Had the day off work on Friday, so I’m just sitting around the house and I’ve got in the habit of going through YouTube when I get up and have nothing to do. I have a tendency to find old sports video’s, games, just shit that a sports geek like myself loves. Lately, I love finding and putting on the old drafts. As of writing this I’ve let last year’s draft play. Brett Howden just got picked. Friday morning, I tried to look up the 1999 draft. Didn’t find it, but I did find a video of a guy (mid 30’s-mid 40’s) in Red Wings gear and a Canucks banner in the background talking about the 2000 draft and spitting standard media clichés the entire time such as “you can find guys if you draft right”. Ok bud, and what is your philosophy on how you “draft right”? I do this blog because A) I can’t give up on a dream, B) it’s a passion project, and C) I feel like I can give you different perspectives on this shit instead of just the standard media B.S. or the “only my numbers that I find matter” agenda that a lot of the analytics crowd seems to have. I’m not wearing a jersey, or a team hat, or have any cheap memorabilia on my wall just so you know. My long winded point here is that I really hope/pray nobody looks at me and this blog the way I looked at that total zilch!
Wow, Sam Steel’s sister (I think) is such a babe! In saying that, I’m very hopeful she’s at least over 18. She looks over 18, so I think I’m safe. Also Steph, if you’re reading this, I’m totally kidding…
Anyway, the Stanley Cup Final starts tomorrow night. And as my title suggests, the road to this final started in the 2014 offseason. And it was a trade ironically enough between David Poile, whom at the time was looking to breakaway from the way he had always done things, and Jim Rutherford, whom was looking to re-tool a team that had gone from potential dynasty to the league’s biggest disappointment, that was part of it all. The swap was James Neal to Nashville, for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. The players in this deal aren’t the reason either team is here, but the direction and statement both organizations were looking to make in doing the deal is.
Sometimes in life, it all starts falling into place. David Poile has been an extremely competent GM in the league now for over 30 years. He was the guy who always made the most of what he had, but didn’t do anything to push his luck so to speak. Take 2012 for example. Didn’t have a 1st round pick, yet I personally figured he had made the most of it, which as we now know…he did:
Nashville – They didn’t have a 1st round pick, yet they walk out of the 2nd round with 2 kids that easily could have been 1st round picks. Of course they got Colten Sissons….they ALWAYS get these kind of players. He will play in the league, maybe only as an effective 3rd line guy but none the less. Pontus Aberg should be just a real nice, reliable 2nd line winger. Then they get Portland Winterhawk Brendan Leipsic who is undersized but has BIG talent and was a huge contributer to their run to game 7 of the WHL finals.
Maybe went overboard with my thoughts on Leipsic…anyway…Until this season however, Poile had never been past the second round of the playoffs. Conservative guy all through his tenure in Washington and for the first 15 years or so in Nashville, he had to do a couple of moves that were completely out of his wheelhouse. Obviously bringing in James Neal was an indication that he wanted to add more scoring, but as I stated, it wasn’t THE move that would transform things for the Preds. It was one of three which would.
Prior to the deal, Barry Trotz was let go as Predators head coach. Trotz was the only coach in Predators history at the time, and widely regarded as one of the top coaches in the game. But it was time for a change, and time for Poile to bring in someone who perhaps saw things a little differently from himself, and Peter Laviolette was definitely that guy. How underrated is Laviolette?! Three teams to three finals, none of which were loaded rosters or heavy Cup favourites entering the playoffs (correct, the Hurricanes weren’t viewed as big threats despite being the second seed in the East in 06). He has a shelf life everywhere he’s gone, if the over/under on his time in Nashville is three more years then I’m taking the under, but you can’t deny this guy is a hell of a coach.
You could see a big improvement under Laviolette through his first year and a half behind their bench, but it still didn’t look like they were going anywhere as a franchise.
On January 6th, 2016 they finally took a much needed step. Loaded on D, not much up front, same way they’d been for the previous 12 seasons or so. It was status quo for a Poile team. But he FINALLY took the swing he always needed to when he moved Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Poile could afford to part with Jones, he needed a big first line centre, and he pulled the trigger. Granted, Johansen wasn’t quite the franchise centre teams crave, but he had that upside and was already a big points producer.
Don’t get me wrong, you need to draft well (as they’ve always done), and you need to make smart signings (as they’ve always done), but those three moves have likely had the biggest impact on taking the Predators from plucky underdog who always made the playoffs to being a legit threat in the West.
