While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.
Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.
This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team).
For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.
Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.
A couple weeks ago, when the Nashville Predators parted ways with head coach Barry Trotz, the longest tenured coach in the NHL and the only head coach the Predators franchise had ever employed, it marked the end of an era. Trotz transformed Nashville from a city with no hockey heritage, to one of the up-and-coming markets in the NHL. Nashville became Smashville. Trotz’ teams were likable, and hard working. They were never prolific scoring teams, but played some of the best defense in the league. Trotz helped build the Preds into a contender, but they struggled in the seasons after the 2012 NHL Lockout. Trotz should be proud of what he accomplished and the Music City, and he will always be remembered fondly by Preds fans. He will surely have another head coaching job soon. For the Predators it is time to turn the page, and take another step forward.
There are a few interesting coaching prospects out there including recently fire Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates, as well as Kevin Dineen, who was fired by the Florida Panthers earlier this season, but coached the Canadian women’s hockey team to Olympic Gold in Sochi in February. Both are qualified, and deserve serious consideration for vacant head coaching jobs, but to me, the obvious choice for Nashville is Peter Laviolette.
At the NHL level, Laviolette has previously coached the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, and Philadelphia Flyers. In the one season that the Canes made the playoffs during his tenure, the won the Stanley Cup in 2006. In his first year as the Flyers’ head coach, Lavi got them to a sixth game of the Stanley Cup before bowing out to the Chicago Blackhawks. On their way there, Philly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport when they defeated the Boston Bruins in seven games after trailing three games to none in the series, like the Los Angeles Kings have a chance to do against the San Jose Sharks this week. He’s a good experienced coach who has been in plenty of big games before.
Laviolette would be the perfect coach to turn Nashville’s offensive fortunes around. He plays a very aggressive up-and-down the ice system that puts defenses on their heels. Laviolette’s downfall in Philly was a lock of solid goaltending and defense, but that should not be a problem with goalie Pekka Rinne and Norris Trophy finalist and team captain Shea Weber on the roster to keep scoring down. When highly paid goalie Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t experience the same success in Philly that he had in Phoenix, and when superstar defensive defenseman Chris Pronger wen down with a career ending concussion, the Flyers’ offense could no longer support the patchwork defense, and the Flyers missed the playoffs. It’s also worth noting that Laviolette served as an assistant coach for Team USA in Sochi and that Nashville GM David Poile served as the GM for Team USA.
Peter Laviolette going to Nashville makes all the sense in the world. It’s just a matter of time to see if the Preds feel the same way.
Steve Yzerman made a name for himself as a leader of men in his playing days with the Detroit Red Wings. Since hanging up his skates, he’s risen through the ranks and become one of the best executives in the NHL, first as an assistant GM in Detroit, then overseeing the 2010 Canadian Olympic team that won the Gold Medal Game over the United States, and now as the GM for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Today, he’s back at it for Team Canada as he announced the final roster for the country that will always be favored in the Olympics. Last week, Team USA GM Brian Burke took a lot of heat for his roster selections, most notably picking Blake Wheeler over Bobby Ryan, but Canada has a much deeper pool of high end talent that their Neighbors to the South.
Here is Canada’s roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi:
Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)
Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins)
Jeff Carter (LA Kings)
Sidney Crosby (Pitsburgh Penguins)
Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche)
Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)
Chris Kunitz (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks)
Rick Nash (New York Rangers)
Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks)
Patrick Sharp (Chicago Blackhawks)
Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning)
John Tavares (New York Islanders)
Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks)
Jay Bouwmeester (St. Louis Blues)
Drew Doughty (LA Kings)
Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver Canucks)
Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks)
Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues)
P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens)
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks)
Shea Weber (Nashville Predators)
Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks)
Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens)
Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes)
This roster is loaded. Only Canada could leave such a combination of young talent (Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Taylor Hall, Wayne Simmonds, etc.) and veteran talent (Mike Richards, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, and Martin Brodeur) off the roster, and still look this good. I’d love to see Iggy and Looch playing for Canada, but Bergeron deserved it more, and I’d rather see those guys healthy and ready to go for the playoffs. I would have liked to see Old Man Marty Brodeur play in yet another Olympics, but Carey Price will probably be the guy in net if it were up to me.
It’s still a few weeks away, but I’m already pumped for the Winter Olympics. It should be a good one!