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 PickPlayerGames PlayedCareer PointsCareer GoalsCareer AssistsHigh PointsHigh GoalsHigh Assists
2ndAlex Tanguay1088863283580812959
60thBrad Richards112693229863491 (x2)2868
88thShawn Horcoff1008511186325732251
138thAndrei Markov990572119453641652
147thPavel Datsyuk95391831460497 (x2)3266
202ndMichael Ryder806484237247633538
230thKarlis Skrastins83213632104185 (x2)14

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 PickPlayerGames PlayedCareer PointsCareer GoalsCareer AssistsHigh PointsHigh GoalsHigh Assists
6thMartin Havlat790594242352773148
33rdJordan Leopold69521467147351324
52ndFrantisek Kaberle5231932916444738
54thNiklas Hagman770301147154442720
61stMike Comrie58936516819760 (x2)3331
65thChris Kelly845291123168392023
72ndRyan Malone647370179191512728
121stRyan Miller780387 W281 L86 OTL.915 SV%2.61 GAA44 SO
124thDerek MacKenzie611125517423914
131stMartin Erat881545176369582341
162ndHenrik Zetterberg1082960337623924356
191stTom Kostopoulos630157619622 (x4)915
205thRadim Vrbata1057623284339633535
220thRadek Martinek486110258517 (x 2)616
248thAlexander Khavanov348102277533825

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 PickPlayerGames PlayedCareer PointsCareer GoalsCareer AssistsHigh PointsHigh GoalsHigh Assists
6thNiklas Kronwall95343283349511545
36thAntoine Vermette1046515228287652738
72ndDominic Moore897282106176451832
89thLubomir Visnovsky8834951283676818 (x2)50 (x2)
131stJohn-Michael Liles836370872834914 (x2)40
137thRoman Cechmanek212110 W64 L28 T.919 SV%2.08 GAA25 SO
154thHenrik Lundqvist887459 W310 L96 T/OTL.918 SV%2.43 GAA64 SO
173rdMatthew Lombardi536262101161532034
197thPaul Gaustad727231891423612 (x3)26
203rdAntti Miettinen53923097133442029
236thRoman Simicek631771015510
284thSimon Gamache481367434

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 PickPlayerGames PlayedCareer PointsCareer GoalsCareer AssistsHigh PointsHigh GoalsHigh Assists
12thMike Cammalleri906642294348823946
33rdJason Pominville1060727293434803453
42ndTomas Plekanec1001608233375702945
75thChristian Ehrhoff789339742655014 (x2)36
76thPatrick Sharp939620287333783644
98thMarek Zidlicky83641789328531439
178thJussi Jokinen951563191372653042
240thP. A. Parenteau4912961141826720 (x2)49
271stMikko Lehtonen15312312

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 PickPlayerGames PlayedCareer PointsCareer GoalsCareer AssistsHigh PointsHigh GoalsHigh Assists
6thDuncan Keith1138610101509691455
102ndTom Gilbert65522345178451340
138thJames Wisniewski5522745322151 (x2)1044
172ndIan White50317945134381325 (x2)
203rdMaxime Talbot70420491113341919
235thDennis Wideman81538799288561541
264thAdam Burish37860273319813
266thJonathan Ericsson680125279815 (x3)412 (x3)

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.