Summer Wish List for Nashville & the NHL

Some bold ideas for the future of hockey in Nashville.

Every now and then, I come out of my humble prospect home and write something truly inflammatory to the Nashville fan base. Kidding, of course; my takes are usually rather tame. But I have put a significant amount of thought into some ideas that this organization can lead by example on and change some of the core operations of the league.

Below I lay out some off-season ideas for the Predators, ranging from smart hockey operations moves to bold and maybe shocking ideas to revamp the NHL. So, let’s dive in.

ECHL Affiliation

When I started writing this, the Predators didn’t have an affiliation with any ECHL team. When you read this, you’ll already know that Nashville read my mind and thought, “Hmmm, Eric is usually pretty right—let’s scoop up an ECHL affiliate!”

Nashville has, to say the least, had some trouble with ECHL relationships lately. After a years-long relationship with the Cincinnati Cyclones, they entered into an agreement with the Norfolk Admirals in the summer of 2017. That affiliation was mysteriously terminated just 19 games into the 2017-18 season, and Nashville has been without an official partner since.

This past season, the Predators made do by loaning players to the Atlanta Gladiators (affiliated with the Boston Bruins). Despite the improvements of Zach Magwood and some players on AHL contracts, this move resulted in the failure of all three of their European free agent prospects: Filip Pyrochta, Miroslav Svoboda, and Carl Persson.

Without a proper affiliate, the Predators’ players may not get ice time priority, Predators management has little to no say in hockey operations staffing, and they’re less likely to support a club like Atlanta financially to upgrade facilities and training regimens.

My initial suggestion was for Nashville to affiliate with the independent Greenville Swamp Rabbits—just over five hours away in South Carolina. But instead, they decided to partner with one of the most successful ECHL clubs in recent memory:

The Florida Everblades (long affiliated with Carolina) have missed the playoffs just one of their 21 seasons and were atop the Eastern Conference this season, but lost to Newfoundland in the conference final.

European Outreach

It’s obvious the Nashville fan base has a dedicated European following and that there has been frustration over the Predators’ lack of an invite to the NHL Global Series thus far. It’s a shame, but it will happen soon enough. Something the organization can take up in their own right, however, is striking up a European partnership.

If you watched any of the IIHF World Championships this year, you see how intense these crowds are. Having been to a few games in Europe myself, I can tell you it’s an experience unlike any other.

I’m not suggesting the ownership group buy a European club like the Kings have done. But, I can envision a mutually-beneficial partnership by way of:

  • Fan exchange program
  • Organizational support and coverage during the Champions Hockey League
  • North American & European exhibition games
  • Summer development camps together, etc./

There are plenty of teams that I could imagine in this scenario and provide a neat way for fans to cultivate a better understanding of the game across the pond.

Potential Partner Clubs:

  • SC Bern - NLA [Switzerland]: Home club of Roman Josi and current NLA champions.
  • Adler Mannheim - DEL [Germany]: Home of former Predator Marcel Goc and current DEL champions.
  • Oulun Karpat - Liiga [Finland]: Home club of Pekka Rinne.
  • KalPa - Liiga [Finland]: Partially owned by Kimmo Timonen.
  • Skelleftea AIK - SHL [Sweden]: Home club of Viktor Arvidsson.
  • HC Kosice - Tipsport Liga [Slovakia]
  • Bruleurs de loups - Ligue Magnus [France]/

In-Game Betting

This one is pretty relevant to some big happenings in Tennessee politics this week. On Friday, Gov. Bill Lee allowed a bill legalizing online sports betting to become law without his signature. Tennessee is now just one of a handful of states with legal sports betting, but the only one with exclusively online legality that isn’t tied to land-based gambling.

Additionally, the bill stipulates that sports books will be required to buy official data from pro leagues to set up shop in the state—a huge win for the NHL.

Also this week, the league signed a partnership with a third sports book, making FanDuel, MGM Resorts, and William Hill official partners of the league.

There has been significant chatter about how this materializes, but I think it’s pretty simple. Ignoring how awful the NHL app is, the best way for this to be accessible to casual and die-hard fans alike is in-game betting on the app. Let’s say Nashville gets a power play: open up your app real quick and throw $5 down on whether they score a power play goal or not (let’s be honest, those will be long-shot odds).

The league has already dipped its toe in these waters in a sense with contests like the Daily Hat Trick, where earlier in the day you can select whether three certain events will happen in the evening’s games. Obviously that’s for a prize and not for money, but it can be a good model.

And there is room for fans to recoup some of the financial benefit here.

On the one hand, it’s great Metro is being relieved of financial responsibility for the organization. On the other hand, there will be an increase in ticket surcharges to offset costs. My suggestion would be for the organization to negotiate with a sports book to provide a discount on league data for a similar surcharge to operate in Bridgestone. It’s probably unlikely the league agrees to that, but alas.

If not, maybe the team and a book can strike an agreement about payouts: the book pays a surcharge redistributed to ticket fees based on how many nights there are with payouts inside or outside certain bargained ranges or based on other qualifications. In exchange, the sports book can operate a betting lounge in-arena for a more holistic betting experience. (Side note: that lounge should hang right next to an e-sports lounge to encourage the next wave of 21st-century sports fandom).

