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The Predators Don’t Need An Ovechkin Or A Crosby

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin today, and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators enter as the betting favorites. You may recall Nashville’s Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring as the lowest-seeded playoff team, and it did so largely thanks to the red-hot play of goalie Pekka Rinne. The 2016-17 Preds ultimately fell two games short of claiming the franchise’s first Stanley Cup (Sidney Crosby and company had other plans), but this season’s iteration has a chance to make that disappointment feel like a distant memory.

To be sure, last season’s Predators and this season’s Predators are two very different teams. In 2016-17, Nashville finished tied for the fewest wins in regulation and overtime among teams that qualified for the playoffs. This season, the Preds tied for third most. And it’s not as though their scoring totals are especially gaudy — they finished in a tie for seventh in goals for, 29 behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

But there is one thing this year’s Predators have in common with last year’s: They’re succeeding without a bona fide offensive star. No Predator scored more than 61 points last year, and it’s been more of the same this season. Seven Predator forwards finished with at least 35 points, but none eclipsed 64. Four Predator forwards scored at least 23 goals, but there’s not a 30-goal scorer in the bunch. Nashville has plenty of players who can hurt opposing defenses, but it doesn’t have a Connor McDavid or an Alexander Ovechkin. Which is to say, it doesn’t have a single skater who is capable of changing a game by himself.

You might expect this from a team that nabbed the last spot in the playoffs, but it’s quite unusual for a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team. In the more than three decades that the award has been handed out, Nashville has the lowest top scorer of any team to receive it.1

Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy without a scoring star

Total points of the top scorer on each year’s highest scoring team during the NHL regular season

Top scorer
Year Team Name Points
2018 Predators F. Forsberg 64
2017 Capitals N. Backstrom 86
2016 Capitals E. Kuznetsov 77
2015 Rangers R. Nash 69
2014 Bruins D. Krejci 69
2013 Blackhawks* P. Kane 94
2012 Canucks H. Sedin 81
2011 Canucks D. Sedin 104
2010 Capitals A. Ovechkin 109
2009 Sharks J. Thornton 86
2008 Red Wings P. Datsyuk 97
2007 Sabres D. Briere 95
2006 Red Wings P. Datsyuk 87
2004 Red Wings P. Datsyuk 68
2003 Senators M. Hossa 80
2002 Red Wings B. Shanahan 75
2001 Avalanche J. Sakic 118
2000 Blues P. Demitra 75
1999 Stars M. Modano 81
1998 Stars J. Nieuwendyk 69
1997 Avalanche P. Forsberg 86
1996 Red Wings S. Federov 107
1995 Red Wings* P. Coffey 99
1994 Rangers S. Zubov 89
1993 Penguins M. Lemieux 160
1992 Rangers M. Messier 107
1991 Blackhawks S. Larmer 101
1990 Bruins C. Neely 92
1989 Flames J. Mullen 110
1988 Flames H. Loob 106
1987 Oilers W. Gretzky 183
1986 Oilers W. Gretzky 215

* Strike-shortened seasons prorated for a full season.
The 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

If anything, this shows just how effective the Predators have been on the blue line and between the pipes. Rinne, at 35 years old, is having the best season of his career in terms of quality start percentage, and his marks for both save percentage and goals against average are better than his career averages. And among goalies who’ve played at least 1,500 minutes this season, Rinne ranks fourth in goals saved above average. As we’ve said before, though, goaltending is unstable — and no amount of great goaltending can make up for bad defensive play. Fortunately for Nashville, its roster is stocked with some of the best defensemen in the NHL.

Captain Roman Josi and P.K. Subban have each put together a solid case for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman, while Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm each rank in the top 15 among qualifying defensemen2 in Corsi for percentage, which estimates a player’s possession rate by measuring the percentage of shot attempts directed at his opponent’s net versus his own net while he’s on the ice. Factor in Matt Irwin and Montreal Canadiens castaway Alexei Emelin — and the exceptional play of Rinne behind them — and Nashville’s defensive unit conceded the second fewest goals in the NHL.

