On Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena in a game against the San Jose Sharks, your 2015 Nashville Predators playoff roster will probably be on display. It will involve one of the best defenses in the NHL, led by three-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber.
Likely Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne will be in goal. Filip Forsberg, the top rookie forward in the game will drive the first line. This group will be buoyed by Sunday additions, pending unrestricted free agents, Mike Santorelli at forward and Cody Franson on D – acquired from Toronto without essentially having to give up a player off the NHL roster.
It all looks gravy for the NHL leading Predators – except for one minor issue. Does the team feel comfortable with a double-Mike punch of Ribeiro and Fisher at center in the playoffs?
“I think that down the middle we’ve got some depth and that’s what you need,” Weber said. “Every team has those top centers who are game changers and play the big minutes and I think our guys stack up with them.”
Weber should know. He’s seen the Predators ousted by the Blackhawks of Jonathan Toews and the Canucks with Ryan Kesler off a 40-goal campaign and the Red Wings with Pavel Datsyuk.
All three of those squads made a Stanley Cup Final or won a Cup after ousting the Predators. But if Nashville wins it all this year, the Predators will do it with arguably the lowest grade first line center to win a Cup in the post 2004-05 lockout era.
2006 – Eric Staal
2007 – Andy McDonald
2008 – Datsyuk
2009 – Sidney Crosby
2010 – Toews
2011 – Patrice Bergeron
2012 – Anze Kopitar
2013 – Toews
2014 – Kopitar
The 35-year-old Ribeiro could be considered similar to McDonald. The only difference is that McDonald had a 21-year-old Getzlaf on that Anaheim team.
Not that Ribeiro hasn’t been a terrific value for the Predators who got him at $1.05 million for one year. He has 46 points in 56 games.
But look a little deeper and doubt shows.
According to Behind the Net, Ribeiro’s quality of competition is lowest amongst all Nashville’s regular centers – worse than Paul Gaustad, Calle Jarnkrok and Fisher. Granted, Ribeiro is more an offensive player and coaches try to put them against weaker competition. But in the postseason, you can’t hide someone from a match up as easily, unless you’re a coach who is really good at doing so.
Also, in the playoffs is he going to have the luxury of 64.5 percent offensive zone starts 5-on-5 per Behind the Net?
When you win 42.2 percent of your face offs, like Ribeiro, are you worth starting in the offensive zone 64.5 percent of the time especially in the playoffs where puck possession is at a premium? The Predators feel they have a way to combat this perceived shortcoming – mainly by rolling four lines.
“I think we have done a really good job this year in terms of Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher being our 1-2 centers,” general manager David Poile said. “I think we sort of ‘four line’ a lot of teams a little bit better than maybe they can against us. It’s all about match ups.”
Possibly. But St. Louis, for example, can match the Predators’ centers with David Backes, Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera and Marcel Goc.
Chicago has a 1-2 punch of Toews and Brad Richards with Andrew Shaw anchoring the third line. The Ducks have Getzlaf, Kesler and a rapidly developing Rickard Rakell.
Ask Laviolette about Nashville’s issues down the middle and he preaches consistency. This is true in some ways – especially with a lack of available talent at center. Teams don’t just give up franchise middlemen.
“It’s hard to go change pieces because you think something might be better, when maybe it’s not better,” Laviolette said. “I think our group has proven I think on a nightly basis against those bigger teams you’re talking about we can do all right.”
For a team that's going for it, you don't often ask questions about the future, but Ribeiro, who sought out Nashville after an Arizona buyout, for this year, would probably want a raise next season. But would you give it to a guy who's going to turn 36 mid-season in 2016?
Again, these aren't questions the Predators are considering.
They're understandably thinking about the here and now with that really good defenseman, really good goaltender and really good rookie. And now Nashville has another defenseman – a first pairing guy on other teams who will play on its second pair in Franson. Plus Santorelli is an offensive player who can play multiple positions at forward -- including down the middle.
In some ways, depth comes in all different shapes and sizes. This Predators team just happens to be stronger in goal and on the blueline than on the faceoff dot.
If this is the right way to build a contending playoff team, other squads in the Western Conference haven’t seemed to have caught on yet. Then again, the NHL is a copycat league and Nashville is one run away from maybe changing this idea.
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