“In the end, you have to win to accomplish anything. Being mediocre isn’t good enough.” — Nashville captain Shea Weber.
The Nashville Predators have been around for 17 seasons, and have secured a reputation as a well run, scrappy organization that accomplishes more with less financial clout that perhaps any club in the National Hockey League.
Their general manager, David Poile, is one of the best in the business. Nobody drafts and develops defencemen better than the Preds and right-hand man Paul Fenton, and every so often Poile pulls off a Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta trade. Or he mans up and trades a huge piece in Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, the centre Nashville so dearly needed. Or he’ll move Patric Hornqvist for James Neal, just to get a few more goals up front.
Those are all bold moves that many GMs don’t have the guts to make. Meanwhile the Preds culture, stewarded by captain Shea Weber, is impeccable. The goaltending, with Pekka Rinne in net, is generally fantastic.
But there’s one problem: Nashville never wins in the playoffs.
The furthest the Predators have ever advanced in the NHL post-season was a couple of second round appearances in 2011 and ’12. That’s it.
Eight playoff appearances in the past 11 seasons, and a series record of 2-8.
“Last year we weren’t playing our best hockey going into the playoffs,” said Weber. “I still thought we gave Chicago a pretty good run, especially for them being the Stanley Cup champs. But in the end, you have to win to accomplish anything. Being mediocre isn’t good enough.”
The Preds pushed Chicago to six games in 2010 — the Blackhawks’ first Cup win — and still believe the series was theirs but for a couple of bad bounces. They took Chicago to six games again last spring, but again the Predators lacked a champion’s intangibles, losing both overtime games — in double- and triple-OT.
Nashville appears locked into a playoff tour through the Pacific as the top wildcard team this season — unless the Predators can make up five points on Chicago in their remaining 12 games. Ironically, a Central Division team that matches up better against Chicago and St. Louis will be forced to open at the home of the Pacific winner, likely a Kings team that trounced the Blackhawks 5-0 Monday night.
“You sit here and say, ‘Who do you want to play in the playoffs?’” said Weber. “It doesn’t really matter, because you’re going to have to beat a good team every round. And you’re going to have to beat someone that maybe you didn’t want to play as much as another team.
“You look at the West and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I want to play anyone in the first round.’ But, as long as you have everything in order…”
So, is everything in order for Nashville?
Well, in Weber’s partner Roman Josi they have a second defenceman of No. 1 pedigree, a rare luxury in today’s NHL. He’s a fantastic player, and makes Nashville the only playoff team with 25 minutes of ice time spoken for every evening, but two players who are as effective on offence as they are defensively.
Up front has always been Nashville’s issue, but they’re scoring more than enough now, sitting just a couple one-hundredths outside the NHL’s upper third, averaging 2.70 goals per game. Neal is sniping, ripping home two tracer-like wrist shots while posting a hat trick in Edmonton Monday, while Forsberg continues to make a mockery of that deadline deal with Washington two years ago, with 28 goals in his second 50-point season since being traded for Erat.
Poile is courting six-foot-three left winger Jimmy Vesey in his spare time, whose college career at Harvard will come to an end after this season. Poile has promised him the Preds will burn a year off his entry-level contract if the 2012 draft pick comes to Nashville this spring.
So the lineup improves. There’s progress, but isn’t there always in Nashville? Is this the spring that Tennessee finally gets some tangible results?
“I hope so,” said Josi. “Last year we actually played a pretty good series. Chicago is a tough first round opponent, but we had a lot of guys playing their first playoffs. This will be my second playoffs … I think we’re a little more experienced now.”
The reality, however, is this: Nashville doesn’t stack up well for a playoff road that will likely mean back-to-back heavy, hard opponents in Los Angeles and Anaheim (or even San Jose). Stuck in hockey’s toughest division, the Preds have a more difficult road than anyone else in hockey.
They’re a great story — again — but when you sit down to draft your playoff pool, I wouldn’t touch this roster. As good as it is.