This is Part II of my series examining what would happen if the Nashville Predators didn’t match the offer sheet given to Shea Weber by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. If you would like to read Part I, check it out here.
FROM NASHVILLE’S PERSPECTIVE
2012-13: The 2012 off-season was a worst-case scenario for the Nashville Predators. They lost several important players, including grinder Jordin Tootoo, blue-liner Ryan Suter, and skilled winger Alexander Radulov, the last of whom had been suspended by the team after being witnessed in a bar past curfew during the 2012 playoffs. But for all of the losses they suffered, the one that stung the most was the departure of Shea Weber; the former captain of the club had left to join the Philadelphia Flyers on a massive 14-year deal. Season ticket numbers were dropping immensely, and crowds looked to be dwindling at the Bridgestone Arena, to the point where a few analysts were beginning to bring up re-location as a possibility.
It took longer than usual for the season to start, due to the 2012 lockout. But eventually, the league and players’ union came to a deal, and play began in late January of 2013. It was immediately clear that the worst was in store for a heavily-depleted Nashville club, as they struggled not just to attack, but also defend. The team was forced to rely on Hal Gill and Kevin Klein to lead the blue line, as players like Jonathon Blum, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis still tried to find their footing at the NHL level. Pekka Rinne did well enough in the 42 games he played (.910 SV%), but without the offensive punch that Weber could have brought, Nashville would end up dead last in the league in goals for. No matter how well he played, Rinne was assured an L in his record.
The goals for column wasn’t the only area in which the Preds finished dead last. They were also bottom of the table in points, with only 36 to their name in the 48-game season. After being a reliable playoff team for much of the modern era, they were now crippled by key gaps in their line-up, and post-season hockey now looked like a pipe dream in the short term. General Manager David Poile’s job didn’t look in jeopardy, but Barry Trotz was coming up on the last year of his contract, and it was unlikely that he would re-sign with the Predators. As the only coach in the team’s history, his loss would represent another massive blow to a team that was starting to look less and less viable by the day.
As if their luck couldn’t get any worse, the Preds would lose out on the 1st Overall Pick, as the Florida Panthers would be victorious in the draft lottery. Nashville would have the 2nd Overall selection, followed by the 13th Pick acquired from Philadelphia as part of the Weber compensation package. With the 2nd Pick, the Predators would get Aleksander Barkov, a young centreman from Tappara of the SM-liiga, who was believed to be NHL ready immediately. The 13th selection would be used on Josh Morrissey, a defenceman from the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders.
2013-14: For the optimistic among the Predators’ fan base, the worst was over. The team had finished at the bottom of the league, and could now focus on building their squad for future playoff runs, with Aleksander Barkov at the forefront. For the pessimistic, however, the future still looked grim, as the team still looked terrible without the necessary cover in the line-up. To make matters worse, signals were being sent out that Barry Trotz was beginning to look elsewhere, leaving a potentially massive hole in the coaching staff. In the minds of the “glass-half-empty” types, a couple more seasons like 2013 could not only be devastating for the Predators, but possibly even fatal.
The pessimists were proven to be right very early on, as Pekka Rinne would be placed in injured reserve in late October following complications from a surgery. With Carter Hutton now thrown into the fire, Nashville looked well out of the race, and they fell quickly down the standings, occupying one of the bottom 5 spots in the NHL for much of the year. On the bright side, their struggles allowed Nashville management, as well as coach Trotz, to give additional playing time to the young guys, with Craig Smith (52 points) and Roman Josi (40 points) both notching notable career highs. Aleksander Barkov wasn’t quite as impressive, recording only 24 points in 54 games in his rookie season.
Once again, the Predators were stuck in the NHL cellar. They would improve only barely this time around, finishing 4th-last in the league with 76 points. Barry Trotz would not last the year, stepping down in March following the team’s elimination from post-season contention. Poile would be spared, as he would be given a chance to re-build the team in the hopes of injecting new life into a team desperately in need of a playoff berth soon. It was uncertain how long he would last in the role, however, as he was now getting flak for his decision to allow Shea Weber to leave; Weber had just led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup, doing so as their captain.
