The Nashville Predators are proof anything is possible in the NHL playoffs. History suggests they are up against quite a challenge.
Nashville made it into the last postseason as the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference and ended up becoming just the third team seeded last to reach the Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
The Predators couldn’t stop Pittsburgh from repeating, and they’re about to find out how hard it is to defend a championship in their stacked conference. The Western Conference has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings pulled off the feat in 2008 and 2009, hosting a Stanley Cup and then losing a Game 7 against the Penguins.
Nashville’s appearance in the playoffs, though, was not fluke. The franchise was in the postseason for the third straight year and the 10th time in 13 seasons. And, the city should be prepared to have a good time again next spring, catfish and all.
“This year, our expectation is to be in the playoffs, but our expectation is also to give ourselves the best opportunity to win hockey games and to play in our building as much as we can because our fans were so great, especially through the run,” defenseman P. K. Subban said. “It was a huge edge for us in the playoffs being at home. We went most of the playoffs without losing at home. That’s what we’re going to need. We’re going to need our team to realize how important it is for us to win at home.”
The Predators seem set up for more success.
Mike Fisher retired and was effectively replaced on the ice by Penguins center Nick Bonino. General manager David Poile has goaltender Pekka Rinne under contract for two more seasons to go with top-line forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg, along with defenseman Subban for at least five years.
“We all know it was a lot of fun, and it was a tremendous experience going through all that,” Johansen said. “At the end of the day like 29 other teams, we didn’t reach our goal.”
Here’s a look at some other things to watch in the West:
The Colorado Avalanche, easily the NHL’s worst team last season, may be the only team in the Central Division without a legitimate shot to make the playoffs. The division was so tough last year that Nashville finished a relatively distant fourth behind Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis. Each of those teams figures to be just as good this season and will have to compete with Dallas, which seemed to lead the league in major moves .
Don’t sleep on Winnipeg, either. The Jets have made the playoffs only once in the last decade, but they could break through this season. Mark Scheifele, a 24-year-old center, quietly ranked among league leaders with 82 points last season. He leads a team with rising stars Patrik Laine, a 19-year-old winger who was taken No. 2 behind Auston Matthews, and 21-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Pacific Division is so stacked even the 20-year-old, reigning NHL MVP with a $100 million contract is far from cocky about his team’s chances.
“It’s so competitive,” said Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who was given an eight-year extension last summer. “It is a grind. And the Pacific, especially, I think you see a lot of teams that are right around that 100-point mark, 95-point mark, that are kind of right on the cusp.”
Chicago raised some eyebrows by trading Artemi Panarin one season after he was rookie of the year to Columbus for Brandon Saad. The move likely saves the Blackhawks some money as they manage the salary cap in future years. Saad’s return may bring the best out of Jonathan Toews , coming off one of the worst seasons of his career.
Ryan Getzlaf, who shows no sign of slipping at the age of 32, is back to lead the five-time defending Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks. Coming off their second trip to the conference finals in three years, they’re desperately seeking their first trip to the Cup final since winning it in 2007. The San Jose Sharks are without Patrick Marleau for the first time in two-plus decades after he left in free agency for Toronto, and the Los Angeles Kings are hoping to re-open their championship-contending window with coach John Stevens replacing Darryl Sutter.
VETERANS IN VEGAS
The Vegas Golden Knights are betting a few veterans making at least $5 million this season to make help them be relatively competitive in their debut season: goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forwards James Neal and Reilly Smith. The franchise’s path to potential success won’t be with castaways from other teams, but by drafting and developing talent. The Knights had three of the top 15 picks in the draft, including center Cody Glass sixth overall, but they don’t plan to rush any of them to the big show on the Strip. Prospect Alex Tuch, a 21-year-old forward, was acquired from Minnesota and the 2014 first-round pick may get a chance to play a lot.
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