Whenever I look at the NHL standings, I’m constantly amazed by one thing: the sustained success of the Nashville Predators.
They are a team that is rarely talked about, never hyped, and, apart from a few obvious faces, could not be picked out of a crowd (and no, Carrie Underwood doesn’t count).
And yet here they are once again, right in the thick of things in the Western Conference. Going into their game tonight against Detroit (streak busters?), they are sitting in 5th place, 5 points up on the Chicago Blackhawks & 3 points shy of hosting the St. Louis Blues in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
What I dig about this team is the fact is that the Predators have qualified for the playoffs in all but one season since the lockout, and have done so in more recent years with a roster (up front, at least) of relative unknowns in terms of NHL stardom. Big ups to you if you can answer this question off the top of your head: who is the Preds leading scorer? (Answer below)
Consider the following examples of Nashville’s place in the Western Conference standings each year & their leading scorer going into the playoffs.
2005-06: 4th, Paul Kariya (85)
2006-07: 4th, Paul Kariya (76)
2007-08: 8th, Jason Arnott (72)
2008-09: 10th, JP Dumont (65)
2009-10: 7th, Patrick Hornqvist & Steve Sullivan (tied with 51)
2010-11: 5th, Sergei Kostitsyn & Martin Erat (tied with 50)
There’s no arguing the fact that Paul Kariya was at one time a legit NHL superstar (with a career average of exactly 1 point per game); in fact, Kariya’s 54 assists & 85 points in ’05-’06 stand as team records. It should come as no surprise, then, that Nashville’s highest ranking in the West came when Kariya was putting up strong numbers as a Pred. Following that, lower tier guys like Dumont & Arnott (who holds the team record for goals in a season with 33 in ’08-’09) led the way offensively in what amounted to some down years for the team in terms of the standings. But it’s the past two and a half seasons in particular that demonstrate how the Predators operate in full out team mode when it comes to offensive production. Last year, for example, the 50 points from Kostitsyn & Erat were the lowest in terms of team leaders among the playoff qualifiers. And the 42 points from Martin Erat this year (ding ding ding … trivia answer) currently ranks him 57th in the NHL, and only Colorado, Columbus, Minnesota & Winnipeg provide lower point totals from their leading scorers.
Now, two things are at play here. For starters, the Nashville Predators are built on a strong & consistent foundation. In the big picture, coach Barry Trotz has been with the team since day one, and has a winning record through those first 12+ seasons of the teams existence. The fact that he has been the only coach in team history, coupled with the reality that after this year they will have made the playoffs in more than half of their years in the NHL, is nothing short of remarkable. In my mind, Trotz should be a finalist for the Jack Adams trophy year in and year out.
Second, a huge part of that strong foundation that makes this team so successful is their back end. Shea Weber & Ryan Suter are probably the best defensive tandem in the league, and should both be in regular contention for the Norris for years to come (whether they remain teammates after this year remains to be seen). And goalie Pekka Rinne is without question one of the top players at his position, currently ranked 2nd in wins & total saves. With those 3 guys helping keep the puck out of the net in world class fashion, less of a premium is placed on the kind of style that augments individual scoring, resulting in increased overall success for the team as a whole. That’s the kind of system Trotz has instilled in this team, and, quite simply, it works.
In the regular season, that is. A major caveat in getting too high on this team is the fact that their success rarely translates in the playoffs. They have only ever made it out of the first round once (2010-11), and questions linger in terms of the level of their commitment to winning. No one will ever accuse Nashville of being a big market team with a tight wallet, and the reality is that they are probably already pretty stretched out in terms of salary, even while sitting 2nd from the bottom in terms of annual salaries. With Pekka Rinne has been locked up for the next 7 years (at $7 million per), one can’t help but wonder if they will extend the same kind of offer to Ryan Suter (UFA) & Shea Weber (RFA) this summer. While it probably would also be nice to add some more star power up front, the dilemma becomes on one hand how they might attract that kind of talent without Suter & Weber on the roster, and, on the other, if all their money is tied up on the blue line and in net. It would seem to make sense that if Suter is not going to stick around, maybe Nashville looks to deal him for some of that potential star talent up front; and yet what kind of message would that send in relation to their drive to win this year, or to at least repeat their performance from a year ago?
Say what you want about the relative merits of Nashville as a hockey market & the kind of product they offer on the ice, but in my books, the Predators one of the more interesting teams in the league. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on them, and look forward to seeing what they can do in the playoffs this year.
And for their sake, let’s hope they can keep that duo together on the blue line.
End Note: a question in this post was answered today in a big way, as the Preds made a deal to acquire Hal Gill from the Habs. This would seem to suggest that they are indeed intent on making some noise in the playoffs, especially when you consider that Gill was lauded a couple years ago for the his work in shutting down various Pens & Caps on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals … He also has a ring of his own from his time with said Penguins … Said Preds GM David Poile:
- Hal Gill brings our team a number of elements – size, penalty-killing ability, depth on defence and playoff experience. He has won a Stanley Cup and played a combined 69 playoff games over the last four years, experience that significantly benefits our team.
As per the Globe link, Gill immediately becomes the most experienced playoff performer on the Preds’ roster … BIG addition for Nashville. It will be interesting to see how he helps them in the playoffs, and if this is a serious run before they lose Suter and/or Weber.