The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators finished up a two-game set on Monday, with each claiming a win. Both clubs have been great examples over the years of what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman envisioned when the league expanded into the southern United States. In cities where the sport of ice hockey was mostly an afterthought, the two franchises have flourished, especially over the last 17 years. And while both teams have had their fair share of success, Tampa has been a little bit better. The proof is in the championship pudding.
The Lightning began operations back in 1992, but for many, the franchise didn’t really begin until 1996. That was the year the Ice Palace was finally completed and open for business. It is now known to all as Amalie Arena. Before that, the team played at the diminutive Expo Hall over at the Florida State Fairgrounds, holding a whopping 11,000 seat capacity. 1996 was also the year of the first winning season for the young Bolts. Unfortunately, Tampa quickly fell back to earth, posting losing records over the next six seasons.
In Nashville, the city originally tried enticing the New Jersey Devils to make a move to Tennessee. The Nashville Arena, now called Bridgestone Arena, was built to make it an easy decision for the Devils. At the time, the team was having its own arena issues and sought greener pastures and a new arena. Then Devils owner John McMullen was not able to break the lease at Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, leaving the city of Nashville with a brand spanking new arena with no tenant. After the near-miss with the Devils, Bettman saw to it that the new arena was not built in vain. He then granted the group led by Craig Leipold one of the four expansion franchises to begin play in 1998, and the Nashville Predators were born.
The Turning Point Year for Both Franchises
The 2003-04 season turned out to be a significant one for both clubs. For the Preds, it marked the first winning season and playoff berth for the franchise. The team would lose to the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in a hard-fought, six-game series. Later on in those playoffs, the Lightning would win the team’s first-ever Stanley Cup championship. The Bolts finally edged the Calgary Flames by a single goal in Game 7 to signify to the hockey world that Tampa was indeed a real hockey city.
Since then, both franchises have been on one heck of a run. Tampa has only had three losing seasons since 2004, with two trips to the Final and another Cup victory coming last season. The Predators have been on a similar run, having just one losing season and only three seasons where they missed the playoffs. Nashville also made a run to the Cup Final during the 2016-17 season, where they eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins were fresh off beating, you guessed it, the Lightning in seven games after being down in the series three games to two.
During this time period, both teams have won multiple division titles, at least one Conference Championship and a Presidents’ Trophy. They’ve each had players win prestigious individual awards, including the Vezina and Norris trophies. Both teams have also had multiple First and Second Team NHL All-Star selections. So why are the Lightning sitting on two titles and going for more while the Preds are still looking for their first one? It’s simple, and here’s why. The top-end talent in Tampa has been of a higher caliber, period.
Tampa’s Best Players Have Been Among the Best in the League
Between the two Cup-winning campaigns, the Lightning have had at least two players win every other major individual trophy. Martin St. Louis was the first player in team history to win both the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP and the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league’s top point-getter. Years later, Nikita Kucherov was able to repeat the incredible achievement, winning both the Hart and the Art Ross. Lightning legend Vincent Lecavalier and current captain Steven Stamkos have both captured the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the top goal scorer. The Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP has also been won by a pair Bolts, first Brad Richards during the 2004 Cup run and then Victor Hedman last season.
The Predators have had some really good players, but none as good as any of the players listed above. General manager David Poile has been with Nashville since 1997 and has done a good job, but he just hasn’t been able to get the club past that final step. It’s true that finding star players will always be a difficult job, especially for teams in the “non-traditional hockey market” category. With that said, the Lightning have been able to do it time and again while the Preds have not.
If social media is any type of indicator, the Lightning are the more popular team. On Twitter and Facebook, Tampa edges out Nashville on both platforms in terms of followers and likes. Everyone knows that the star players generate interest from the casual fan. The NHL will never have an issue selling the game to the hardcore hockey worshippers; that’s a given. The trick to generating the interest needed to continually compete at the highest level is to garner as many casuals as possible to go along with the fanatics. The Bolts have done this in spades, marketing the great players from two different championship eras. The Predators have never had a player that really moved the needle to grab the attention of the more neutral hockey observers.
Tampa and Nashville Have Both Been Great at Growing Interest in the Game
The grassroots efforts from the Lightning are another aspect that should not be overlooked. In 2015, the team took over control of the Florida High School Hockey Association, rebranding it the Lightning High School Hockey League. They did this to help provide local student-athletes with the best opportunities to compete and learn the game at the highest level afforded in Florida. In 2016, the LHSHL Champion Mitchell Mustangs went on to win a USA Hockey National Championship.
The Bolts have also sponsored numerous initiatives to grow the game around the greater Tampa area. The popularity of the Lightning has led to the construction of numerous indoor and outdoor hockey rinks to provide lots of places to play, from the youth level all the way up to the adult level. This, in turn, has given rise to organizations like The Grow Hockey Movement and Lightning Made Hockey, designed to make the game accessible to all who want to participate.
The Predators have been doing their part as well, teaming up with the Nashville metro government to construct more rinks for the people of Middle Tennessee to participate in the game. It began back in September of 2014 when Ford Ice Center opened in Antioch, Tennessee. It was then followed up two years later with another two rink facility built in Bellevue. Predators Senior Vice President of Ticket Sales, Premium Sales & Youth Hockey, Nat Harden, went on to say at the Bellevue opening that the Preds and the Metro hoped to have 18 ice sheets completed in the greater Nashville area by the year 2026.
In October of 2020, the Preds announced they had received over $500,000 in NHL league funds to Nashville in order to help the growth of girls hockey in the area. The league awarded these funds to the organization partly due to the success of Ford Ice Center, as well as Bellevue, which celebrated its one-year anniversary of opening in October. The award will also help the numerous learn-to-skate programs at other local rinks for both boys and girls.
The Lightning Are On the Upswing While the Preds Are Heading Downward
The Predators have been a great franchise and a worthy addition to the NHL; nobody can dispute that. Nonetheless, the inability of Poile to deliver the cornerstone franchise player is undoubtedly the reason why the club’s run is over and out. After a busy off-season, the Preds are well out of a top-four seed in the division and unlikely to make the playoffs.
The Preds are likely to be sellers at this season’s trade deadline. Top-four defenseman Mattias Ekholm has just one year left on a very modest deal and will be looking to get paid on his next contract. He is also one of the only players on the roster that might fetch a decent return. If Poile deems a total teardown is necessary, then the Preds could trade other players as well. Veterans Filip Forsberg and Pekka Rinne have been mentioned as possible trade bait, but Forsberg is a young, cost-controlled player, so he’s not likely to leave. Rinne, however, is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and a team with goaltending issues might make a move for him. Needless to say, the winds of change will be blowing through Nashville very soon.
On the flip side, the Lightning are challenging for another division crown and looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champs. Reports earlier in the week indicated that superstar Nikita Kucherov was finally back on the ice as part of the rehab process after having hip surgery before the season began. Right now, the Bolts sit atop the Central Division with a plus-35 goal differential, the best in the league. And unlike last season, the Bolts will presumably have Stamkos for the playoffs. Add Kucherov to the mix, and Tampa will have to be seen as the odds on favorite to hoist Cup number three when it’s all said and done.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.