Of course, sound defenses aren’t solely the result of good goalie and defenseman play. That tired old adage — that the best defense is a good offense — is true, especially in the case of the Predators. Despite their lack of an offensive superstar, the Predators rank second in goals for percentage3 and ninth in Corsi for percentage. They’ve built one of the more efficient offenses in the NHL not on the back of one superstar, but on the backs of many good to very good players.

And even though the lack of at least one high-scoring superstar is uncharacteristic of a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team, it’s not necessarily unheard of for a Stanley Cup-winning team — although it’s rare. Since 1986, five teams have won the Stanley Cup without a 70-point scorer. None of those teams were the best regular-season team, but Stanley Cup glory can come from unexpected scoring outbursts and hot goaltending.

Starless Stanley Cup winners aren’t unprecedented

How the 2017-18 Predators compare with Stanley Cup winners since 1986 in terms of each team’s top scorer in the regular season

Top scorer
Year Team Name Points
2018 Predators F. Forsberg 64
2017 Penguins S. Crosby 89
2016 Penguins S. Crosby 85
2015 Blackhawks J. Toews 66
2014 Kings A. Kopitar 70
2013 Blackhawks* P. Kane 94
2012 Kings A. Kopitar 76
2011 Bruins M. Lucic 62
2010 Blackhawks P. Kane 88
2009 Penguins E. Malkin 113
2008 Red Wings P. Datsyuk 97
2007 Ducks T. Selanne 94
2006 Hurricanes E. Staal 100
2004 Lightning M. St. Louis 94
2003 Devils P. Elias 57
2002 Red Wings B. Shanahan 75
2001 Avalanche J. Sakic 118
2000 Devils P. Elias 72
1999 Stars M. Modano 81
1998 Red Wings S. Yzerman 69
1997 Red Wings B. Shanahan 87
1996 Avalanche J. Sakic 120
1995 Devils* S. Richer 67
1994 Rangers S. Zubov 89
1993 Canadiens V. Damphousse 97
1992 Penguins M. Lemieux 131
1991 Penguins M. Recchi 113
1990 Oilers M. Messier 129
1989 Flames J. Mullen 110
1988 Oilers W. Gretzky 149
1987 Oilers W. Gretzky 183
1986 Canadiens M. Naslund 110

* Strike-shortened seasons prorated for a full season.
The 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The 2003 New Jersey Devils and the 2011 Boston Bruins are each a very good analog for this year’s Predators. Neither team had a player score more than 62 points in the regular season, but each was the beneficiary of timely postseason scoring streaks. In the 2003 playoffs, the Devils got 18 points in 24 games from Jamie Langenbrunner and 10 goals from Jeff Friesen, who scored only 23 in the regular season. In 2011, it was David Krecji who stepped up for Boston — he notched 23 points in 25 postseason games and scored on 21.1 percent of his shots (a far better rate than his career mark of 12.2 percent).

Each team also benefited from hot goalie play: The Devils’ Martin Brodeur stopped 93.4 percent of the shots he faced in the playoffs after stopping just 91.4 percent of the shots he saw during the regular season, while the Bruins’ Tim Thomas stopped an astounding 94 percent of the shots he faced in one of the more memorable playoffs for a goalie in league history.

In other words, Nashville may have been more of an outlier for the Presidents’ Trophy because it doesn’t possess a stud (or several studs) who put up big numbers over the course of 82 games. But who wants that trophy anyway? The teams that claim it traditionally flop come springtime. Just ask the Washington Capitals. But if the Predators are able to steal a page from the playbooks of the 2003 Devils and the 2011 Bruins, the catfish will fly come June.

Footnotes

  1. After prorating the top scorers on the Presidents’ Trophy teams from the strike-shortened seasons in 1994-95 and 2012-13, in which only 48 games were played.

  2. At least 500 minutes played.

  3. Goals for percentage is the percentage of all goals a team scores relative to every goal scored in games they played.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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