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Optimizing Nashville’s Draft Classes, Part 1: 1998-2002

Let’s put some things right and make sure that I’m never scarred by Pavel Datsyuk doing unspeakable things to Tomas Vokoun.

Hey there folks! It’s been an extended (and unwanted) hiatus, but I’m finally back with another very stupid, very enjoyable experiment that I spent entirely too much time on. The Nashville Predators have had plenty of draft gaffes throughout their history, from taking Brian Finley 6th overall to selecting Miikka Salomaki ahead of Nikita Kucherov; as a fan who is continually frustrated by the organization’s struggles to produce skilled, high-scoring forwards, I know I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about what could have been. Taking all of that into account, what would the Preds look like if I perfectly optimized every draft pick in franchise history?

I’ll be briefly breaking down the optimized form of every Nashville draft class from 1998 through 2017, split into 5-year increments. What do I mean by optimized? In this case, I’m simply using the picks that Nashville had in the draft that year and taking the best possible set of players possible with said picks. I’ll also be attempting to break down how taking said players would have likely changed the history of the Predators. This experiment isn’t acting as if the optimized 1998 and 1999 drafts are happening within one timeline; instead, it’s assuming all history prior to that specific year is the same as our real-life Preds. For a brief example, if I’m talking about the optimal 1999 draft, it’s occurring in a universe where Nashville still took David Legwand second overall and made the exact same trades and signings prior to draft day.

With that explanation of how this works out of the way, let’s kick off this series with a look at the 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002 classes.

Revised 1998 Draft Class

Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
2nd Alex Tanguay 1088 863 283 580 81 29 59
60th Brad Richards 1126 932 298 634 91 (x2) 28 68
88th Shawn Horcoff 1008 511 186 325 73 22 51
138th Andrei Markov 990 572 119 453 64 16 52
147th Pavel Datsyuk 953 918 314 604 97 (x2) 32 66
202nd Michael Ryder 806 484 237 247 63 35 38
230th Karlis Skrastins 832 136 32 104 18 5 (x2) 14
Class Stats:  6,803 GP; 1,469 G; 2,947 A; 4,416 P. Class Awards: 5 All Stars, 5 Lady Byng wins, 2 Selke wins. HOFers: Datsyuk (solid lock), Richards (borderline). All stats via Hockey Reference

David Poile starts his tenure off with a bang by taking Quebec native Alex Tanguay off the board way earlier than the consensus; Nashville fans are upset because all-American future superstar David Legwand was passed on. The rest of the draft goes pretty typically.

The drafting of a few players in this class clearly alters the history of the league as we know it, most notably with Datsyuk, Tanguay, Richards and Markov. Without Richards, the Lightning likely don’t win a Stanley Cup in 2004, making Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have a bit less notoriety. The Avalanche still have a decent chance at winning the Stanley Cup in 2001, but without Tanguay’s 77 points in the regular season to assist them with their regular season record and his 21 postseason points, that path becomes more difficult. Without Datsyuk, Detroit still probably wins one Cup in the 2000s thanks to Zetterberg and company, but they aren’t able to manage the playoff streak that our Red Wings had and fall apart much earlier. Lastly, without Markov, the Habs aren’t nearly as good in a number of years and likely either miss the postseason or don’t perform as well as they did in real life; the 2013-14 postseason is a perfect example.

Now, on to Nashville’s adjusted future thanks to this group. Assuming that all of them developed the same way as they did elsewhere for the sake of this hypothetical, this class’s impact isn’t really felt until the 1999-2000 season, when Karlis Skrastins becomes a frequent starter and Alex Tanguay plays his rookie season. On a loaded Avalanche team, Tanguay put up 51 points and 17 goals, but on an expansion Preds team still struggling in the league’s basement he likely has mixed factors weighing on him; he’s getting more ice time and more power-play opportunities, but his linemates are worse.

Let’s say Tanguay finishes around 51 points, and continues his real-life upward trajectory until he’s around a point-per-game player. He’s probably a Predator for the rest of his career, given the loyalty that David Poile showed David Legwand, and is probably the captain of the team at some point. If he’s playing on those earlier Predators teams, Nashville likely goes deeper in the playoffs in at least one series. Throw in Pavel Datsyuk, Andrei Markov and Brad Richards joining the team and making an instant impact (Richards had 62 points in his rookie year; Datsyuk had 35; Markov had 23), and you have a Nashville team that’s significantly better than what we as fans lived through.

