In each of my seven previous articles since joining The Hockey Writers, I have focused upon the trials and travails of the San Jose Sharks, a thoroughly dissected franchise that epitomizes the maxim “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” (random trivia 101: the saying is alleged to have been coined by the makers of Listerine® in 1930’s advertising copy which explained why a young woman couldn’t attract a husband – I say it had more to do with her lampshade hairdo and grandmotherly frock). In this piece, I’ll be focusing on a team that gets scant media exposure and outside of a small, rabid fan base, virtually no serious consideration with respect to lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup this season: the Nashville Predators.
Like most sports, hockey’s perennial championship favorites tend to revolve around marquee teams: the Detroit Red Wings, the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Vancouver Canucks, the Montreal Canadiens, even the oft-disappointing San Jose Sharks. Franchises rise and fall over time, and certainly small market clubs sneak their way to the Holy Grail periodically (who can forget Tampa Bay’s epic seven-game triumph over the Calgary Flames in the 2004 finals). Generally speaking, however, national expectations are high for “name” franchises, and low for those that just don’t have the requisite gravitas. It isn’t all about city size, either: as a long-suffering fan of the Los Angeles Kings, I am painfully aware of this fact.
The Nashville Predators certainly fall under the radar screen. Is it an AHL team? Is it a venue for another Chris Hansen Dateline sting? Let me answer that by posing this question: does anyone know how many points the Preds have earned during the past seven seasons? I’ll let Ben Stein punctuate that question, as I can hear crickets throughout the room:
Here’s a quick rundown of their regular-season results since year six of the franchise’s existence:
2003-04: 91 points
2005-06: 106 points
2006-07: 110 points
2007-08: 91 points
2008-09: 88 points
2009-10: 100 points
2010-11*: 99 points
*one game remaining
This is one heck of a successful regular-season team since even before the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. They averaged 98 points/season over that span, which puts them right up their with the big boys. Vancouver averaged 99 points/season over that same period, Montreal 94, Boston 95. So why does Nashville get literally no consideration toward winning hockey’s ultimate prize?
Well, for starters, it’s banjo-strummin’ country. Hey, I lived in the southeast for three years when I was a kid, so I can say that. If you were wondering if I’d ever circle back and make sense of of the title of this piece, click on the link below:
Despite the Predators’ successes over the past seven years, the region just isn’t a hockey hotbed. It’s NASCAR country, y’all. Even Tampa Bay’s 2004 Cup hasn’t changed that fact. Granted, hockey tends to be played at 7:30 at night Tampa time, and by then, the Early Bird special at Denny’s is long since over and it’s bedtime for the blue hairs. Regardless, none of this has stopped the Predators from posting a respectable 19th in terms of percentage of seat sales. From a media perspective, it’s just not a primary focus of an area that worships college football and really big tires.
The second reason why Nashville just doesn’t enter into the conversation is their postseason record, which makes San Jose’s look like Detroit’s by comparison. Five playoff series. Zero series wins. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Starting to feel a little bit better about yourselves, Sharks fans? Until the Predators can get something under their belts besides black-eyed peas and grits, they are going to continue to be written off come playoff time, regardless of their regular-season record. As of this writing, the Predators are 35:1 to win the Cup. Philadelphia, with only five more points? 7:1.
This season may be different, which is why I call Nashville my dark horse pick to emerge out of the West.
For starters, they have a terrific goaltender. Pekka Rinne might have one of those names that you’re not sure which one is the surname, but he’s emerged this season as one of the premier netminders in the league. Still just 28 years old, Rinne ranks third in the NHL in G.A.A. at 2.12, just a hair behind Roberto Luongo. His save percentage is a cool .930, behind only Tom Thomas’ .938. He’s also recorded six shutouts. Defense and goaltending win championships, right? If that’s true, Nashville ranks above almost every other playoff-bound team between the pipes.
And what about that defense? Ever since the league changed the rules to loosen up the neutral zone and attempt to break down the left wing lock/neutral ice trap, scoring is up. However, it’s generally conceded that teams still play variants of both at times, including Nashville. They probably have to, as their offense (21st in the league at 2.63 goals/game) isn’t going to allow them to win many firefights. And look at the names: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Jonathan Blum, Kevin Klein, Cody Franson and Shane O’Brien round out the top six (Francis Bouillon is on the shelf). There’s youth, speed, grit and puck-moving skills abound within that group, not to mention some serious offensive firepower in Weber, Franson and to some extent, Suter.
Nashville’s forwards aren’t going to scare anyone, but they have cagy veterans Steve Sullivan, David Legwand, Martin Erat, and Mike Fisher, along with young gun Patric Hornqvist and a Montreal castoff finally enjoying a breakout season in Sergei Kostitsyn. If agitation is required, Jordin Tootoo stands at the ready to throw his body around along with a fist or two as required. Throw in two-way winger Joel Ward, the injured Matthew Lombardi and Marcel Goc, and a host of other complimentary players, and you have a 99-point team that desperately wants to make some noise this year. Barry Trotz may look like he has the trots at press conferences, but he’s engineered one heck of a franchise build from the ground up, with more on the way from the team’s AHL-affiliate Milwaukee Admirals and, further down, the juniors. The Admirals are on the verge of clinching the AHL’s West division title, and key prospects in the pipeline include Taylor Beck, Ryan Ellis, Austin Watson, Roman Josi, Charles-Olivier Roussel, Blake Geoffrion, Zach Budish, Michael Latta and Anders Lindback.
Nashville stands poised to face another goaltender-dominant team in Phoenix this postseason, assuming things stay as they are. Don’t count the Predators out this year. It’s not easy being green.