Best Teams Never to Win a Championship: The One That Almost Did

This installment of SBNation’s might-have-beens retrospective looks at the Preds team that actually made the Stanley Cup Final.

We’re all feeling nostalgic, including the folks at the mothership, and it’s time for us to look back at teams that could have won a championship and didn’t.

For Nashville Predators fans, the obvious answer is the team that was two wins away from a Stanley Cup. It was in the building. Last-overall draft pick Patric Hornqvist scored the Cup-winning goal.

Yeah, it still stings.

To me, that beautiful, magical run says a lot about the randomness of hockey—the arbitrary caprices of the hockey gods, if you prefer, but also the role of pure dumb luck. If this had gone a little differently...if that had...

If Kevin Fiala’s femur hadn’t broken on that hit from Colton Parayko, if Ryan Johansen hadn’t suffered from compartment syndrome, if Mike Fisher hadn’t (probably) been playing through a concussion in the Final, if Jake Guentzel hadn’t scored on the first shot the Preds allowed on Pekka Rinne in something like a period and a half, if the puck had bounced a little differently in the Game 7 OT of the Eastern Conference Final and the Preds had been facing an Ottawa Senators team that wasn’t that great instead of a Pittsburgh Penguins team that could score at will, if...

But also: if Colton Sissons hadn’t gotten that Western Conference Final-clinching hat trick past John Gibson, if Rinne hadn’t started channeling the ghost of Dominik Hašek’s prime in Round 1 and been almost as good in Round 2, if Fiala hadn’t managed that overtime winner in the first game of the postseason at Bridgestone, if the Blues or the Ducks had managed to injure a few more key players...

The Preds team of 2017 was special. What they did was incredible and brought a great deal of joy. People who’d never really been hockey fans noticed the games and the enthusiasm, and some of them developed a real love for the sport. On a personal level, I started writing for OTF during that run, which has changed my life for the better in almost every way imaginable.

But was that Preds team that good?

Well...maybe not. We’ll be bringing you some looks at teams that were better on paper, and which might have actually managed to bring home Lord Stanley’s Cup with a little bit more luck. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the team that got the luck—or at least, almost enough of it.

The 2017 Nashville Predators had just swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, a polarizing move that had people who’d underrated Weber saying that now the Preds and their newly league-best defensive corps were finally ready to get some winning done, and had people who’d underrated Subban saying that the Preds were never going to get anywhere with a distraction like that in the locker room.

They stumbled during the year, struggling through serious injuries to Subban and to Roman Josi which saw Matt Irwin spending time on the top four. Shutdown defensive forward Calle Järnkrok moved up to center the second line as the team finally—and belatedly—parted ways with Mike Ribeiro, whose hockey skill had never made up for the rest. There was real doubt whether they were going to make the postseason at all. Subban’s detractors were sharpening their knives and forks, while Weber’s were at a loss to explain the issues the team had been having even while healthy.

But they made it into the playoffs, albeit barely, as the 16th seed and facing the still-relevant Chicago Blackhawks. “They’re going to get swept,” a lot of people said. I’ll admit it: I had them losing in five, because I was afraid to believe in anything good happening.

Well—they didn’t get swept.

They pulled off the first sweep in team history instead, powered on through a six-game triumph over the St. Louis Blues to make it to the third round for the first time in team history, and then won another series against old foes the Ducks. The Campbell Bowl was in the building—the first time one of the NHL’s championship trophies had come onto Bridgestone ice. We had some more great Sad Corey Perry footage. And then the Campbell Bowl was handed over to the Preds, and Captain Mike Fisher carefully didn’t touch it, nor did the rest of the team.

Even at the time, I wanted them to. What the Capitals did in 2018 I’d wanted the Preds to do in 2017, wringing every drop of joy they could out of the moment because who knew what would happen next?

What happened next was an ugly unraveling at the hands of the Penguins. Even great teams can lose a series ignominiously, and I don’t hold that against the 2017 Preds. The problem was more that with Pekka Rinne—who’d entered the Stanley Cup Final as a very good candidate for the Conn Smythe—was struggling badly and in spite of everything his team could do, and as the refereeing got worse and the goaltending didn’t improve the team took a hit to morale. Again, these things happen (though part of me does still wonder whether it would have made a difference having Weber instead of Fisher as captain).

But if you can score five, it doesn’t matter if the opponent scores four. If you can score six, it doesn’t matter if one gets overturned on a massively dodgy offside call, as long as you can still hold your opponent to four. If you believe that you can manage a comeback, you’re more likely to be able to swing the momentum enough to stop giving up goals. If your opponents are hemmed in their own end, it’s a lot harder for them to score.

The reason I can’t say the 2017 Nashville Predators team was the best one never to win a championship is that, well, they had all the center depth of a backyard wading pool. They had Ryan Johansen, who was phenomenal in the first round and stayed effective through the next two, and that was about it. Their offensive strategy was to hope that Johansen stayed healthy enough to anchor Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, and it worked until it didn’t. Järnkrok and Fisher were both effective shutdown centers, but by 2017 Fisher had lost his playmaking touch even before his injury.

The Preds entered the Stanley Cup Final with Colton Sissons as their 1C. Colton Sissons, in spite of his defensive prowess and his WCF Game 6 heroics, is also not an offensive superstar. Josi and Subban were among the players with the most offensive creativity left, in the Final, and they couldn’t simultaneously be setting up plays in the OZ and keeping Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company from wreaking havoc in the DZ.

The 2017 team got lucky, and Rinne had a sv% of .941 and a GSAx of 10.4 over sixteen games (hat tip to Natural Stat Trick) going into the Final. That’s not a criticism of the team either—every team that wins a series gets some luck and almost every team that wins a series needs goaltending, and I still believe that if Johansen and Fiala had been healthy, or maybe even if the referees had un-scored one or two fewer goals for the Preds, that that series would have had a very different outcome.

Even so, there have been Predators teams that haven’t needed as much superhuman goaltending, and one of those would be a better pick for the Preds’ best team never. Stay tuned and we’ll catch you up on some of the truly stacked Nashville Predators rosters of yesteryear and today.