Elite 101: Nashville Predators Edition

Hey, everybody. Greetings from a hotel room in California in the middle of our West Coast road trip.

I’ve been a big fan of the Elite 101 series ever since Jonathan Quick did his two-part feature on snipers. I had been interested in doing one for a while, but I thought maybe we could do something a little different. So today I thought I’d start a new trend here at The Players’ Tribune. Nashville is such a great hockey town, but it doesn’t get as much national exposure as the Chicagos and the Pittsburghs of the world. Instead of breaking down our opponents, I thought it would be cool to show you what makes a few of my teammates special.

But don’t worry, because I have a surprise at the end. We’re also going to break down an old friend of mine who has moved up to Montreal, plus a kid from Edmonton who I think is really, really tough to play against.

First up is our leading goal scorer, and a man who loves his video games….

The Finisher: Filip Forsberg

Filip has been red-hot lately. Everybody knows about the back-to-back hat tricks he scored last month, but you know what? This is nothing new. He scored 26 goals his rookie year and 33 last season. He’s the real deal, and his biggest asset is his unbelievable wrist shot. The thing that makes his shot unique is how deceptive and quick the release is.

Some people think shooting is all about power, but actually, at the NHL level, it’s mostly about catching goalies by surprise. Filip has an unorthodox release, where he snaps the puck with his stick way out in front of his body. Normally, guys keep their hands pretty close to their body — sometimes even to their side — when they start their release. But if you watch Filip, he usually has his hands way out in front and he snaps down on the puck.

You can see a good angle of it here. Watch his bottom hand flip to generate power.

When I talk to goalies, they say that it’s really hard to get a read on where Filip’s aiming because of this technique. The puck is only on his stick for a split second, so goalies have no time to react and go down into their butterfly early.

This is an unbelievable shot from a tough angle against the Capitals.

There’s maybe 10 guys in the league who can score a goal like that. NHL goalies are so good that there’s not many players who can skate down the wing and score clean without a screen, but Filip has that ability.

You might say, “So why doesn’t everyone release that puck like that?” Well, most guys don’t have the strength to do it. Filip uses a long stick with minimal flex, and he has the core strength to still be able to bend the stick and get a wicked ‘kick’ on the shot. I would never be able to shoot with my hands that far out in front. I couldn’t get enough power on the shot.

The kid is just 22, and he does things with the puck that not a lot of players can do. The goal he scored by flipping the puck between his legs last season was something only he would try. And he did it so instinctively — he didn’t even think.

What I want you to understand is how his shot has also opened things up for him as a playmaker. He’s multidimensional — got 26 assists to go along with 29 goals. This cross-ice pass against Washington shows how the threat of his shot opens up chances for others.

There were three guys between Filip and me, and he used his eyes to open up the passing lane. Everyone in the building thought he was going to shoot it, including me, because he got down in his shooting position and looked straight at the net. When Filip has the puck in that position, goalies have to respect his shot. They have to commit completely to the cutting off the angle to have a chance.

Filip sold the shot so well that the goalie actually went down into the butterfly. Once the defense and the goalie were committed, he snapped it across, right on my tape, and I had an empty net.

Watch it again and notice his stick position. His hands are way out in front of him, so he can either snap the puck on net or easily turn his hands over and dish it to me.

The Edge: P.K. Subban

P.K. has that wow factor with the things he can do on the ice, and his awareness in the offensive zone is really special. He makes some passes that hardly anybody in the league can make. But as a defenseman, one of the technical things that I appreciate most about his game is his use of quick turns to escape the first forechecker when we’re in our zone. He’s so strong on his edges, and he has this unique ability to spin off of defenders when he’s in trouble. It’s very hard for the forechecker to predict which way he’s going to go, and when he makes the turn, he’ll often take the puck out wide with one hand, and use his free arm to shield the puck from the pokecheck.

You can only do that if you have incredible lower-body strength, and great edge-work. He used the same move in the offensive zone, too. It’s so hard to take the puck from him, because any time you commit to one side, he can escape the other way with the quick-turn. You can really see how incredible P.K. is on his edges during this four-on-four against Ottawa.

First he draws the penalty with the quick-turn-and-shield move, which gets us an extra attacker, and then he takes the puck all the way around the perimeter and draws two defenders to open up a seam for me.

You can really appreciate how he moves all the pieces on the chessboard and makes a great pass from this wide angle.

The Spark: Viktor Arvidsson

Viktor is so tenacious that he reminds me of another Swede who used to play for us, Patric Hörnqvist. The only difference is that Patric has about three inches on him, which makes Viktor’s greasy goals even more impressive. I’ve never seen a guy with that much energy on the ice.

You hear coaches talk about “compete level” a lot. Viktor’s compete level is 100. I think it’s because of his journey. He’s a small guy who didn’t get a lot of credit before he got to the NHL, and now he’s proving everyone wrong. He’s absolutely relentless. There’s no easy breakout when he’s on the ice. As a defenseman, you know who you really hate playing against? It’s the guys you know are never going to quit on the forecheck. Like even if you’re able to lose them behind the net and wheel away, you know they’re coming hard behind you, putting pressure on your breakout pass. They’re like an annoying voice in the back of your head, distracting you a little bit. That’s what Viktor does every day in practice.