Nashville would have two picks in the 1st Round of the 2014 Entry Draft, with their natural pick sitting at #4, and the Flyers’ pick at #29 thanks to their Cup win. The Predators would take a pair of forwards, using their own pick on Kingston Frontenacs centre Sam Bennett, and the Philly pick on Adrian Kempe of Swedish club MODO.
2014-15: The 14-15 season was viewed as a chance for the Predators to refresh themselves. Gone was Barry Trotz who had joined Washington as head coach, and in was Peter Laviolette, who had a Stanley Cup to his name after he led Carolina to the 2006 title. Younger players were expected to make more of an impact this year, as Alex Barkov was given a more prominent role, and Filip Forsberg looked to cement himself on the NHL roster after a couple of years on the periphery. Indeed, it was Forsberg who caught everyone’s attention this year, as in his first full season, the promising Swede would break out for a team-leading 63 points, barely edging out free agent signing Mike Ribeiro’s 62 points.
Overall, the team begins to show signs of progress, between Forsberg’s emergence, Barkov’s continued development, and Pekka Rinne’s return to form (.923 SV% in 64 games). But despite all the hard work, they aren’t quite good enough for the playoffs. The Predators would finish 5th in the Central Division, and 10th in the Western Conference, with 93 points. With young players making an impact already, and more on the way, the future looks bright enough, but with less than 15,000 attending Bridgestone Arena per game, there are still questions as to the Preds’ long-term future; a playoff run in the next few years would be essential in guaranteeing the team’s viability in Nashville.
The Preds would have two quick picks at #11 and #13, with the 13th being their natural one. After taking two forwards the previous year, Nashville would go back to a one forward/one defenceman strategy, taking Kingston winger Lawson Crouse at #11, then Czech blue-liner Jakub Zboril at #13.
2015-16: After a lean first year in charge, Peter Laviolette now had a bit of pressure on him to get the Predators to the playoffs. If it wasn’t pressure from management, it was pressure from the hockey world at large, as a belief was beginning to spread across the continent that if the Preds didn’t get into the post-season soon, their entire future in Nashville would be at stake. Though there were no public hints of anybody bidding to re-locate the team like there were ten years earlier, continued failure in Tennessee would likely bring out a few vultures, all of them eager to swoop in and bring the Preds to a new home.
The good news for Nashville was that the young core that had been developing was finally starting to show improvement. Aleksander Barkov would blossom in his third year as an NHLer, putting up 59 points in only 66 games to provide the team with a new #1 centre. Also making his mark was Sam Bennett; in his rookie year, the 2014 4th Overall Pick would play 77 games, recording 36 points from the third line. The youngsters’ performances were supplemented by another 60-point year from Filip Forsberg, as well as an outstanding year from Roman Josi, who earned 61 points to finish 4th among all NHL blue-liners.
Nashville had made it. Though they finished in the first wild-card spot in the West, they did so handily, finishing with 93 points – three ahead of the second WC team, the Minnesota WIld. The Preds’ first playoff experience in four years would see them face off against the Anaheim Ducks, who had finished atop the Pacific Division. While the Ducks were still a strong team, much of their core was beginning to see the wrong side of 30, and multiple years of being a playoff contender were taking their toll. The like of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler did their best, even winning three games in a row in the middle of the series, but the Predators were now a team that could overwhelm opponents, and would take advantage of this against Anaheim, eventually winning the series in seven games.
Nashville had taken down the Pacific Division champions, and now had another big test ahead of them in the San Jose Sharks. Like the Ducks, the Sharks had several players headed into their twilight years, with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both past 35, but they had more than enough talent to take over when the veterans began to tire. They watched the previous series closely, knowing they would have to limit the opportunities for Forsberg, Barkov, Bennett, and the like. As it would turn out, the Sharks would instead choose to turn the tables, chasing Pekka Rinne from two games in a wild seven-game series win.