In this case, the Predators aren’t truly Cup contenders until around the 2003-2004 season, but at that point and immediately post-lockout, the team is absolutely stacked. Nashville still probably drafts Martin Erat despite the team being better, and with star forwards to assist a defense led by Markov, Timonen and a young Shea Weber, the team has a shot to win a championship within that window. Paul Kariya still probably comes to Nashville, but Steve Sullivan sadly never emerges as a fan favorite to captivate the hearts of Preds fans; instead, most people on Broadway wear jerseys with #13 on them.

Revised 1999 Draft Class

Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
6th Martin Havlat 790 594 242 352 77 31 48
33rd Jordan Leopold 695 214 67 147 35 13 24
52nd Frantisek Kaberle 523 193 29 164 44 7 38
54th Niklas Hagman 770 301 147 154 44 27 20
61st Mike Comrie 589 365 168 197 60 (x2) 33 31
65th Chris Kelly 845 291 123 168 39 20 23
72nd Ryan Malone 647 370 179 191 51 27 28
121st Ryan Miller 780 387 W 281 L 86 OTL .915 SV% 2.61 GAA 44 SO
124th Derek MacKenzie 611 125 51 74 23 9 14
131st Martin Erat 881 545 176 369 58 23 41
162nd Henrik Zetterberg 1082 960 337 623 92 43 56
191st Tom Kostopoulos 630 157 61 96 22 (x4) 9 15
205th Radim Vrbata 1057 623 284 339 63 35 35
220th Radek Martinek 486 110 25 85 17 (x 2) 6 16
248th Alexander Khavanov 348 102 27 75 33 8 25
Class Stats: 10,734 GP; 1,916 G; 3,034 A; 4,950 P; 387 W; 281 L; 85 OTL; 44 SO; GAA 2.62; SV% .915. Class Awards: 1 Vezina Win, 4 All Stars, 1 Conn Smythe, 1 King Clancy. HOFers: Ryan Miller (maybe), Henrik Zetterberg (unlikely). All stats via Hockey Reference

This class again sees the Predators become strong championship contenders under Trotz, this time with a core led by Henrik Zetterberg, Marty Havlat, Radim Vrbata, Martin Erat, Mike Comrie and Ryan Miller. A young Dan Hamhuis also makes an appearance, but Nashville isn’t in a position to take Ryan Suter. Shea Weber still ends up in Nashville; the team is loaded with depth up front and on the back end and probably goes deep in the postseason a few times before butting heads with either the Sharks, Blackhawks, Avalanche or Red Wings. Detroit probably still wins another Cup without Zetterberg, but the dynasty collapses earlier; Havlat never kickstarts the young 2006-07 Blackhawks team, so they take longer to develop into a dynasty. Miller becomes the face of the franchise alongside Zetterberg as David Legwand rapidly becomes a forgotten name.

Revised 2000 Draft Class

Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
6th Niklas Kronwall 953 432 83 349 51 15 45
36th Antoine Vermette 1046 515 228 287 65 27 38
72nd Dominic Moore 897 282 106 176 45 18 32
89th Lubomir Visnovsky 883 495 128 367 68 18 (x2) 50 (x2)
131st John-Michael Liles 836 370 87 283 49 14 (x2) 40
137th Roman Cechmanek 212 110 W 64 L 28 T .919 SV% 2.08 GAA 25 SO
154th Henrik Lundqvist 887 459 W 310 L 96 T/OTL .918 SV% 2.43 GAA 64 SO
173rd Matthew Lombardi 536 262 101 161 53 20 34
197th Paul Gaustad 727 231 89 142 36 12 (x3) 26
203rd Antti Miettinen 539 230 97 133 44 20 29
236th Roman Simicek 63 17 7 10 15 5 10
284th Simon Gamache 48 13 6 7 4 3 4
Class Stats: 7,627 GP; 932 G; 1,915 A; 2,847 P; 569 W; 374 L; 28 T; 96 OTL; 2.26 GAA; .919 SV%. Class Awards: 1 Bill Masterton, 1 William Jennings, 1 Vezina, 3 All Stars. HOFers: Henrik Lundqvist (lock). All stats via Hockey Reference

