. To not get Arizona’s first rounder in 2020 would make the deal worse in retrospect and deny the Devils a chance to add a really, really good prospect. No matter how Tom Fitzgerald will approach 2020-21, adding top prospects is always worth doing. You can never have too many of them. Arizona winning the lottery would feel like another crushing loss for the Devils.

If the Predators win the Second Draft Lottery: As annoyed as I would be with Arizona moving the pick down to the late teens, I would not mind Alexis Lafreniere going to Nashville. If they get better with him, then it does not really impact the Devils. If they fail to get to the next level with him, then that also does not really impact the Devils. This would be fine. I would admittedly be more focused on hoping Arizona loses in the first round so their first rounder ends up at 16th or 17th overall.

Pending Free Agents to Look For

The Devils have a lot of cap space, a full-time GM, and a new head coach. Maybe they will spend in free agency this Fall. These games could be a real showcase for those looking to hit the market. These are some of the more notable potential unrestricted free agents in this series.

The Coyotes: Well, there is this Taylor Hall fellow that will be hitting the market. Mereulo already offered five seasons at $7.5 million each and this was already rejected - nevermind that Arizona cannot fit it under their cap currently. Seeing that Hall wanted to be traded from a bad Devils team because they were not playoff-bound, the odds of him coming back to Newark are incredibly slim to none. The Devils may have better luck with two veterans also potentially hitting the market this year. Neither 34-year old Carl Soderberg and 35-year old Brad Richardson will make a team’s forward group significantly better. But if you want some experience in the depth of the lineup, you could do worse. Soderberg will likely be a lot cheaper than the $4 million in salary he received this season (you can blame Colorado for that contract) and Richardson just made a bit over a million. Neither will break a team’s cap. It is something to keep in mind.

That said, you will want to pay attention to the performances because some of the players signed for next season will not be Coyotes for long. CapFriendly lists $79.99 million for the Coyotes’ 2020-21 projected cap hit. The salary cap is staying flat. This means they have $1.51 million in cap space. Arizona has three pending RFAs in Vinny Hinostroza, Christian Fischer (no relation), and Ilya Lyubushkin. Even if they are convinced to take only a NHL minimum salary (which they would not), there would not be enough cap space to sign all three. John Chayka’s cap mess is now Steve Sullivan’s to clean up. If I were in his shoes, I would definitely be offering up Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and/or Jason Demers. All of those players have contracts expiring after next season and all of them make a significant amount of money. At least $3.9 million to the cap. That said, even if Sullivan does move one or two (or more) of those players, you can expect him to not have a ton of leverage. The league knows Arizona has no cap space and they can take advantage. This series may convince some teams to target some players over others and really force Sullivan to make a lot of tough decisions. Mr. Fitzgerald, make it so.

The Predators: There are a number of interesting names who could be hitting the market out of Nashville this season per CapFriendly. Up front, there is 28-year old Mikael Granlund and 30-year old Craig Smith. Both made a hefty amount of money in 2019-20 and could command a fairly good salary. If you are in need for some hardworking middle-six forwards with some skill in their games, then you should see how they do in the next few weeks or so. On defense, the potentially available free agent defenders are amid the team’s depth. Which makes sense since few defensemen are going to crack a top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and Dante Fabbro. 37-year old Dan Hamhuis could be available. 32-year old Korbinian Holzer could be available. 31-year old Yannick Weber could be available. All three would not cost a lot, but they really will not provide a lot. Plus, only Hamhuis is a left-sided defender among the three. There may be should not be a ton of interest in Nashville’s pending UFA defenders. That said, if you’re watching the potential free agents on this team, then you’re going to be spending more time with Smith and Granlund anyway.

Nashville does not have any RFAs to sign on their main roster. Seriously. CapFriendly projects the Preds to have about $9.26 million in cap space for next season. Sure, they will use some of that on their non-NHL players, but the team is mostly set for next season. They could retain one of Smith or Granlund and maybe one of their defenders that is it. They could hit the market and spend a little. I would not expect them to do a whole lot since Fabbro’s entry level contract will end in 2021. But compared to a lot of other teams in this tourney, Nashville has a respectable cap situation.

My Choice & Your Turn

My personal hope for this series is that Nashville wins this and Arizona does not win the second draft lottery. Ideally, Vancouver also wins their series so the Devils would have three first round picks in 2020 and two within the top 11 at a minimum. This is what I am hoping for. I will tell you that the series could be a lot closer than it may seem. Nashville under Hynes has been successful in spite of their performances. Should Raanta or Kuemper turn into a wall for next week, and this could be a slug-fest. The whole mess with Chayka could unsettle the locker room or it could give a lot of people even looking to move on some motivation. The latter may help Arizona - until it does not when said people do move on. But Arizona does not need to worry about the future next week, they just have to worry about one week. Hynes can solidify his spot in Nashville by taking care of business. I hope he does and I hope the lottery ball bounces the right way on August 10, for the benefit of the team that matters: the New Jersey Devils.

However, that is how I see this matchup. I want to know what the People Who Matter think of this series; I want to know what you expect and hope for in this series. Please leave a comment as to how you see this series going down, who you would want to win and why, and who interests you within this series. Also, please vote in the poll to answer who you think will win this series. The rooting guide series will continue on tomorrow and wrap up the East with the series between Pittsburgh and Montreal. Thank you for reading.

Poll

Who will win between the Nashville Predators and the Arizona Coyotes in this best of five series?

This poll is closed

  • 91%
    Predators!
    (51 votes)
  • 8%
    Coyotes!
    (5 votes)
56 votes total Vote Now