As the only other time the NHL has played a truncated season, 1995 is one of the few barometers we have to figure out just how different the 2013 NHL season might look compared to the long campaigns we’re used to seeing when there’s no labor strife. Writer Eric Duhatschek took a look back at that season for the Globe and Mail yesterday. Based on the franchise’s history and some of the factors mentioned in Duhatschek’s piece, here are a few keys for the Nashville Predators as they negotiate the unfamiliar territory of the shortened season.
KEYS TO NASHVILLE’S 2013 NHL SEASON
Avoiding A Slow Start
In the Globe and Mail piece, Duhatschek writes that the shorter schedule amplified the effect of streaks. “Any team quick out of the gate had a chance to make the playoffs,” he says, “and the team that won the Stanley Cup, the New Jersey Devils, was a heavy underdog and started every series on the road.”
In each season since the last lockout, the Nashville Predators have averaged just over 11 points in their first 10 games. The outliers: the 2005-06 squad picked up an 17 points thanks to a record 8 consecutive wins to open the season, and the 2009-10 team lost 7 of the next 8 after opening with consecutive wins.
|NASHVILLE PREDATORS, 2005-2012|
|RECORD IN FIRST 10 GAMES OF EACH NHL SEASON|
|Source: List of Nashville Predators seasons, Wikipedia.org|
A strong start can’t make up for a long losing streak later in the season, but it can help to offset the later, occasional regulation loss in a close game. Even if the team gets of to its usual middle-of-the-road start, they’ll stay competitive for a playoff spot. The most important thing for the Predsin the 2013 NHL season is to avoid slumping out of the gate like they did in 2007-08 or 2009-10. The Preds dug themselves out of a hole with late-season surges in both of those seasons and snuck into the playoffs with 7th- and 8th-seeds. This year that’s not going to be an option.
Based on recent history, the top team in the Western Conference during the 2013 NHL season is likely to earn between 1.3 and 1.5 points per game (maybe a little more if, say, the Canucks sweep the Pacific). That means the Western #1 seed in the playoffs should earn somewhere between 62 and 72 points in the standings. Picking up 17 of those points in the early going would make getting to the top a lot easier, but avoiding goose-eggs in January and February will be enough to keep the Nashville Predators competitive.
Cut Down On Costly Routine Mistakes – Quickly
In ’94-95, the NHL played a 48-game schedule. Former L.A. Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey told Duhatschek that he was actually scared during the shortened training camp and first practice. “I felt way behind everybody else, and knowing there wasn’t much time to get ready. We tied the first game 3-3 with the Toronto Maple Leafs in L.A. and I let in one, maybe two, ordinary goals. I think it was the next day that [coach] Barry Melrose came and talked to me about it. He said, ‘Unfortunately, in a 48-game schedule, with only intraconference games, we really can’t afford that.’ It was amazing to feel that sort of pressure that quickly in a season.”
The pressure to avoid making early mistakes will probably fall most heavily on the relatively young Nashville Predators defensive corps. The team has four veterans in Shea Weber, Hal Gill, Kevin Klein, and Scott Hannan, all of whom should be at the very least reliable. But the other likely members of the defensive corps are still inexperienced at the NHL level and they won’t have the benefit of a long schedule to gloss over routine mistakes. If either Ryan Ellis or Jonathon Blum doesn’t perform well early in the season, the coaching staff and front office won’t have a lot of time to pull the trigger on Plan B.
Winning In The Central Division
Melrose’s comments to Hrudey in 1994-95 also reflect the importance of winning intradivision games in the 2013 NHL season. A high level of competition in these games will be familiar territory for Nashville; the Central Division may have once been the least competitive in the National Hockey League, but those days are long gone now. Nashville, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis all made last season’s playoffs and each is expected to have a good shot at repeating in 2013. Or at least they were before the lockout destroyed the non-conference schedule.
Every game Central Division teams play against each other in 2013 will be vitally important, much more so than they would have been in an 82-game schedule with plenty of games against non-conference opponents. A win not only gives you points but also keeps your competition from earning them, an effect which is magnified by the shorter schedule. The difference between 1st and 4th places in the Central feasibly could be just a few points. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where Central teams beat up on each other during the season and the team in 4th misses out on the playoffs by one or two points.
And though the chances would be remote under normal circumstances, an improved Columbus Blue Jackets team could conceivably sneak into the picture and playing spoiler to one or two of the Central heavyweights in a Western Conference free-for-all. In Nashville’s case last season, there were a couple of games the Jackets were only kept from winning by truly miraculous Predators comebacks. In a shortened season, one or two less miracles against a Columbus underdog could see Nashville finding itself in a very different playoff position than it’s become accustomed to. The less often Nashville puts itself in that sort of situation in the 2013 NHL season, the better.