Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why not Nashville?

Outrage directed at the characteristic disrespect shown by prognosticators of both the amateur and professional variety to the Nashville Predators is becoming a fall ritual for many of us. With yesterday's season-eve posting of standings prediction from Canadian sports juggernaut TSN, it should have come as now surprise that the Predators are predicted to finish on the outside precipice of the postseason, in ninth place It seems that every year, the pundits love nothing more to extoll the virtues of whatever flavor of the previous season team has captured their spot as feel-good darlings.  Last summer it was the Columbus Blue Jackets, this year it's the Phoenix Coyotes. Of course the media, like everyone else, loves an underdog.  So that raises the question: why not Nashville?  Invariably, when these ultimately meaningless rankings are published, Nashville is on the outside looking in.  Why is that?  Is it the stigma of backing a team in a warm-weather climate?  No, everyone loves the Coyotes.  Recent expansion team?  See the Wild, and even at times the NHL's great trainwreck, the Atlanta Thrashers. So is it something personal?  Do they hate us for our only-a-mother-and-a-fan-could-love-it goal song? The mustard thirds? Our neckless coach?  When I examine the teams that we are realistically in competition with from an analytical standpoint, I repeatedly come up empty.  So what is it?  What did we do to you?

With this eternally burning question, I'd like to look at two teams in particular that seem to be getting all of the predictive hype in favor of the Nashville Predators:  St. Louis and LA.  An argument could be made that the Coyotes are possibly unfairly rated above the Predators, but I like enough about their lineup and coaching that I think most of the predictions around them are justified.  They get a pass--for now.

A season ago, the Blues finished with 90 points, good for 9th place and a full ten points behind the Predators. Their offseason has consisted of jettisoning older veterans such as Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, while replacing the solid--albeit inconsistent-- goaltending of Chris Mason with Montreal's playoff hero Jaroslav Halak.  While admittedly, this is theoretically an improvement, Halak is still relatively unproven, a good playoff year aside.  As most of us remember, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis both had similarly dazzling playoff performances, only to return to earth the next season.  Many in the media point to disappointing years from young contributors like Patrik Berglund, David Perron, David Backets, and Brad Boyes.  It's just assumed that most, if not all, of these guys will rebound.  Can the same not be said for David Legwand, JP Dumont, Steve Sullivan, and Martin Erat?  When I look at the Blues, I see a team that looks, more or less, similar to the team that fell short last season.  So why then does TSN have them at 6 in the west?  CBS Sportsline sees them at 8, just above the Predators, who finished ninth in both places.

Almost as confusing as the love for the St Louis Blues is the massive amount of fanfare surrounding the Los Angeles Kings.  The Kings came out of nowhere last season, rising above the belief that many held that would have seen them as a lottery team(further proof that preseason rankings are bunk), eventually finishing in fifth place.  While it's impossible to ignore two young stars like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, what else is there?  The Kings defense is extremely young\unproven, with both Davis Drewiske and Jake Muzzin  are both coming into their first full season.  The elder statesman, recently-signed Willie Mitchell, has had trouble staying healthy.  The Kings are best known for the offseason acquisition they DIDN'T make, playing also-ran to the New Jersey Devils in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes.  But Alex Ponikarovsky is a fine consolation prize, right?  The Kings will rely on a sophomore goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who will need to avoid Steve Mason-itis, if they are to be successful.  The other hope would be that highly-touted rookie Jonathan Bernier can shoulder the load quicker than expected.  What this all adds up to is a lot of "ifs."  Despite these questions, many consider the LA Kings to not only be a playoff lock, but a "top contender!"  According to XM NHL Home Ice's celebrity correspondant Denis Potvin, "The Canucks, Red Wings, and Kings are the heavyweights in the west."  This, in spite of the fact that the Kings nearly plummeted out of the playoff race down the stretch, before rebounding to finish sixth and "provide a challenge" to the Canucks.  Very confusing, indeed.

To play devil's advocate for a moment, I can see some of the things that might make an outsider skeptical of the Nashville Predators.  Dan Hamhuis and Jason Arnott are gone.  There continues to be a question of scoring.  Aside from perhaps Patric Hornqvist, there's no one that you could call a bonafide top line forward, rather a solid group of second liners.  For those of us familiar with the team and the way it operates, these aren't really questions we have to ask ourselves.  We've watched Hamhuis's abilities and physicality degenerate over the past couple of seasons.  Arnott's leadership and work ethic have been a rumored source of contention behind the scenes for some time, now.  As for scoring, the Predators have never had that marquee guy that can pot 50 goals.  It's always been a matter of getting it done by committee, and the additions of Matthew Lombardi and Sergei Kostitsyn should help in that regard.  With Trotz running a new-look power play, there should be improvement on special teams, as well.  Of course, these scenarios represent a lot of "ifs" as well, similar to what I documented with the Blues and the Kings.  I'm sure their fans believe that the lofty predictions are justified. 

The question that will continue to vex me is, "why do they get the benefit of the doubt?"

Why not Nashville?  Why not, Nashville.


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