The Predators had reached the post-season, and for much of their run, Bridgestone Arena was packed. Suddenly, any talk of re-locating the team was put on hold, and it wouldn’t be long before sell-outs were expected, so long as the team kept being competitive. Likewise, both David Poile and Peter Laviolette knew their jobs were safe for another year or so, as they had accomplished the goal that was set out for them. In fact, by getting the team to the second round, Laviolette earned consideration for the Jack Adams Award; in a strange twist, the award would go to none other than Barry Trotz, who had led his new team, the Washington Capitals, to the President’s Trophy.
2016 marked the last year in which the Predators would have two 1st-Round Draft Picks, as their compensation for the Weber offer sheet ran dry. With their two picks, Nashville would focus on the Ontario Hockey League, first taking Sarnia defender Jakob Chychrun with their natural pick at #16, then using the Flyers’ pick at #24 to select London Knights winger Max Jones.
2016-17: With little doubt, the Predators had won over quite a few fans in the city with their playoff run the previous year. This time around, however, the post-season wasn’t a goal, it was an expectation. The young Nashville core came into the year with the Stanley Cup on their mind, and weren’t going to be satisfied with just sneaking in to the playoffs and getting knocked out in the 1st Round. The good news for Preds fans was that the window for being a contender looked open for the next few years, with both Filip Forsberg and Aleksander Barkov signing 6-year extensions to keep them at Bridgestone Arena for the foreseeable future.
Despite all the talk of the Preds being ready to be a top team in the West, the regular season didn’t seem to show it. Far too often, despite the work of Pekka Rinne and rookie back-up Juuse Saros, the team in front of them would let games slip away. More often than not, Nashville had the talent to cover for their mistakes, but that too, was uncertain, as Barkov missed more time due to injuries. His absence was glaring, as he had become a very good two-way player, working his way into Selke Trophy conversations over the past couple of years. When he was missing, the young blue-line corps picked up the slack, with both Josh Morrissey and Jakob Chychrun earning regular playing time – the latter of the two playing 68 games as an 18-year-old.
Once again, Nashville was stuck with a Wild Card spot, but at the very least, their point total improved to 96. And once again, the Preds would have to contend with the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. This time, however, it was not Bruce Boudreau behind the Ducks’ bench, but Randy Carlyle, who had led the team to their lone Stanley Cup in 2007. Carlyle brought a much more defensive style of play, hoping to shut down the young, skilled Nashville forwards, but at times, he got almost too defensive, and for long stretches of games, the Preds would be able to hammer Anaheim’s net with shots. The Ducks’ inability to control the play would be their downfall, as Nashville won the series in six games.
Next up for the Preds was a massive test, as they faced off against the Edmonton Oilers, led by their talismanic young star, Connor McDavid. For McDavid, it was his first playoff experience, and the man expected to be the new face of the league was going to be the focus for Nashville’s defenders. Matched up against Alex Barkov, McDavid was rendered useless, and the frustration spread across the Edmonton team, with Leon Draisaitl getting suspended after spearing Josh Morrissey in the groin in Game Three. Nashville would cruise to a four-game sweep, leaving them well-rested for the Conference Final against St. Louis. Though the Blues had done well against both Minnesota and Chicago, the Predators were a tough ask of them, and the Predators would take another series, this time in six.
Very few had predicted the Nashville Predators to be the ones to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final, but here they were, faced with the task of upending the defending champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. In both of their last two series, the Pens had gone the maximum seven games, but it didn’t seem to matter come Cup Final time, as their wealth of skill was still on display. Alex Barkov had done the job of shutting down McDavid in the second round, and would be expected to mark Sidney Crosby in this series; though Barkov did his job (only two points for Crosby in the series), the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel were free to run amok when Barkov wasn’t on the ice. Pittsburgh would win the series in six games, capturing their second straight Stanley Cup.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for a competitive Nashville team, but they could take serious pride in the fact that they got all the way to the Cup Final with such a young squad. After some dark years, David Poile had rebuilt the team into one that could make some noise in the post-season for years to come. As a bonus, any talk of the club being in danger was wiped out with the Cup run; not only had the team been massively successful at the gate during the playoffs, but their regular season totals had rebounded to just over 16,600 fans per game. With the team now firmly secured in Nashville, the players and staff no longer had to worry about their future in the city, and could put all of their focus into gunning for the Cup.
