Nashville is having the best regular season in franchise history, are a favorite to make it out of the Western Conference and return to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, the road will be more perilous this time around. Here’s why it won’t happen.
After making a Cinderella run to the Cup Finals last year, everyone expected Nashville to have a solid season. They didn’t lose much, if anything, in the offseason, and added much needed support up front. A healthy #1 center in Ryan Johansen could be considered an addition after realizing how much his absence hurt against the Penguins in the Finals. Signing Nick Bonino away from the Stanley Cup champs gave them more depth at center, which again was one of the weaknesses that were exploited in the Finals. They also got in on the Matt Duchene sweepstakes, adding Ottawa center Kyle Turris. With longtime captain Mike Fisher coming out of retirement, the Preds went from one center in the Stanley Cup Finals to four legitimate centers entering this year’s playoffs.
“But JB,” I can hear you say, “you’re contradicting your argument. It sounds like this team is loaded!” And yes, on paper things look good. However, Nashville wasn’t the only team to load up at the trade deadline.
1) They’re not the best team in their own division.
While Nashville did tremendous things shoring up their center depth, the Winnipeg Jets had existing depth at forward, then added to it by stealing Paul Stastny from St. Loius. For most of the season, Patrik Laine and his 43 goals were on the third line. THE. THIRD. LINE.
Their defense doesn’t boast the star power that Nashville’s does, but is equally effective and may be even deeper. Scott’s boy Dustin Byfuglien, easily a top pair defenseman on most teams, is on the second pairing in Winnipeg, while former rookie of the year Tyler Myers anchors the third pairing. Not to mention, Connor Hellebuyck is putting up numbers equal to Pekka Rinne, which means a potent offense giving him any kind of lead generally means game over for opponents.
If the first round goes as expected, these two teams are going to clash in the second. You can generally ride a hot goalie to a deep playoff run. However…
2) Pekka Rinne chokes in the playoffs.
I’ll get it out of the way right off the bat. Pekka stole the first two rounds of last season’s playoff run. Absolutely no question. Credit is due when you hold a Chicago Blackhawks team to 3 goals in a 4 game sweep. However, the magic wore off in the Finals and the Penguins made him look mortal again. Scanning through Rinne’s history though, last season was the exception, not the rule. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the numbers. Last year, Rinne had a 1.96 goals again average (GAA) and a .930 save percentage (SV%) en route to the Finals. In his previous five playoff runs, he’s averaging a 2.52 GAA and a .912 SV%, while never getting past the second round. Last season was the first time he carried his team through the playoffs. At 35, expecting him to do it again is asking a lot.
3) Return trips to the Finals don’t happen.
Yes, you read that right. Just like Pekka Rinne’s 2017 playoff run, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the exception, not the rule. Yes, the Penguins have made two separate return trips to the Finals over the course of a decade, and in both 2008 and ‘09, they played the Red Wings. That anomaly aside, only 4 other teams have done it in the last 30 years, for a total of 7. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, compared to the other three big sports in America, not so much. In the last 30 years, MLB has had 9 teams make repeat visits to the World Series, the NFL has had 8 teams come back to the Super Bowl and the NBA has had 22 teams make it back to the finals in consecutive years. So yes, between parity and the playoffs taking such a toll on teams, it’s very difficult to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Nashville, congratulations on your franchise record-setting season. Unfortunately, it will not culminate in you raising the Cup. Better luck next time.