Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi (59) Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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The Nashville Predators have never been bad enough to become elite-level competitors in the NHL.
The Nashville Predators find themselves nearing the midpoint of what has been a wildly confusing mash of a season. Sitting two points outside of the playoff picture, Smashville is littered with question marks about the team’s performance and fans are loudly rummaging for answers.
A quick recap- the Predators offseason was widely praised by pundits across the league, and the team entered the 2016-17 season with the highest expectations in franchise history. Then hockey started, and with it an abysmal October, seeing Nashville’s campaign begin 2-5-1.
November came as redemption. Superb goaltending, good front end play, and a 9-3-2 record. It looked like October was only an adjustment period and the chemistry had arrived as the Nashville Predators ripped through the month as one of the hottest teams in the league. And then, December came. And with it, a subpar 4-6-3 record.
So what’s the deal? Is this team good? Bad? What’s holding the Nashville Predators back from being the Stanley Cup contender they are supposed to be? Is the issue just consistency? Or is it rooted in the coaching? What about issues of effort, system, leadership, gypsy curses, and spoiled chicken soup?
The truth: the Nashville Predators are the product of league parity. The franchise has very simply never been bad enough to turn into a consistently threatening Stanley Cup contender.
How and why does league parity have such an effect on the Predators? Let’s take a deeper look:
Nashville Predators former draft pick Seth Jones (3) Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
An NHL franchise’s success is built upon the draft. Not only in a team’s ability to secure future stars in the first round or sniffing out steals in the later rounds (cough cough… Viktor Arvidsson), but in dealing draft selections as currency throughout the rest of the season and offseason (via trades, etc.).
Holding a high draft position is invaluable. For example, the Nashville Predators held the 4th overall draft pick in 2013- the best drafting position the franchise had had since their inaugural draft (the team has never had a #1 overall pick).
At the four slot they selected Seth Jones, who in time was traded for center Ryan Johansen (himself a former 4th overall draft pick). Not coincidentally, Ryan Johansen is currently the team’s leading scorer. That’s the difference draft position makes.
And how did the Predators get such a high draft position in 2013? By being bad in 2012. That’s parity- the worse the team places, the better draft position they get the following year, with the idea being that no team and its fanbase stays locked in the cellar forever.
And does it work? Let’s take a look across the league:
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks combined have claimed 5 of the last 8 Stanley Cup Championships. They have each served as pillars of success in their respective conferences for the better part of a decade. But their success comes off the heels of poor, poor hockey.
Since 2006, the Penguins have only finished outside of the top two in their division one time, gaining 3 Finals appearances and 2 Cups along the way. Leading up to that 2006 campaign, however, the Birds were cellar dwellers in the league, having finished in the bottom two of the NHL standings four years running.
Our rivals up north in Chicago may have secured eight straight trips to the postseason and won their three Cup championships, but it wasn’t before spending their own time at the bottom of the league. From 2003 to 2008 the worst draft position held by the Blackhawks in the first round was 14th, a pick with which they added defenseman Brent Seabrook.
Their 6 first-round picks during that time featured 4 top-10 selections, 3 of which were top-3 picks- a position from which it’s hard to miss hitting home runs. Chicago of course connected to the tune of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
How does this compare to the Nashville Predators draft history?
Nashville Predators left wing Colin Wilson (33) Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Over the past decade, the Nashville Predators haven’t even averaged a first-round pick per year. Their highest selection was the aforementioned 2013 4th-overall position (Seth Jones), and they have only had one other top-10 pick during that stretch (Colin Wilson at 7th overall in 2008).
Tampa Bay Lighting (2008-13)- 6 Years, 8 First Round Picks, 4 Top-10, 3 Top-3 Picks
Pittsburgh Penguins (2002-06)- 5 Years, 5 First Round Picks, 5 Top-10, 4 Top-3 Picks
Chicago Blackhawks (2003-08)- 6 Years, 6 First Round Picks, 4 Top-10, 3 Top-3 Picks
Los Angeles Kings (2000-10)- 10 Years, 16 First Round Picks, 4 Top-10, 1 Top-3 Pick
Nashville Predators (2006-16)- 10 Years, 7 First Round Picks, 2 Top-10, 0 Top-3 Picks
As seen in the listing above, the Los Angeles Kings, who have won 2 Stanley Cup Championships over the past 8 years (with Chicago & Pittsburgh winning 5 of the remaining 6), did so primarily by stock piling first round selections. L.A. held over twice as many first round picks and top-10 picks as Nashville has over the same number of years, and managed to snag Norris trophy winner Drew Doughty with their #2 overall pick.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have more recently made runs into the NHL’s Final Four the past two seasons, but not before being horrible as recently as 2013. Aiding their efforts have been Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Jonathan Drouin, all top-3 picks in the draft.
The drafting process isn’t a science, and there’s no guarantee that a high draft position automatically equates bringing in a new franchise superstar (ahem… Nail Yakupov). But the deeper in the round a selection is made the more up in the air the odds for success become.
Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers, now both competing at high levels after years of being laughing stock material. Their poor play has transformed into high-end talent on the ice, and parity is handing them their chance to shine.
By no means a bad list of players- but that’s just exactly the makeup of the Nashville Predators. Not bad. It’s no secret that the majority of franchise success has been brought on by a few successful trades (Filip Forsberg, James Neal) and some great products of development beyond the first round (Roman Josi, Shea Weber)-showing that the front office is indeed doing some good work.
GM David Poile has in fact made the Predators a better team than they should be at this point. Despite having traded away some first round picks for players that didn’t quite pan out, this team has performed consistently well despite far-from-ideal drafting positions.
Especially considering the litany of unfortunate events plaguing the history of Smashville’s first rounders. The fire sale of Scott Hartnell and Scottie Upshall, the abandonment of Alexander Radulov, the loss of Ryan Suter. It’s the kind of thing that makes the betrayal of a sure-fire player like Jimmy Vesey (despite not being a first rounder) burn extra hot, because it has impact on a team that has been traditionally talent-starved.
So franchise leadership has kept the Predators afloat and exciting against long odds, but can they become true Cup contenders while maintaining their current trajectory?
Nashville Predators goalie Carter Hutton (30) and St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Here’s a truth about NHL hockey: the teams taking home the Cup are ones who have spent their time in the doghouse. The Nashville Predators simply haven’t been bad enough to earn high draft picks, and remain unable to gain enough high-end talent to make a legitimate Cup run.
That’s why we see this continuing trend of first round-ish exits from the playoffs. It’s why last year’s sniff of the Conference Finals represented a maximization of the roster’s talent, and why the team continues to meddle around the Wild Card line all this season. It’s a wish-wash of never too bad, but never good enough.
Imagine for a moment if the Nashville Predators had tanked back in 2009 instead of suffering another first round playoff elimination by the Blackhawks. If they had tanked really, really hard- replace 18th overall pick Austin Watson on the roster with a Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, or Ryan Johansen (without having to trade a future asset). Even if they don’t get a top 5-pick, a Jeff Skinner or Vladimir Tarasenko may fall into a gold jersey.
It’s all useless speculation, but it illustrates how different the Predators roster may look if they weren’t always ‘pretty good’ and falling right near the middle/bottom half of the draft season after season.
Barring significantly impressive front office wizardry, the Nashville Predators appear destined to continue the loop of parity-stricken performance. Something to consider as the expansion draft approaches, offering opportunity to shift fortunes as a large dose of parity will be spooned out league-wide.