For the first time since 2012, the Preds would not have an additional pick courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers, instead holding the solitary pick at #30 as Stanley Cup runners-up. They would use their selection on Eeli Tolvanen, a winger from the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers who was showing considerable promise.
2017-18: When hockey publications across the world put out their season previews for 17-18, it wasn’t a rare sight for the Nashville Predators to be one of the favourites to advance out of the West. In fact, more than a few had the Preds as their projected Stanley Cup winners. For virtually all of the Predators’ existence to this point, they had never gotten to this level; that they were now so heavily-favoured was a testament to the job that David Poile had done in re-building the squad. Not only had he turned the team around following Shea Weber’s departure, but he was continuing to find promising talent through the draft, with Eeli Tolvanen being projected as a potential top-line forward.
Of course, with hype comes expectations, and if anyone was going to live up to those expectations, it was the new captain, Aleksander Barkov. Now wearing the “C”, Barkov would set a career high with 78 points in 79 games, as well as leading the league with five short-handed goals. He wouldn’t be alone above the 60-point mark, with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson both cracking that barrier once more. So loaded was Nashville this year that they were able to add pieces over the course of the year, first getting Kyle Turris from Ottawa in early November, then trading their 2018 1st-Rounder to Chicago in a package deal to get Ryan Hartman.
Nashville were looking every bit the contenders that they were hyped up as. They would claim the Central Division title with 118 points, also winning the President’s Trophy in the process. Their 1st-Round match-up would be against the Colorado Avalanche, a team on the rise themselves; the Avs were back in the playoffs after three years of missing out, with 2013 1st Overall Pick Nathan MacKinnon leading the attack. Though the Avalanche made the series fun, Nashville adapted well, using Barkov in a shut-down role, while allowing Turris to carry the load offensively. Laviolette’s strategy worked, as the Preds would win the series in six games.
The Colorado series proved to be good practice for the Preds’ second-round match-up, as they faced the Winnipeg Jets. Like the Avs, the Jets were built upon their collection of skilled forwards, with all of Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mark Scheifele scoring more than 60 points in the year. While the Avalanche were built mainly on their offence, however, the Jets had a very strong blue-line unit as well, with Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba taking the majority of the minutes. Winnipeg’s depth in all areas of the ice was the difference, as even though the Preds were well-built themselves, the Jets would take the series in seven games.
The Preds had done well, but it wasn’t quite the Cup Final appearance that many hockey writers had predicted to start the year. They had also taken a risk that they hadn’t in a while, trading away a 1st-Round Pick for additional talent. Considering the young players the Preds already had, the risk was worth it, as the team still looked to be in position to contend for a while. Nashville’s pick in the 2018 Entry Draft would fall at the #27 spot; the Blackhawks would use it on Drummondville defenceman Nicolas Beaudin.
2018-19: Despite the Predators not getting past the second round of the NHL playoffs, there was little pressure on David Poile or Peter Laviolette going into the 18-19 season. They were unlikely to be fired unless things went absolutely horribly, and with the core the Preds had, they weren’t going to collapse anytime soon. There was one key departure from the club, as assistant General Manager Paul Fenton would take over the GM role in Philadelphia, but in the grand scheme of things, Fenton’s exit wasn’t likely to change anything major within the club… or so it was thought.
By the trade deadline, Nashville was well clear of anyone else in the Central Division. Aleksander Barkov was on his way to a 96-point season, Roman Josi was putting in a shift all across the ice, and the goalie tandem of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros were performing decently. But the Predators would make headlines on the deadline, not for on-ice play, but for a pair of trades they made with Philadelphia, and former Nashville assistant GM Fenton. The Preds would trade Sam Bennett and a 4th Round Pick to the Flyers in two separate deals, getting Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds in return, respectively. While Simmonds was a decent rental player, Konecny was a regular 40-point player, still a few years away from reaching his prime; getting a sought-after power forward and a promising skill player for what was effectively spare parts earned David Poile immediate praise from hockey analysts the world over.
