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Playoff Preview: Hurricanes defensemen vs. Predators forwards

For years the Carolina Hurricanes defensive unit has been the talk of the town. But after turnover and trades, how do they stack up against the Preds’ forward group?

NHL: Player Headshots 2021 James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

We finally know when the Hurricanes-Predators series will start, so let’s keep breaking down the matchup by looking at the Canes’ blueliners against Nashville’s forwards.

The Nashville Predators forwards have been a tale of two seasons. Their season long averages have not been great. Their possession and scoring numbers ranked bottom 10 in the league. However, as of late their possession numbers have been covered up by their 10% shooting percentage.

This 10% shooting percentage in their last 20 games translates to 2.77 goals for per game, which ranks eighth in the league in that span. This is drastically up from their season long 2.29 goals for per game that was 21st. The Predators are coming into the playoffs on a hot streak.

The Preds haven’t needed to score heaps of goals to have success. They are always in games because of their goaltending. They have had the league’s highest save percentage and lowest goals against in the last 20 games and were top three in both categories over the full season. They haven’t had to get in scoring contests with other teams.

The good thing for the Canes is that their biggest strength in the Rod Brind’Amour era has been the defensive unit. The Canes have had one of the strongest units. The top pairing can shut down any team’s top line, however, where issues arise is with teams with forward depth.

They have the league’s best top pairing and three of the best defensemen in the league. They can get exposed by some teams with a ton of forward depth, but the Canes, led by their defense and goaltending, never let games get away from them.

The Canes do have the unique advantage of having an extra NHL caliber defenseman in Jake Gardiner ready to go at a moment's notice. This can allow the Brind’Amour and the coaches to tailor their strategy each night as they see fit. This is exactly why their goals against has led the league for the full season with just 1.78 goals against per game. Outside of the last game of the season, the Canes only let up 15 goals against the Predators in seven games played. Not too shabby.

That’s enough of the 10,000-foot view, lets look at each Preds line.

Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Eeli Tolvanen

This is clearly the most dangerous line for the Predators that features two of their top three point scorers per game in Forsberg and Tolvanen. The most dangerous player on this line is Forsberg. The winger missed time this season and played just played 39 games. In those 39 games he still managed 12 goals and 20 assists for a team-leading .82 points per game. He also leads the forwards in 2.0 Goal Score Value added.

Ryan Johansen at center is also the teams’s best possession center with a 51.1% Corsi. The combination of his two-way play and both Forsberg and Tolvanen make them a complete line. Johansen also leads all Preds forwards with four points and is tied for the lead with two goals against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Forsberg has speed and a wicked shot that enables him to score from almost anywhere on the ice. He is the most lethal offensively on the team by far.

However, the good news for the Canes, with home-ice advantage they are able to call their matchups. The defensive pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton will be able to shut them down. The top pairing has been one of the best in the league when it comes to suppressing high-danger chances.

Against the Predators this season, both players have a Corsi of 52% or higher with a combined positive goal differential of nine when the two are on the ice.

It would be expected to see the top line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen face this line in most circumstances. However, the Canes’ elite top pairing allows them the flexibility to not have to commit the top line to match up against this group.

They can always look at putting the third line of Warren Foegele, Jordan Staal, and Jesper Fast against this group with the top pairing to shut them down and afford their top two lines with better opportunities.

Calle Jarnkrok-Mikael Granlund-Luke Kunin

Many thought that Grandlund would have been dealt at the trade deadline, seeing that he is one of the players on a single-year deal with the Preds. Despite being the second line, this line features the two top scorers on the team. Both Granlund and Jarnkrok lead the team with 13 goals each, one more than Forsberg, and two more than Tolvanen.

This line is the speediest line on the team. Grandlund is known for his speed and skating, and as a center, this means he is able to jump in on rushes better than most other centers who have to play deep in their own defensive zone. This allows for him to traditionally turn two-on-twos into odd-man rushes while allowing the defensive players to stay back.