Stuff like this is coming. I anticipate Vegas and New Jersey to be at the forefront, but with a rare victory like this in the Tennessee State Legislature, the Predators should take full advantage.

Pre-Season Games

This has been touched on before, and I think it is coming soon: Nashville would be wise to start organizing preseason games in other Southern cities. This organization has had an incredible hold on the region since the Thrashers left, but things will only get tougher with the Hurricanes’ and Blues’ recent success.

Greg Wyshynski at ESPN dove into this in January and confirmed the organization is looking at a plan along these lines.

Memphis, Louisville, Little Rock, Huntsville, Birmingham, Atlanta and Augusta could be excellent locales for September hockey in the near future.

Position-less Hockey

I think the name of this section is misleading, and it is tough to actually express empirically how this would work. But the sport is heading this way in more and less explicit ways. For the past several years, there has been rabid discussion about the future of defense: would you rather a shut-down defender or a player scoring a lot, so he’s rarely playing defense? The game is much faster and more fluid today than it’s ever been, and it’s shown in how depth forwards and defenders have evolved over the past couple decades.

I would love to see Nashville take a stab at implementing more five-man strategies than traditional 3F-2D setups. This, of course, starts with abandoning the latter on the man-advantage (something most other teams have already done). But it also includes bringing in the right personnel.

I actually think they have a bit of a head start here with two particular players in Milwaukee: Matt Donovan and Brandon Fortunato. When Donovan was excelling at the beginning of last season, he was skating much more as a “fourth forward” at even strength and not simply pinning himself to the point on the power play.

Again, it’s hard to empirically explain how this will work, but the first steps are power-play adjustments and removing focus from valuing players on their shooting side, size, etc.

Big changes are coming in this regard. The American Development Model is implementing position-less coaching as early as the 12U stage. Nashville would be wise to analyze film like what’s shown above and be a front runner in adaption.

Below are three more suggestions I would like to see adopted league-wide.

Playoff Selection Show

This is by no means an original idea of mine, but I think it’s a fantastic one. Everyone has a gripe with the current playoff format and for good reason. So, what’s the solution? Look no further than one of the greatest nights in NHL history: the 2015 NHL All-Star Game Fantasy Draft.

It was a spectacular evening full of actual personality and mostly-drunk NHL players. I say we adopt that into a playoff selection show. Take the first Sunday after the regular season ends and turn it into a night for television. Each of the 16 qualifying teams will send a couple of players to a studio, and the top seven seeds by points (disregarding division or conference) get to pick their first-round opponent. The league can organize the bracket how they see fit, but the best seven teams get to control their destiny.

Imagine this: a tipsy Roman Josi and P.K. Subban poking fun at Matt Duchene for his country music skills to his face and announcing, “We pick Columbus, because we believe they’re the worst team here.” It gives that team motivation, mixes up the match-ups, provides excellent TV, and gets players engaging with each other. I think it’s foolproof and is an excellent avenue to solve the many qualms with the current format. And who knows what players end up choosing? Maybe they want the hardest match-up first, or a team with weak goaltending, or a team a few hours down the highway. It’s the players’ league, and this gives them ultimate ownership.

[Ed.: There was a strong implication that the NHL got rid of the All-Star Game draft because either the players or the managements were uncomfortable with the format—whether the “get NHL players tipsy on live TV, what could possibly go wrong?” aspect or the overall human-interest factor, which would remain even without alcohol. If so, this one might be a harder sell than the rest—which is a shame, because the mental images Eric has conjured up here are incredible.]

AHL Research & Development

The AHL product is likely as good as it has ever been, and that is fantastic for player development. But the league itself still has a drag on excitement due, in my opinion, to excessive division play. I get that teams are looking to keep travel costs down, and the divisions are set up fairly nicely to combat that. But I think the AHL can provide more.

A few summers ago, the NHL was hosting regular Research & Development camps each summer to explore new suggestions to the game. Sessions like these produced current game mainstays like 3-on-3 overtime:

Ideas to change the sport aren’t getting any fewer, so why not better utilize the AHL—a development league—for this? Here’s my suggestion:

  • Separate current AHL teams into tournament groups of five teams each, dissimilar to their current divisions.
  • Play the league as a Champions Hockey League-style season. Each group plays a round robin in their group seven times over: 28 games each.
  • After that point, mix up the groups with the top 15 teams slotted in three of them and the bottom 15 in the other three groups: 28 more games; 56 games each total.
  • Then, the top 16 teams qualify for a playoff tournament with six-game series and the addition of aggregate scoring like the CHL or UEFA./

Games can be played Thursday through Sunday and be bunched together over the course of the first half of the season for group play.

Additionally, through group play, each set of teams can use those games to test out a rule change the NHL is considering: two-minute majors, eliminating the trapezoid or offsides, changes to the video review problem, starting power plays in the offensive zone, etc.

The playoff tournament can be used to implement the ideas the NHL and AHL deemed successful in group play further.

NHL Draft Lottery

I’ll keep this one short and simple: the NHL Draft Lottery should happen an hour before the first round of the draft is scheduled to start. Merge it into the existing draft coverage, mic up some general managers, and let chaos ensue.

The teams down the draft board have to react in real time to selections before them. There’s no legitimate reason the team pick first overall should get nearly two months to prepare. Plus, the current lottery is awful television.

What’s on your wish list?