I want to show you why “compete level” is not a cliché. Viktor’s goal against San Jose to force a Game 7 last season says everything. Watch how much ice he covers here.

There aren’t a lot of guys who can beat NHL defensemen with pure speed on the outside. And he did that in overtime, after playing three periods of playoff hockey, against Marc-Édouard Vlasic, one of the best defensemen in the league … on his backhand.

Some guys would’ve seen that puck flipped so far into the neutral zone and taken their foot off the gas a little bit, assuming it was a lost cause, but Viktor hustled and was ready to pounce on a bad bounce.

When you really slow it down, you’ll notice his unbelievable edge-work. His inside boot is practically touching the ice, which is how he’s able to get so much leverage on the backhand.

The Brains: Ryan Johansen

Ryan’s biggest strength is high hockey IQ. He’s in the top 10 in the league in assists this season, and it’s because he always has an extremely good awareness of what’s going on around him. In the NHL, the best passers have a feel for how a play is going to develop three seconds in the future. Ryan always knows where he’s going with the puck before it even gets to his stick. He and Filip have developed a really good understanding of where the other is going to be.

Ryan’s signature move is going down the right wing and acting like he’s going to pass the puck, but as soon as the defender moves his stick, or drops down to take the passing lane away, he turns his hands over and cuts to the middle for a shot.

This was a huge goal to tie up Game 6 against San Jose.

At first, you might think this is a fake shot, but it’s actually a double fake. Once he completes the leg kick, he opens up his body and fools the defender into thinking he’s going to dish it across to James Neal, so the defender drops down to take away the lane, and then Ryan cuts inside for the finish.

You might have to watch it a few different times to notice the double move here. It’s pretty subtle, but it’s all about the defenseman having to respect Ryan’s passing ability at all times.

Bonus 1: Shea Weber

Obviously, Shea isn’t on our team anymore, but since he was such a big part of my development as an NHL player, and such a big part of this entire franchise, I thought it was only right to include him. Shea is such a complete player. Talking to different forwards around the league, they all say the same thing about playing against Shea: “It’s painful.”

Obviously, he’s extremely physical, and he also has the hardest shot in the league. He’s second only to Brent Burns in goals by defensemen this season. Everybody knows that stuff. But what he doesn’t get enough credit for is that he has a great first pass out of the D-zone. As a defenseman, that’s one of the main things you want out of your partner, because it gives you confidence in your own zone.

In the offensive zone, we developed a really good chemistry in rotating to get Shea into the best position for the one-timer. Obviously, everybody in the building knew that we wanted to get the puck to Shea at the point, so it created challenges for us in opening up shooting lanes. We couldn’t really be static. We always had to be moving. One of our signature tricks was to flip our spots so that Shea could creep down to the top of the left circle. This way, he could open up his body and take the one-timer on the inside.

(Notice the sick vision by Johansen there.)

If Shea gets the inside one-timer, and he hits it just right, it’s over. You don’t even need a screen. There’s no blocking it.

But it’s not just his shot. Playing with him for five years, I was able to see how detailed his game was. There is something to be said for consistency, especially for defensemen, and especially over 82 games. One thing I always admired about Shea was that he rarely would have two bad games in a row. He had an incredible ability to bounce back. When you’re deep into January, and you’re on the road somewhere playing a back-to-back, that’s much easier said than done. As a young guy in the league, it was important for me to have a role model like him.

Bonus 2: Connor McDavid

Since I did something a little different than the regular Elite 101, I figured I would also give some thoughts on one of my opponents. The first person who comes to mind is Connor McDavid. Even though I haven’t played against him a whole lot, I already can tell that he’s a really special player because he does everything at a completely different speed. It’s not just his straight-line speed. Yes, he has the ability to pick the puck up in the neutral zone and beat you on the outside. But his stickhandling and vision and reading of the play are all cranked up to a different speed, too. The combination allows him to do things that you rarely see.

This goal against Columbus sticks out. You almost have to watch this in two parts. First, watch his hands, because … what can you say? Incredible.

Now watch it again, but this time just pay attention to his feet. He takes his last full stride at the blue line, yet he’s able to maintain incredible speed to the net despite being knocked off balance by two defenders. Johnson actually takes his left leg out, but McDavid stays strong on his right edge and keeps going like nothing happened.

As a defenseman, a guy with this combination of skill is extremely tough to stop, because you want to maintain a close gap to take away his space, but in the back of your mind you know he can accelerate so quickly and burn you with his speed. So how far do you play off of him? I don’t think there’s a right answer. That’s why he’s so tough to play against.

I wish I had more time here, because there are many more of my teammates who deserve the spotlight, but that will have to wait for the future. I hope you enjoyed this, and if you want to request a player for me to break down in the future, you can tweet me @RJosi90