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Can "Predator Hockey" really win the Stanley Cup?

Yesterday, Ryan Porth posted an article over at Smashville 24/7 that got heads nodding and tongues wagging, over the question of whether "Predator Hockey" can win a Stanley Cup. It outlined the defense, goaltending & hard work mantra which has become the cornerstone of this franchise, and the confidence that the Nashville leadership has in its ability to put the team over the top.

...the Preds believe they are close to a Cup simply by playing hockey their own way. For the majority of the 82-game slate, they will outwork the opposition, win or lose. Some nights they'll completely shut down the opposition; sometimes they'll do the ol' rope-a-dope and pounce on mistakes caused by forechecking. You can always bank on that aggressive forecheck to throw other teams off their game.

Strong defense is the backbone of the Preds' success. With Weber and Ryan Suter currently the top defensive duo in the league, and other young talents coming through the pipeline, the blue-line won't be a weakness anytime soon.

But has a team really won the Cup like that in recent years? Is there any empirical evidence that "the Predator Way" can really lead to a championship?

Consider the following, a list of offensive performance by Stanley Cup champions as compared to the Nashville Predators (since they made the playoffs the first time):

 Season  Cup Champ  Goals For   Rank   Predators GF   Preds Rank 
 2010-11  Boston Bruins 246 8th 219 21st
 2009-10  Chicago Blackhawks 271 3rd 225 17th
 2008-09  Pittsburgh Penguins 264 6th 213 24th
 2007-08  Detroit Red Wings 257 3rd 230 15th
 2006-07  Anaheim Ducks 258 6th 272 4th
 2005-06  Carolina Hurricanes 294 3rd 259 10th
 2003-04  Tampa Bay Lightning 245 3rd 216 12th
 2002-03  New Jersey Devils 216 14th
 2001-02  Detroit Red Wings 251 2nd
 2000-01  Colorado Avalanche 270 4th
 1999-2000  New Jersey Devils 251 2nd
 1998-99  Dallas Stars 236 8th
 1997-98  Detroit Red Wings 250 2nd
 1996-97  Detroit Red Wings 253 6th
 1995-96  Colorado Avalanche 326 2nd
 1994-95  New Jersey Devils 136* 13th
 1993-94  New York Rangers 299 4th
 1992-93  Montreal Canadiens 326 9th
 1991-92  Pittsburgh Penguins 343 1st
 1990-91  Pittsburgh Penguins 342 2nd

*Shortened season

A few noteworthy things jump out here:

  • In the last 20 years, no team finishing in the bottom half of the league in Goals For has won the Cup.
  • Only once have the Predators outscored the eventual Cup champ, in 2007.
  • The Great Fire Sale of 2007 gutted this team of offensive talent, which took another hit in 2008 with the Radulov defection.

Preds offense remains mired in the bottom half

What concerns me is the lack of emphasis to develop an above-average NHL offense. There doesn't appear to be much urgency for bringing in proven talent up front, and when the power play was discussed at the Skate of the Union, nothing new was brought to the table, either. I believe the quote from Barry Trotz was along the lines of "eventually it will break through". Um, OK.

I admire Trotz as a coach and the patient, developmental methods used by the Predators organization, but I am deeply concerned about the situation with the forwards heading into 2011-12. To me, it recalls the summer of 2008, when we heard a lot about young players like Ryan Jones and Patric Hornqvist stepping into major roles. That didn't work out so well, and to quote Yogi Berra, this feels like deja vu all over again.

At this point, the Top 6 forwards look something like this: David Legwand, Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn, Colin Wilson. There's a lot of hope built into any assumption that this sextet is playoff-caliber, let alone capable of contending for a Stanley Cup (hope, because they'd all need to stay healthy and enjoy productive seasons). A supporting cast consisting of guys like Jerred Smithson, Nick Spaling, Matt Halischuk, Jordin Tootoo, and Blake Geoffrion isn't going to push the Preds into the top half of the league offensively, either.

As one user recently noted in the comments here (and I apologize for not recalling who it was), the addition of Mike Fisher is often talked about as a huge plus for the team, and given the context of having Matthew Lombardi's salary weighing on them last season, that was true at the time. But in the end, what we've had is really a transition at center from Jason Arnott to Matthew Lombardi to Mike Fisher, and as much as we all admire Fisher's style of play and work ethic, that's a step backwards offensively.

The acquisition of guys like Kyle Wilson and Niclas Bergfors is encouraging, but they're certainly not going to drive major change in the minor roles they are likely destined for. I wouldn't mind seeing Cal O`Reilly between them to try and create a 3rd scoring line, but instead I'm afraid we'll see more hustle & bang from guys like Zack Stortini.

Nashville may have trouble even playing The Predator Way

But wait, the "Predator Way" loyalist says - it can be OK to have a mediocre offense if the defense & goaltending are rock solid, as they surely will be, right?

That assumes all of the following:

  • Pekka Rinne can repeat his standout performance of last season (13th-best all-time by Save Percentage). Anything less will put additional burden on the skaters.
  • The kids step in seamlessly on the blueline.
  • Francis Bouillon is ready to go at the start of the season, and can handle tough minutes.

All 3 of those carry a considerable downside, with perhaps the baby blueline being the riskiest in the short term. I'm excited as anyone about Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm, but they need time before being relied upon to play major roles at the NHL level. Who, for example, would man the PK?

In short, I don't think it's certain that the Predators will be all that great defensively, especially in light of the departure of Joel Ward and Shane O`Brien.

Don't panic... yet

What would soothe my nerves would be to know that something is being done to address the offensive deficiencies of this team more than just bringing in sub-$1 million 4th-liners and hoping that kids blossom into snipers. If, as is being bandied about, the Preds can't afford to have decent offensive talent along with the Big 3 of Weber, Suter, and Rinne... then one of them may have to go (today's afternoon notes will have more on that).

The current formula can carry the team into the playoffs consistently, but once there, are the Predators really prepared to battle and beat the best? Goaltending and defense can indeed be advantages, but the hard work angle probably isn't - at playoff time, everybody's motivated.

Is there time and budget space for David Poile to address these concerns? Absolutely. But if we get close to the opening of the regular season and we're still hearing about how high the upside is for this team of young kids, or that defense and goaltending can carry the Preds to the next level competitively, prepare yourselves for a very bumpy ride.