Don’t get fooled into believing Nashville just closed the book on an unlikely underdog tale. This team is legit – and will contend again next season.
The Nashville Predators gagged their best talker, P.K. Subban, in the days leading up to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. In the moments after losing a 2-0 heartbreaker to end the series on home ice, though, the Preds suddenly wanted their best talker to take the bullet and give an immediate post-game interview on their behalf. Good on Subban for gutting it out and expressing himself minutes after the Stanley Cup slipped through his fingers. And good on him for repeatedly telling Hockey Night in Canada’s David Amber: “we’ll back next year.”
The Predators entered the playoffs as a sleeper, the No. 16 overall seed, but that doesn’t make their amazing 2017 run a one-off. Far from it. This team has what it takes to keep contending for the foreseeable future.
The engine driving the Preds all year, of course, was the ‘Big Four’ on defense, consisting of Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. Together, they combine to play about 50 minutes of every game. They are 28, 27, 27 and 26, respectively, and each is signed through at least 2019-20. They have several years of peak performance left in them. The Preds’ top emerging young goal scorers, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, are 22 and 24. First-line center Ryan Johansen? Also 24. Youngsters Kevin Fiala and Colton Sissons each made big strides this season and are 20 and 23, respectively. The Preds have a good two-way prospect coming up the system in Vladislav Kamenev, too.
They also have arguably the NHL’s most aggressively active GM helming them in David Poile. Even when his team bounced around the playoff bubble over the past several seasons, Poile did everything in his power to shake up his roster in hopes of building a contender. He dealt his captain, Shea Weber, for Subban. Poile traded his best young blueline prospect, Seth Jones, for Johansen. What will Poile do now that he’s tasted a Stanley Cup final with this team? Nashville has a glaring need at center right now, especially with Mike Fisher 37 and unlikely to play many more years, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Poile address that need in the off-season. He has a promising young defense prospect in Dante Fabbro and a first-round pick in 2017. Might that make a good starting point for a Matt Duchene offer to defense-starved Colorado? Nothing is ever impossible on the trade front with Poile.
Nashville also seems to be catching the Central Division at the right time. It just swept a top-heavy Chicago team with an aging core, particularly on defense. Given the Hawks’ salary-cap squeeze, it’s tough to imagine them icing a superior product on the ice in 2017-18. Their improvements will likely have to come from within. The Dallas Stars landed Ben Bishop to fix their goaltending woes but are nonetheless fresh off a playoff miss. The St. Louis Blues aren’t as dominant as they were a couple years ago. The Colorado Avalanche are the NHL’s worst team. The Winnipeg Jets have stalled developmentally. The Minnesota Wild were great in 2016-17 but have a relatively old roster and bombed out in Round 1. There’s no reason why Nashville can’t end up the best team in its division next year, which would up their chances at home-ice advantage in the playoffs. They were 9-1-1 at Bridgestone Arena this spring.
Goaltending is a long-term area of concern, sure. Pekka Rinne is a heady, athletic goalie who works harmoniously with his defense corps thanks to his great puck-handling skills, but he’s 34 and struggles with inconsistency, especially on the road. The advanced statistics also tell us he doesn’t fare well against high-quality scoring chances. Backup Juuse Saros has shown a lot of promise but is also one of the league’s smallest goalies, meaning he gives opponents a lot of net to shoot at.
Still, Rinne had a strong year overall, largely because he has such a good group of blueliners in front of him, and he should remain a serviceable starter for a couple more years. Stanley Cup road-game meltdowns and all, Nashville still came within two victories of a championship. Rinne isn’t that bad by any means, and he’s quite good in many facets of the game.
So the Predators have far more positives than negatives staring them in the face as they grieve their defeat. The 2016-17 season wasn’t the end of something for Music City. It was the beginning. It’s entirely possible Subban’s prophecy comes true.