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What We Learned: It's hard to talk yourself out of the Predators

The Nashville Predators are the clear-cut Stanley Cup favourites. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

It is obviously trite to simply say that the team with the best record in the league is also the favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

There’s more to it than that, usually. But I spent time the last few days trying to brain-genius my way into believing that someone other than the Predators should be considered something even resembling a favorite to win the Cup, but it’s been difficult to say the least.

Remember, this is a team that kinda walked away with the Presidents’ Trophy despite playing in the same division as the second-best team in the league and missing its third-best defenseman for 38 games to start the year. They have arguably the best defense and most center depth of any team in the league. Their goaltender is almost certainly going to win the Vezina this year. Their coach is excellent at what he does.

Put another way, this is a team that was an injury to its No. 1 center away from making the Cup Final terrifyingly competitive just last season, and they’ve improved markedly since then. There is a huge difference between running Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher, Colton Sissons, and Calle Jarnkrok down the middle, and going with Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, and Fisher. For that reason alone it’s hard to see where a lot of teams in the postseason will be able to match up with them, let alone that terrifying defense in which literally all their higher-end defensemen are on different pairings, with the exception of Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, who are kinda forced together by the numbers game of “you can only have six defensemen.”

So to the earlier point, let’s try to talk out the whole “Why the Predators shouldn’t be the favorites” thing here, and see where that gets us.

The first and most obvious thing to keep in mind here is that Pekka Rinne is playing so far above his head this year (.927 versus his .914 seen over the previous five seasons) that the bottom could drop out at just about any time and not really be that much of a surprise, right? But among goalies with at least 3,000 minutes played this season, he’s sixth in the league in all-situations expected save percentage, which is to say that Nashville does a really good job of making his life easy.

Keep in mind, too, that Rinne went .930 in the playoffs last season. And while a lot of that was because he allowed three goals in four games against Chicago, he also had a .918 in his other 18 games, so that’s still well above average. And if we want to slice things even thinner, 14 of the 42 goals he allowed in the playoffs came against the Penguins after injuries had rocked the club.

Not surprisingly, it’s the second year in a row in which the Prds have really limited opponents’ opportunities, which is easier when you add an elite defenseman like PK Subban to an already-solid group. Subban, for his part, has had a borderline-Norris-worthy campaign despite playing the majority of his 5-on-5 minutes with Alexei Emelin.

It’s tough, therefore, to imagine what happens to Rinne even if things fall apart, simply because “league average” might be the floor for his performance anyway. A team this talented up front can probably win on “league average.”

Because that’s another thing, they traded for a decent young right wing at the deadline by the name of Ryan Hartman, and while he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire for them offensively (because he’s not on the Nashville power play), he’s pretty good in a lot of areas of the game. He might be the team’s eighth-best forward. Which is pretty good because he was a bigger contributor in Chicago the past two seasons (though that’s a team with its own problems).

Plus, getting Eeli Tolvanen more NHL time probably helps him become a legit depth scoring threat as well.

The other major impediment to a Nashville Cup run is probably, as mentioned earlier, the fact that they’re going to have to play the Jets in the second round. But the thing is, they went 3-1-1 against Winnipeg this season, never losing a regulation game on the road, and despite the fact that most of those contests were actually pretty high-scoring; only one featured fewer than eight goals, and the Preds won that game 3-1.

Not surprisingly, the margins between these teams in terms of underlying numbers head-to-head were pretty close. In all situations, the Preds were minus-14 in shots, but also spent the majority of those games with narrow leads, and the Jets are a team that can mount furious comeback attempts.

Obviously the playoffs are a different animal, MTS Centre is going to be a cauldron, all that sort of thing, but the Preds’ only regulation loss came on Dec. 19, before they added either Ryan Ellis back to the lineup or rounded out the team’s depth to some extent with Hartman. Put another way: The Preds and Jets played three times since Feb. 27, two of them in Winnipeg, and went 2-0-1. Again, you don’t want to put too much weight on this kind of thing, but this should be considered a factor.

Other than these two big factors, I’m not seeing a lot to be worried about for the Preds here. Maybe you say they have some potential depth issues up front, but this is a forward group with a top-12 of Johnansen, Turris, Bonino, Tolvanen, Hartman, Sissons, Filip Forsberg, Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith, Viktor Arvidsson, Eeli Tolvanen, and I dunno, Austin Watson? They’re not all gonna shoot the lights out but if you’re running Mike Fisher between any two of those wingers your fourth line is in good shape.

Maybe you also say that the Preds have a great top-four D but the bottom two — Emelin and Matt Irwin — leave a little to be desired. Tough to disagree with that, but again, both play primarily with guys who can prop them way up in Subban and Roman Josi, and if their minutes need to be limited in tight spots, rolling four or five (I think Irwin’s a higher-end third-pair guy) is likely to work out pretty well for this club.

As Alex Ovechkin said about only getting to 49 goals this season, “[Poop] happens,” so obviously the Preds could get bounced in the first round and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the history of the sport. They could also get to a Cup Final and lose to one of the very good teams on the Eastern side of the bracket.

If you want to make the case that the Bruins have a better shot at this, that’d be hard to disagree with, except to say that in all likelihood they’ll have to play two 100-point teams in the first two rounds. And Nashville doesn’t, which is why I’d give them a slight edge.

I just haven’t seen that much to convince me otherwise.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Ducks/Sharks has seemed predestined for a while now, but it’s kind of a shocker that this Anaheim team got to 101 points, isn’t it? Maybe that’s an indictment of the division.

Arizona Coyotes: This Raanta extension is kind of a must for the Coyotes, because he was very good this year, but also hurt a lot. Not that they’d be a playoff team if he played the full season, but you’d feel like there was something to build on.