Notice I didn’t mention the biggest trade they’ve made? Look, the Preds got the better of that deal without a doubt. The Habs clearly had an issue with Subban and wanted to get him out of their room. But having said that, analytics guys can stop celebrating as if this was some big win for them. Shea Weber in that spot would have made them that much worse would he? Come on. The impact of that deal will be felt in the years to come as the already not great skating Weber gets even slower, but to claim it’s made this massive difference to the Preds success in 2017 is a bit ridiculous and speaks to you having a large bias if you’re trying to make that case.
Perhaps the most impressive thing in all of this for the Predators though is that they didn’t ever sink back to the bottom to build a contender. I’ve been on the Preds to at least make the final four all season. Most were. Don’t confuse second wildcard team/8th seed in the West for playoff afterthought. If you know hockey, I’m not about to criticize anyone for picking the Blackhawks in the first round, but you could see how the Preds could and should contend.
Of course we know this story is completely different for the Pens. It’s been a tale of two teams for the Pens during Sidney Crosby’s tenure. You had the Ray Shero teams, and now we are seeing the Jim Rutherford teams. I think that fans and media maybe forget just how bad things had eroded under Ray Shero by the 2014 offseason.
The trades I suggested in that piece aren’t that bad! Giving up Sutter and then Letang for O’Reilly I’d take out, but considering how massive and league changing they were….I’ve made worse suggestions!
I won’t say I was wrong about the Jim Rutherford hiring, because the man had Crosby, Malkin and Letang to build around right from the jump. But in fairness, you still have to make it work which Ray Shero had stopped doing. And after a year and a half of running them even further into the ground with decisions such as trading a 1st round pick for David Perron and hiring Mike Johnston, Jim Rutherford began to figure it out.
Since I wrote that piece, this organization has become the best in hockey, it’s not even close as the head to their second straight Cup final. Mike Sullivan was smart enough to figure out how best to utilize Crosby/Malkin/Kessel which looked like a disaster under Johnston. They moved Perron who couldn’t keep up with their pace, for Carl Hagelin who fit it perfectly. They understood Trevor Daly was still very useful despite that Joel Quennville and Stan Bowman had given up on him. They were smart enough to realize Justin Schultz could be a valuable piece if put into the right role. They’ve simply made all the right moves.
So here we are. The loveable Preds playing the role of David, vs the behemoth Pens playing the role of goliath.
The big story for me in this series though is this team and Crosby in particular are chasing greatness now. Three Cups for Sid moves him ahead of his owner Mario Lemieux and Joe Sakic, and ties him with Steve Yzerman and Jonathan Toews. For the Pens as a group, they have a chance to be the first back to back Cup champs in 19 years, and set themselves up to be called a legitimate dynasty by winning one more in either 2018 or 19. I get that the Preds story is much more enduring to fans. They’re the underdog, they definitely have much more of a cool factor going on between how loud the crowd is and all the country music stars they’ve trotted out to sing the national anthem. But it’s so rare in sports today that we get greatness that is what I would call authentic (unlike a certain round ball league where all the stars just look to team up with each other).
As for the matchup, it’s interesting. Two teams that are really beat up coming in. It feels like the Pens have been through much more of a grind, but it’s actually only been an extra game in each round (three more total for those of you who don’t have your grade one math). I’d say it’s the top 1-2 combo down the middle in the league against the best blueline in the league. The scary thing for the Pens entering this series is that the Preds can match their speed, and play with the physicality that could wear down the Pens over seven games. The scary thing for the Preds is that they haven’t seen a team who can not only match their speed, but likely exceed it.
I’ve been an asshole on Twitter pointing out how I had this matchup when I did my All-Star break look at all 30 teams. While true, I also had the Preds losing to the Kings…yes the Kings…in the Western Conference final at the start of the year, and the Pens losing to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final. Obviously both missed the playoffs and I’m actually an idiot. I also had Preds losing to the Ducks in the Conference final in my playoff preview, and the Pens losing to the Ducks in the Cup final. So trust me, I don’t think I know it all, or even partially know it all! But the long winded point I’m looking to make here is that I’ve liked both teams all season and can truly see either winning this series.
In the end I have to stick to what I believe, and what I believe is that strength down the middle trumps strength on the blueline. Just barely, but it does. Without Ryan Johansen and a beat up Mike Fisher, I just believe it’s going to be too much for the Preds to overcome in a seven game series. Also, despite going seven games in the Eastern final, having the weekend off will help the Pens a ton. The Preds will be on more rest obviously, but the Pens will have enough. Pens in seven.
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