It’s a big year for goalies, but the Predators also add a really strong trio of skaters in Vermette, Visnovsky and Kronwall. Nashville remains bad enough to take Dan Hamhuis, Scottie Upshall, and the pair of Suter and Weber, but the team fails to improve significantly until Henrik Lundqvist takes over in goal. Roman Cecmanek is traded for assets to supplement a blossoming Nashville playoff team that looks very similar to the teams that a young Pekka Rinne played on, albeit much younger and more skilled.

Nashville is never a true title contender, but they win a few playoff series and pull off a run to the Western Conference Finals at some point. Hank becomes the icon that Rinne was for all of us, and the physical defensive quartet of Kronwall, Weber, Suter and Hamhuis help establish a tradition of excellence on the Nashville blueline.

Revised 2001 Draft Class

Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
12th Mike Cammalleri 906 642 294 348 82 39 46
33rd Jason Pominville 1060 727 293 434 80 34 53
42nd Tomas Plekanec 1001 608 233 375 70 29 45
75th Christian Ehrhoff 789 339 74 265 50 14 (x2) 36
76th Patrick Sharp 939 620 287 333 78 36 44
98th Marek Zidlicky 836 417 89 328 53 14 39
178th Jussi Jokinen 951 563 191 372 65 30 42
240th P. A. Parenteau 491 296 114 182 67 20 (x2) 49
271st Mikko Lehtonen 15 3 1 2 3 1 2
Class Stats: 6,988 GP; 1,576 G; 2,639 A; 4,215 P. Class Awards: 2 All Stars, 1 All Star MVP. HOFers: none. All stats via Hockey Reference

Mike Cammalleri and Jason Pominville make impacts early in their careers and help bring Nashville out of the doldrums a bit earlier. The Preds still take Weber and Suter, as well as a talented young Russian winger named Alexander Radulov and a Finnish goalie named Pekka Rinne. Nashville struggles along before their young talent comes in all at once and rapidly elevates them within the West; late bloomers Patrick Sharp and Jussi Jokinen are given plenty of time and patience in Nashville, where the team is less apt to trade prospects in pursuit of playoff pieces. Nashville wins games by being the deepest team in the league, eventually backstopped by Pekka Rinne to multiple deep playoff runs.

Revised 2002 Draft Class

Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
Draft Pick Player Games Played Career Points Career Goals Career Assists High Points High Goals High Assists
6th Duncan Keith 1138 610 101 509 69 14 55
102nd Tom Gilbert 655 223 45 178 45 13 40
138th James Wisniewski 552 274 53 221 51 (x2) 10 44
172nd Ian White 503 179 45 134 38 13 25 (x2)
203rd Maxime Talbot 704 204 91 113 34 19 19
235th Dennis Wideman 815 387 99 288 56 15 41
264th Adam Burish 378 60 27 33 19 8 13
266th Jonathan Ericsson 680 125 27 98 15 (x3) 4 12 (x3)
Class Stats: 5,425 GP; 488 G; 1,574 A; 2,062 P. Awards: 1 All Star, 1 Conn Smythe, 2 Norris wins. HOFers: Duncan Keith (lock). All stats via Hockey Reference

By the time the 2002 class rolls around, it’s unable to make much impact on the establishment of the early Preds core that we all know and love. Nothing really changes until around 2005-2006, where young Duncan Keith and Dennis Wideman help make the series against San Jose more competitive. In the following year, the Preds avoid San Jose thanks to the boost provided by Keith and Wideman and play Dallas, who they defeat; they lose to Anaheim in the following round.

The Predators finally get over the top in 2011-2012 when Keith, Suter, Weber, Wideman and company all have the best years of their careers, taking Nashville all the way to the Stanley Cup Final after a seven-game series against the cinderella Kings. Nashville defeats the New Jersey Devils in 6 games to bring Music City a Stanley Cup.

Did y’all enjoy this article? If so, get ready for more of the same; I’ll be taking a look at three other 5-year spans and the possibilities that they held. Leave a comment below if you have some feedback or just want to discuss. Thanks for reading.