Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
They're in a highly-unexpected three-way tie for second place in the Western Conference, but are either the Nashville Predators or Calgary Flames going to be anywhere close to that lofty position by season's end?
Calgary and Nashville have some things in common: they're the epicenters of their country's country music scene; they've had Terry Crisp, Olli Jokinen and a defenseman named Suter working for their respective NHL team; and those two organizations currently are shocking the hockey world by being tied for third place in the Western Conference.
The expectations for the Flames and Predators were considerably different coming into the 2014-15 campaign: the latter made a slew of veteran additions on the ice and behind the bench in the hope of getting back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12, while the former was in full-on rebuild mode. But with both off to such a strong start, the natural question is: which of the two will be ahead of the other in the standings by the end of the season?
My answer: the Predators. And here's why.
For one thing, Norris Trophy-nominated defenseman Shea Weber. For another thing, Vezina Trophy-nominated goalie Pekka Rinne. Nothing personal against Mark Giordano or Jonas Hiller, both of whom are enjoying all-star-caliber seasons for the Flames, but neither Calgary player has elevated his game to be considered among the best of the very best. Until Giordano and Hiller demonstrate consistency at that level, it's fair to give the benefit of the doubt to the team that has the two better players on its roster.
Then there's the fact that, although both teams are among the best in the league when it comes to PDO – the Predators second overall at 103.4, and the Flames mere fractions behind at 103.2 – Nashville has been a much better defensive team so far: they've allowed the fewest goals at even strength, and their average goals-against per game is a stingy 1.93, good enough for third in the league right now (the Flames, meanwhile, are a pedestrian 13th in both categories). As well, while Calgary is shooting the daylights out of the puck, check out the shooting percentages of some of their leading scorers, including those of Mason Raymond (shooting percentage this year: 20.8; lifetime shooting percentage: 10.0), Jiri Hudler (shooting percentage this year: 26.3; lifetime shooting percentage: 14.5), Dennis Wideman (shooting percentage this year: 15.2; lifetime shooting percentage: 6.2) and Giordano (shooting percentage this year: 13.2; lifetime shooting percentage: 7.4). It's not only fair to expect a regression to the mean, but with this group, it could be a regression to the cruel.
To be sure, the Flames have some factors working in their favor. Both teams have significant salary cap space to use during the year to make themselves better, but Calgary's owners have deeper pockets and a more lucrative hockey business to lean on to improve the roster. And despite playing in more of a hockey fishbowl, the Flames also will continue to play with those decreased expectations all season long; if there's any real pressure, it's on Nashville to end its longest playoff drought since its first post-season appearance in 2003-04. Still, the Preds also have more experience and depth in their lineup than do the Flames. Over the course of a long and punishing season, I think that matters.
For the record, I don't see either the Preds or Flames finishing the year with home-ice advantage in the playoffs. But if we're strictly talking which team is more due for a precipitous fall at some point in the season, my guesstimate is Calgary, which is winning with at least a few wisps of smoke and at one mirror. Nashville isn't a perfect team either, but the Preds are doing enough things the right way early on (excluding their abysmal special teams) to suggest they'll be above the Flames after 82 games.