Boston Bruins: I guess it makes a lot of sense that it took a Lightning collapse and the Bruins battling through about a thousand injuries to set up a “win the East in the last game of the season” scenario. This season has felt like a real slog for Boston even as they mowed down almost everyone in their path.

Buffalo Sabres: If this isn’t the Sabres’ season in a nutshell: Adam Wilcox comes on in relief and stops 14 of 14 in his first-ever NHL appearance, and loses in regulation. This team is a nightmare.

Calgary Flames: The fact that anyone is criticizing Mark Giordano for the Flames’ horrible season is incredible to me. He was awesome this year, just phenomenal, and the rest of the team let him and about six other guys down (Dougie Hamilton, the 3Ms, Monahan, Gaudreau) by being awful.

Carolina Hurricanes: Not sure how you justify this season to yourself if you’re a decision-maker in Carolina. Really not sure how you keep the coach.

Chicago Blackhawks: Y’know what? Sure.

Colorado Avalanche: It just makes sense that the Avs get into the playoffs on the last day of the season because Nathan MacKinnon said, “I got this.” You never want to say their incredible turnaround was all on him, but…. it might have been.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets kind of succeeded a lot this season despite some big injuries. And now everyone is getting back to full health. Could be bad news for the Caps.

Dallas Stars: No way to know where this team goes over the summer. Like I said a couple weeks ago, their depth is a real problem and I’m not sure they have much of an opportunity to address it unless they get awful creative.

Detroit Red Wings: Hey you know how you missed the playoffs because your GM did a bad job for like eight years straight? Gotta bring that GM back for the full decade.

Edmonton Oilers: How many more seasons do you think we’ll see this exact headline about McDavid being amazing and the rest of the Oilers being trash? Put me down for “at least next year, too.” Milan Lucic scored one goal over his last 46 games of the season, and it was against the Coyotes’ backup. Hooooo boy.

Florida Panthers: Maybe if you have to get something like six games to go exactly right, down the winning and losing margins, over the last few days of the season, just to get a play-in game for yourself, you kinda sucked all along. Just my thoughts.

Los Angeles Kings: Losing their last game of the season ensured the Kings would have to play Vegas in the first round, which I think is a better pull for them than Anaheim would have been. (I also think it’s a better pull for Vegas to not have to play the Sharks, but whatever.)

Minnesota Wild: Low-key great coaching job by Bruce Boudreau this year. This team really turned it on in the second half, going 27-11-8 after Christmas.

Montreal Canadiens: I clicked on this link out of morbid curiosity. “Is there really ‘good’ to this Canadiens season?” Turns out the answer was “Brendan Gallagher and that’s basically it,” which sounds about right.

Nashville Predators: Hate to say this for the Avs or whatever but without Semyon Varlamov, this seems — like much of the Preds’ season — to be a walkover first-round matchup.

New Jersey Devils: Frankly I’m shocked New Jersey scored three with Taylor Hall a healthy scratch.

New York Islanders: Not the best summation of the season here: The Isles got a bunch of goals from all their good players and barely won, whereas if you were boiling down their entire campaign to one game they would have lost 7-5. So long to John Tavares.

New York Rangers: Can’t say it any better than “They fired Alain Vigneault pretty much right after the last game of the season.”

Ottawa Senators: For how many seasons does Getting smoked without Erik Karlsson on the ice” accurately describe every second of Senators hockey? Well, next year will be fun, huh?

Philadelphia Flyers: I’ve really come around on the Giroux MVP case. The Flyers are horrible without him, and he has to do basically everything. I think I’d still give it to MacKinnon, but this ended up being awful close.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Didn’t seem like a true matchup of destiny until the last week of the season, but: Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers Pens/Flyers!!!!!!!!!!!

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks just barely being not-good-enough to get home ice in the first round (which they missed by one point) sounds about right given how bad they were to start. Sharks/Ducks could be a real good one.

St. Louis Blues: Alex Pietrangelo floated a conspiracy theory after they lost their last game and missed the playoffs, that the league was out to get them. Maybe talk to the GM who traded away Paul Stastny. He has 13 points in 19 games since he got traded. That might have been worth one single point in the standings, no?

Tampa Bay Lightning: I don’t know what it is about this weekend that summed up so many teams’ seasons so poetically, but the Bolts losing to a rotten Carolina team in OT is at least a good wrap-up of their last quarter of the year for sure.

Toronto Maple Leafs: That this is the best team in Leafs history and they still finished third in their division seems about right, just like, on the whole.

Vancouver Canucks: I can think of no more fitting an ending to two Hall-of-Fame careers than losing in a shootout to one of the worst teams in the league.

Vegas Golden Knights: Vegas went 2-1-1 against the Kings this season, but because it’s the NHL standings, the Kings went 2-1-1 against Vegas. Their two most recent matchups, though, were both Kings wins. Could be a nasty series.

Washington Capitals: It’s weird that the Caps won the division handily and Columbus tanked the last game of the season to draw them in the playoffs. This was a great year for Washington and it’s like, “We’d rather get them than someone else.” Very weird.

Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck had the winningest season for any American-born goalie ever (check where he went to college for more insight there!) but it’s kinda funny that all the Jets needed to turn into a juggernaut was reliably above-average goaltending.

Play of the Weekend

The MVP ………. of my heart!!!!

Gold Star Award

PLAYOFFFFFFFFFFFFFSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

Minus of the Weekend

All but one team played on the final night of the season, so of course all but one of the games started between 7 and 10 p.m. And of course that kinda-important Bruins/Panthers season-ender was opposite WrestleMania. Incredible. This league is insanely good at scheduling things.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Kshahdoo” has one that made me say, “Uhh, yes please.”

Bobrovsky, Wenberg for Tavares, 1st

Signoff

…… For steamed hams?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)