The Canes have been able to absolutely abuse this line this season. Kunin (59.3%), Granlund (57.1%), and Jarnkrok (51.7) all rank in the top six of the Preds forwards for offensive zone starts with Kunin leading the team. These three forwards all rank in the bottom four in possession against the Canes with Kunin ranking LAST on the team with a 33.7% Corsi.

This means that despite starting in the offensive zone 59% of the time he is on the ice, 66% of the shot attempts that happen while he is on the ice were shots against….That's seriously impressive stuff.

This also makes sense when you look at the Canes makeup. They can throw the second pairing of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei out against this group with either of their top two lines. Both Canes skill lines have proven to be complete miss-matches. A Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas line in combination with Skjei can turn any offensive zone mistake into an instant scoring chance.

Viktor Arvidsson-Erik Haula-Matt Duchene

This is the most intriguing line in the series. Erik Haula used to play for the Canes and proved to be an exciting playmaking center but lacked any sort of physical play. Matt Duchene has also shown that he can be a high-caliber player, but has had a rough few seasons, and has had a minimal impact with 13 points despite a high salary hit of $8 million AAV through 2025-206.

The issue with the line is that they still can pop off and score. Duchene has been successful in the past, albeit with little success in the postseason. In just 22 playoff games he has only six goals. But he does show flashes of a skilled player and still has an 8.2 shooting percentage.

During the regular season, this line was able to produce 22 goals before the final series against the Canes. In the six games prior to this week against the Hurricanes, they had just two goals. This is a line that could take advantage of the Canes' third pairing of Jani Hakanpaa and Jake Bean if they were caught out of position.

Bean and Hakanpaa have been growing as a pair ever since the deadline, their problem is that they show flashes of brilliance and then flashes of…..badness. The good news here is that the Canes will be able to limit this group to offensive zone starts like they have been doing on 63% of their shifts.

Hakanpaa’s defensive abilities have also proven beneficial when playing with Bean. Bean is an aggressive defenseman who is not scared to pinch or go below the goal line in the offensive zone. This is good when playing against this line that is not going to be defensively sound.

This kind of wheeling and ability to start the cycle is good against Duchene who is playing wing, not his traditional center, and Haula who never looked thrilled to do anything defensive when he was in Raleigh.

Again, the Canes have handled this line well, they could be a matchup for either the Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas line or the third line mentioned above. Either have better defensive capabilities with the Trocheck line having the better ability to pounce on a weaker line defensively.

Nick Cousins-Brad Richardson-Colton Sissions

Yes, you read that right, it is Brad Richardson. Richardson signed with Nashville this past offseason which helps bolster their team down the middle. This is also the only forward group that looks on paper better than the line that matches up with them. The Canes will likely have players rotating in and out of the fourth line to keep things fresh and have their emotional leader Jordan Martinook back for the full series.

The fourth line in any team doesn’t provide any real strategic battle when it comes to the defensive pairings, However, the fourth line for the Preds has combined for 14 goals this season, only one of which came against the pre-May Canes. The Canes’ depth has done well to limit this line, but it is important that they don’t slack against this trio.

Any matchup against this line will largely be situational, but it is still important to make sure the Canes avoid any sloppiness against this line that can make teams pay. In a series that could very well be low scoring, any fourth-line goal can break your back.

Overall this season when the Canes played the Predators with a relatively full lineup and with the motivation they were able to dominate. Nashville’s ability to escalate physically, and Jusse Saros’s ability to be a brick wall are both the biggest differences in the regular season to postseason.

The good news for the Canes is they have the top pairing not only in this matchup but quite possibly the entire playoffs. This will allow them the luxury of picking their forward matchups more favorably at home and to be more creative on the road. With the confidence that Hamilton/Slavin gives a coach, Brind’Amour can exploit other miss-matches throughout the lineup.

Having this solid foundation will go a long way in the playoffs and in getting the most out of the team, something Brind’Amour has done all season.