Of course, Nashville hardly needed any more positive energy by this point. They would hold on to their sizable lead in the Central, finishing 1st in the Division with 111 points. Their first test in the playoffs would be a familiar one, as the Preds faced off once more with the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs were prepared for another clash, having brought in the likes of Ian Cole, Matt Calvert, and Derick Brassard over the course of the past year, and their depth led to this year’s series being much closer. It would take until Game Seven, but Nashville would eventually prevail, winning the deciding game by a score of 4-2.
Next up for Nashville were the St. Louis Blues, a team that took the long road to the post-season, having sat in last place in the entire league in early January, only to rise up the tables thanks to new head coach Craig Berube, and new starting netminder Jordan Binnington. Binnington, who took the #1 spot for good late in the season, had handled the Winnipeg Jets with relative ease, and would obviously be the focus of this series. Though he held his nerve in front of a raucous Bridgestone Arena crowd, the team in front of him just couldn’t keep the Preds at bay, as Nashville would win the series in five. Taking down such a hot goalie gave the Predators a ton of confidence, and they would follow up in the Conference Final with a five-game walloping of the San Jose Sharks.
For the second time in three seasons, the Predators were in the Stanley Cup Final, but this time, their opponent would be the Boston Bruins. Boston had finished second in a very strong Atlantic Division, but had the good fortune of avoiding the first-place (and President’s Trophy winner) Tampa Bay, who had been swept in the first round by Columbus. Boston would clean up the Blue Jackets, then dispatch the Islanders to get to the Cup Final. Much of the core of this team had been around for the Bruins’ 2011 Cup win, including captain Zdeno Chara, two-way superstar Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand, who had gone from a good second-line pest in 2011 to a 100-point player today. The Bruins were deep, no doubt, but the Predators were just as deep, and the series would go the distance, with Game Seven taking place in Nashville. There, the Predators would put on their best performance of the year in a 6-0 rout, claiming the series – and their very first Stanley Cup.
Celebrations were set off across the Music City. When once, this team looked in danger of moving elsewhere, they were now on top of the hockey world. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the crowd at Bridgestone Arena, “Don’t let anyone else tell you that you are not a hockey city, because you just proved you ARE.” For his fantastic performances throughout the playoffs, the Conn Smythe Trophy would go to Roman Josi, while Peter Laviolette would be nominated for the Jack Adams Award, only to lose to New York Islanders’ bench boss Barry Trotz. Captain Aleksander Barkov, who had been the first to hoist the Cup, also ended up winning the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player.
Nashville, as Cup champions, would have the very last pick in the 1st Round of the 2019 Entry Draft. They would use the 31st Overall Pick on Ryan Johnson, a defenceman with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede – the same team that Eeli Tolvanen was playing with when he was drafted by the Preds.
THE PREDATORS TODAY: The Nashville of 2012 was one on the precipice, as players were headed out of town for other clubs. At the start of the 2012 off-season, Ryan Suter was gone, Jordin Tootoo was gone, and Alexander Radulov was gone (although Preds fans would tell you he was no big loss). But all of those departures paled in comparison to that of Shea Weber, who had become the heart and soul of the Predators. Losing him was nearly a fatal blow to the club, as attendance dropped significantly over the next year or two, especially as the team lay near the bottom of the league. Questions arose as to the viability of the Predators in the city of Nashville, and it seemed as if the team could be on the move, pending the emergence of a reputable buyer.
The ownership group stuck to their guns. They stood by David Poile, and let him build the team up again, even as fans tuned out following the Weber offer sheet. The result would eventually be that the Predators made not one, but two Stanley Cup Finals, winning the second in 2019. The team had moved on brilliantly from Weber, finding new talent to take his place, both on the blue line (Josh Morrissey and Jakob Chychrun), and in the leadership group (captain Aleksander Barkov). And not only did the Preds recover on the ice, but they also improved at the gate, drawing over 17,000 a game in 2018-19. The Preds were safe in Nashville, and the patience of both ownership and Poile was to thank.
