It’s pretty astounding to see the evolution of the Nashville Predators franchise from the 1998 expansion year to what they are currently in 2020.
It really doesn’t seem that long ago when NHL hockey came to Nashville, Tennessee and the Predators hockey franchise was born.
Many Nashville natives had very little common knowledge on the beautiful sport of hockey. But one things people instantly loved about it was the physical nature of the game and the speed that you witness when watching it in person.
In that inaugural season the expectations were obviously low. No one knew what to expect other than it was awesome to see the city of Nashville be awarded a team in one of the major sports.
Building the foundation
Sometimes it goes unnoticed by the fans today, but that first franchise draft pick of David Legwand was an enormous one that ended up being very successful.
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Legwand still to this day is the franchise’s all-time leader in goals (210), games played (956), assists (356) and points (566).
The fact that your first ever draft pick went on to have that kind of an impact and still has big records like that still standing two decades later is incredible to think about.
That was the No.2 overall pick in that year’s draft, with Tampa Bay selecting Vincent Lecavalier No.1 overall. Other notable players that went after Legwand in the first round were Brad Stuart, Nikolai Antropov, Alex Tanguay, Simon Gagne and Scott Gomez.
The Predators didn’t really connect on any of their other draft picks in their first draft, but that made it count where it matters most by selecting Legwand.
Overall that 1998 draft had an average of just 47 career goals scored by the players selected in that draft, which was actually higher than the following five drafts, per HockeyDB.com.
How the season unfolded
Some interesting numbers from that inaugural season, per hockey-reference.com:
- Average age: 26.5 (NHL average: 27.7)
- Points Percentage: .384
- Goals scored: 190 (NHL average: 216)
- Goals against: 261 (NHL average: 216)
- Power Play percentage: 12.35% (NHL average: 15.81%)
- Penalty Kill percentage: 79% (NHL average: 84.2%)
Predictably the outmatched expansion Predators performed below league averages in virtually all of the important statistical categories. It was an uphill battle that ended with the Predators having a record of 28-47-7 for 63 points.
At that time there were three divisions in each conference, and four teams per division. The Predators were still in the Central Division and finished in last place, but only seven points behind the Chicago Blackhawks and ahead of the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division.
The Predators also managed to score more goals than three other teams in the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings.
So in other words, they weren’t the rock bottom worst team in the league.
That first game in franchise history was one I wish I could’ve attended. No one really knew what to expect, and for retrospect Juuse Saros was just three-years-old at this time.
The Predators were blanked on the scoreboard 1-0 against the Florida Panthers in the franchise’s first game, which was in Nashville. Mike Dunham was in net for the Predators and made 25 saves on 26 shots.
There were a massive amount of penalties in this game. If you can believe it, there were 22 overall penalties called, including four fighting penalties. Unbelievable.
The Predators didn’t have to wait to long to taste victory for the first time as they returned to action three days later to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 at home, and with Andrew Brunette scoring the first goal in franchise history.
Greg Johnson assisted on two goals and the team had their first win. It would take the Predators another two weeks to get their second win, but either way people were just happy to learn a new sport that had the same intensity as football, if not more.
The Predators would also get an improbable upset win over the dynasty Detroit Red Wings that season by a final score of 5-3. At this point we were starting to learn who some of the key players were on the team with guys like Cliff Ronning, Scott Walker, Greg Johnson and Kimmo Timonen.
Ronning led the team in points with 53 and assists with 35. He was the main offensive threat and became a fan-favorite pretty quickly.
Then you have Sergei Krivokraisov, who at the time honestly many average people had no clue how to even pronounce his name. However, he put up 25 goals to lead the team in that category.
Dunham appeared in the majority of games at goaltender for the Predators with 44 games and 16 wins, while the 22-year-old Tomas Vokoun had 37 games and got 12 wins.
It would end up taking the Predators five full seasons to finally get over the hump and manage more than 74 points in a season.
This was fun to go back and reminisce on the first season in 1998, and now I’m left wishing they’d bring back those throwback blue and silver sweaters for a few games in the future. That would be a cool thing to see.