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April 25, 2012
Prospectus Roundtable
Can Nashville Win The Stanley Cup?

by Jonathan Willis, Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider


Interesting cases can be made for and against the Nashville Predators winning the Stanley Cup this season. Hockey Prospectus take a look at both sides of the coin to determine whether or not this is the year the Preds hoist the hardware.

Why the Predators can't win the Stanley Cup

Nashville's first-round win over Detroit was truly spectacular, but there's one key reason why we shouldn't expect the Predators' run to continue much longer: possession.

Puck possession is critical in the postseason, and a key reason why the No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings were the statistical favorite against the now-defeated, top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, and why the No. 8-seeded Ottawa Senators match up evenly with the top-seeded New York Rangers. It's also why everything has to break in Nashville's favor for them to advance. The second-worst possession team in the regular season, Nasvhille required a lot of good fortune to beat a good possession team like the Detroit Red Wings (third-best possession team during regular season).

But the good bounces won't last forever.

The Predators sacrificed some of their future to get the pieces they need to win today, like Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn, and even though they brought in the greatest non-NHL player in the world in Alexander Radulov, it doesn't change who they are. And it won't be enough for a team whose blue line is relying so heavily on the unknown and untried.

Outshot 160-116, Nashville indeed managed to get by Detroit despite allowing almost 40 percent more shots than they took, but they can't count on that continuing to work indefinitely. Their own 2007-08 performance and Colorado's 2009-10 series against San Jose stand as the only other modern examples of playoff teams playing with the puck 40 percent of the game or less -- and neither of those teams even got out of the first round.

Furthermore Nashville's PDO, the addition of their shooting and save percentages (named after the initials of the fan who gave Vic Ferrari the idea for the stat), is a sky-high 1.057, far higher than even last year's Bruins' 1.042. That high mark indicates that they are enjoying a lot of luck when it comes to their goal scoring. PDO has an understandably strong tendency to regress to 1.000 over the long run, so the Preds will need to defy the odds in order to enjoy the goal-production they posted in Round 1.

Relying on a goalie stopping 94.5 percent of incoming shots, or on players like Gabriel Bourque and Kevin Klein to continue to score five goals on 14 shots is not a sustainable model. The good news is that while the Western Conference is full of strong possession teams -- including St. Louis (first) and Los Angeles (fourth) -- the Predators will avoid these teams and face Phoenix next round. But even if Nashville's success continues one round longer, it will likely last no further than that.

-- Rob Vollman

Why the Predators could win the Stanley Cup

While the Predators as a team did rely heavily on both spectacular goaltending and converting their shots at a very high percentage in their first-round victory over Detroit, they have a number of strengths that should allow them to compete with any team remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Between Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the Nashville Predators have a duo on defense that stacks up well against anybody in the league. For most of the series against Detroit, Weber and Suter were taking two out of every three shifts in the defensive zone, and when they weren't seeing Pavel Datsyuk bearing down on them, they were seeing Henrik Zetterberg. Those two Detroit star forwards combined for a total of three even-strength points over the five-game series.

Weber and Suter boasted a combined regular season GVT of 27.4 while playing roughly 26 minutes per night. Their ice-time has already jumped in the postseason (they're now just under 28 minutes per game) and it won't be a surprise if they're taking to the ice for every second shift in all situations. There's simply no getting away from what might be the best defensive pairing in the game today.

Pekka Rinne is another key strength. The Predators' goaltender led the club with a 24.6 GVT in the regular season, and was the difference against Detroit. In all four Nashville wins, Rinne was one of the three stars, and it's no wonder: with his .960 save percentage at even strength, no team in the league has received better 5-on-5 goaltending in the first round. Rinne arguably stole each of Nashville's first three wins, allowing just five goals as the Red Wings dominated the shot count by a ridiculous 121-to-65 margin. Rinne's the sort of goaltender who has proven he can steal not only individual games, but even a playoff series.

Then there's the Radulov factor. Nashville's strengths as a team have been obvious for years: a steady stream of reliable defensemen and strong goaltending. The forwards were a hard-working, defensively conscientious bunch, but lacked the sort of pure offensive talent that most of Nashville's Western Conference opponents could boast. Radulov changes that.

Radulov gives the Predators exactly the sort of offensive game-breaker they have been lacking. Long the KHL's best player, Radulov can set up goals or score them himself with equal ability. In just nine games with the Predators over the course of the regular season, Radulov recorded a 2.2 GVT, a total that projects to a GVT of 20.0 over a full season -- a mark that would have ranked him among the league's top 10 skaters. For a team that entered the postseason without a 60-point scorer, Radulov's ability to put points on the board is a game-changer.

Beyond those individual strengths, the Predators have remained true to the same identity they've held practically since entering the league. The forwards may be modestly talented by NHL standards, but as a group they boast a commitment to two-way play that few teams in the league can match. From their first line to their fourth line, the Predators have players they can rely on to play two-way hockey in all three zones.

It's a strong group, augmented by some highly remarkable individual talents; that sort of team is never an easy out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It also appears that Nashville's road to the Cup might be considerably smoother than expected out of the first round. A second-round series against Phoenix, followed by a matchup against the winner of St. Louis/Los Angeles is a pretty good scenario for the Predators. Toss in a goaltender who looks capable of imitating Tim Thomas' Conn Smythe-winning turn last year, and the Predators could go all the way.

-- Jonathan Willis

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Jonathan by clicking here or click here to see Jonathan's other articles.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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NHL Playoffs, Second R... (04/24)
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