The Predators enter opening night of the 2019-20 season as defending champions, utilizing the following line-up:
F1. Filip Forsberg – Matt Duchene – Travis Konecny
F2. Adrian Kempe – Aleksander Barkov – Viktor Arvidsson
F3. Calle Jarnkrok – Kyle Turris – Lawson Crouse
F4. Craig Smith – Colton Sissons – Nick Bonino
D1. Josh Morrissey – Roman Josi
D2. Ryan Ellis – Mattias Ekholm
D3. Jakob Chychrun – Yannick Weber
G1. Pekka Rinne
G2. Juuse Saros
Clearly, even as champions, Nashville will not rest on their laurels. In free agency, the Preds would go out and sign Matt Duchene to a seven-year deal, using up much of their remaining cap room. This gives the Predators a deadly three-man combo down the middle between Turris, Barkov, and Duchene, with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson able to give the team some additional scoring from the wings. The team is also supplemented with some young sandpaper, with Adrian Kempe and Lawson Crouse both throwing their weight around, and Max Jones waiting for his spot on the main roster. Add in Craig Smith and Travis Konecny, and you have a team built for all-season hockey, equally capable of competing in the regular season and the playoffs.
The Preds’ blue line ranks among some of the best in the game. Roman Josi is arguably one of the top five defencemen in the game, and Josh Morrissey has become a very capable first-unit guy in just a few short years. In addition to them, Nashville has a solid second pairing of Ellis and Ekholm, and an emerging young D-man in Jakob Chychrun, who has looked good in limited stretches (only a maximum of 68 games played in a season since his debut in 2016). Though Pekka Rinne is still the starter for the Preds, it won’t be long before Juuse Saros takes over the role; considering Saros’ career stats to this point (a .923 SV% in 79 games), the team looks to be in pretty good hands when he becomes the #1 guy for good.
The Predators have a ton of new talent in their ranks thanks to letting go of Shea Weber. Of all of the players that the Preds get from their 1st-Round Picks between 2013-16, only two of them are not with Nashville; Jakub Zboril has yet to earn a spot with the team, and even he could only be a year away if he develops well, while Sam Bennett was traded to Philadelphia in the deal that saw Travis Konecny become a Pred. In addition to the bolded players, Max Jones is sitting on the periphery, having suited up for 30 games with the team the previous year, and likely starts the season as a healthy scratch due to the logjam of talent ahead of him.
CHANGES IN THE HOCKEY WORLD
STANLEY CUP PARITY IS SLIGHTLY MORE APPARENT. As it stands, from 2009-2017, only four teams won the Cup: Pittsburgh (three times), Chicago (also thrice), Los Angeles (twice), and Boston (once). Philadelphia’s win in 2014 adds a fifth team to that list, and with Washington and Nashville both claiming a Cup in the next two seasons, the decade ends with seven teams hoisting Lord Stanley’s Mug. Even with Chicago’s multiple titles, and the back-to-back efforts by the Penguins, it becomes clear that so long as you can get to the playoffs, you will always have a shot at glory. (Of course, if that wasn’t clear already, the massive upsets by teams like Columbus, St. Louis, and the Islanders in the 2019 playoffs left little doubt.)
KEY TRADES ARE CHANGED. In the OTL, one of the most infamous trades of the decade was the deal that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville in exchange for Shea Weber. It was a trade that both sides felt the need to make; Subban was not a favourite of the coaching staff in Montreal, while Weber’s contract looked less and less appealing by the year. The trade worked well enough for both sides, as Nashville got a Stanley Cup Final appearance with Subban, while Weber is now the Habs’ captain. With Weber going to Philly, this trade is changed, as the Flyers are not going to part with a player that they have spent so much money on – especially now that he is wearing the “C” for them in this timeline. Instead, Montreal trades Subban to the New York Rangers for Ryan McDonagh, and the trade works out much like it did in our timeline, with McDonagh now Montreal’s captain.
