12 April 2012

Nashville is elite - but for how long?

I briefly touched on this in my response to a Marek vs Wyshynski Question of the Day prompt a couple posts ago, but I thought the entire thing merited its own post, because I think it's a fascinating little story within the context of the current Nashville-Detroit series.  Maybe you disagree with me on the idea that Nashville is an elite team in the Western Conference, on the level of Vancouver, for example, but you cannot deny that they are at least in the conversation.  Their roster, as currently constructed, has them poised to remain in that conversation for a long ways to come.

That "as currently constructed" part of it is what really makes it interesting though.  Nashville currently boasts the best defensive pairing in the NHL in Shea Weber/Ryan Suter, but Suter will reach unrestricted free agency this summer, and Shea Weber will get there a year later.  Neither has committed to Nashville for the long-term, and the general understanding of why is because neither is sure that they want to tie themselves to a team that may forever remain in "gets-to-the-playoffs-but-not-a-contender" limbo.  Nashville GM David Poile has made no secret of the fact that he wants to keep both, and that they're loading for bear to have a deep playoff run this year and start spending more going forward, in an effort to woo both defensemen into coming back.

Nashville is trying to prove something here, to two of the best defensemen in the game, and they need a deep playoff run to get there.  On the flip side, Detroit is staring a Lidstrom-less future in the face, and realizing that the sum of their team's defensive abilities is not enough to make up for the loss of one of an all-time great.  Detroit fans have been staring lustily at the embarassment of riches that Nashville boasts on their blue line for a year now, trying to come up with a plan to replace a formerly elite defenseman with one (or two!) coming into their prime.  Detroit is a hotly rumored destination for Suter as a UFA this summer, and whether they get him or not, they'll also be interested in Weber the next year.

And there's the rub.  Detroit wants Weber and Suter badly, and would also dearly love to cripple a division rival by signing them over the next couple offseasons, no matter the circumstance that they become available.  Nashville needs this playoff run in order to keep Weber and Suter.  It's a brutal matchup for Detroit to play Nashville on the road, but the stakes here are tremendous, beyond just moving on to the next playoff round.  Detroit, if they were to beat Nashville in this series, could help push Suter and then Weber toward unrestricted free agency.  Consequently, a Red Wings series win could cripple a Predators contender before it even gets going.  Moreover, knocking Suter and Weber loose gives Detroit a chance to acquire one or even both of them, which could help Detroit to move on after Lidstrom without skipping a beat, or to even step forward, back into the position of being elite Cup contenders.

This series is literally a fight for the future of the Central division.  That may be more significant than anything else either team could accomplish this spring, short of a Stanley Cup.  It's the highest stakes I've ever seen in a first round matchup.  One franchise's fortunes rise and it opens a nice long window at a championship.  The other falls and starts trying to build a new contender.

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