Also in the world of trades, Paul Fenton made a shocking trade in the OTL during his one-year tenure as Minnesota GM, sending Mikael Granlund to the Predators for Kevin Fiala. It was a steep price to pay for Fiala, but it begins to make sense when you see the faith that Fenton had in the Swiss winger, calling him a “gamebreaker”. Likewise, it’s not hard to believe that Paul would get too attached to a Nashville draftee, which makes possible the deal he swings in this timeline as Philadelphia GM. Instead of Fiala this time, it is Sam Bennett that he shows faith in, acquiring him in exchange for Travis Konecny. While Bennett hasn’t shown the development that was expected of him as a 4th Overall Pick in 2014, Konecny has already emerged as an arguable top-six forward, even at the age of 22.
NASHVILLE IS NEARLY A FAILED FRANCHISE. As it stands in the OTL, the Predators have built themselves up nicely since their inception, going from around 13,000 fans/game at their lowest point in the early 2000s, to just below 17,500 fans/game today. And even in the wake of the 2012 lockout, the Preds actually made slight gains in attendance, as their per-game total actually went UP by around 300. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Nashville committed to keeping their franchise player in the ’12 off-season, handing out a huge chunk of change to keep Shea Weber at Bridgestone Arena. That move showed that despite losing Ryan Suter in free agency, the Preds were committed to being competitive for the time being.
Shea Weber’s departure in this timeline has major knock-on effects. Letting their old captain go signals to the fans that the Predators are out of the race for the time being, and could even send the message that the Preds will continue to let great players walk away for more money elsewhere. That reputation would likely stick for the next few years, and even with a collection of new young talents, casual fans might not have much hope that those players stick around when free agency becomes an option. Nashville has enough of a base to avoid the Atlanta Thrashers’ fate, but may still get brought up as a team in danger of future re-location, a la the Florida Panthers; of course, when the Preds give out lengthy contracts to Barkov and Forsberg, and then make their deep runs in the playoffs from 2017-19, any talk of re-location is put to bed for a long while.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENCY BECOMES A LEGITIMATE OPTION. If there is one thing that NHL General Manager’s don’t seem to enjoy doing, it’s “rocking the boat”. The realm of restricted free agency has always been seen as an unholy cross between going “all-in” at a poker table and constructing (or even launching) a nuclear weapon; offer sheets, for the most part, are viewed as too much of a gamble for a team to make, and even open up the possibility of rival GMs extending offer sheets to your own younger stars – either out of revenge, or out of a genuine belief that such a young player will make their own team better.
By signing Weber to an offer sheet, the Flyers likely knew they were playing a dangerous game, and in this timeline, Nashville has called their bluff. Of course, getting to – and winning – a Stanley Cup Final changes the circumstances massively, and now, the Weber contract would be viewed as a calculated risk, but one that paid off. And with this, teams might see more value in a young RFA than they would in their own picks; yes, it might be better to have a few more prospects, but if a team was going to go for a Stanley Cup within the next couple of years, their GMs might be more motivated to improve their fortunes in the short-term, as one player could be the difference between being a perennial also-ran, and getting their name on the Cup. Of course, this effect doesn’t really get observed until the 2019 off-season, as multiple young free agents hit the “open-ish” market. With all of those RFAs up for grabs, how willing would a team be to go out and grab a top-line playmaker like Mitch Marner, a proven goal-scorer like Patrik Laine, or a blue-line stud like Zach Werenski? How much more effort would the Montreal Canadiens put into the contract they offered Sebastian Aho? With so many tantalizing names available, it’s not hard to believe that Aho wouldn’t be the only one out there to put pen to paper on an offer sheet. After all, teams would see what happened five years ago, when RFA signing Shea Weber led the Flyers to the Cup; who knows, one of those young dynamos out there could be just the thing that puts a contending team over the top.
Next month, I look at what happens when I undo one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history: What if the Los Angeles Kings never traded for Ron Grahame?