The last Canadian-based NHL team exited the playoffs when the Ottawa Senators lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, but one burning question seems to remain for hockey fans north of the border:
With P.K. Subban and the Nashville Predators preparing for the Stanley Cup Final starting Monday at PPG Paints Arena, does that mean Nashville won the trade that brought Subban from Montreal to Music City in exchange for Shea Weber last June?
Subban needed some time to settle in with his new team, and he sat out 16 games around mid-season because of an upper-body injury that was thought to be a herniated disk in his back. But he has been a standout in the playoffs, showing solid shutdown skills while paired with Mattias Ekholm. Subban, who has averaged 25 minutes 52 seconds of ice time a game, has contributed two goals and 10 points in 16 games.
Weber is a different type of player, more physical but less dynamic and less likely to carry the puck. Subban’s mobility fits in with the league-wide trend toward finding mobile defensemen who can supplement — or lead — the attack. Weber and the Canadiens had a better regular season but Subban and the Predators are still playing: they’ll take on the Pittsburgh Penguins for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens were eliminated by the New York Rangers in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
Asked during Sunday’s media day festivities if Nashville’s long playoff run means that the Predators won the trade, Subban hedged. Politely, but he hedged.
“I think at the end of the day, in terms of when I hear about the trade, what Shea brings and what I bring, maybe we have some similarities but we also have some differences as well,” Subban said. “I think one of the toughest things for me was coming into a locker room that he had been in for 12 years and had been the captain in there, and to figure out how I was going to fit in because he had such a great presence and he had such a great career in Nashville. I’m sure when he had to go to Montreal he had to hear similar things as well.
“As far as I’m concerned, in our business I got traded. I said that I felt that I could win a Stanley Cup with this club and this team. And I’m sure he felt the same way, too. I know that for our hockey club, in past years the Predators have always finished pretty high in the standings. This year we were kind of mediocre in the standings, and maybe that’s what we needed — just to get in the playoffs, not really caring about home ice or who we were playing, just knowing that comfortably and confidently as a team we could be in this position.
“As far the team that wins the trade, I think both teams were looking for something different. When I was in Montreal, did I feel comfortable there? I did. I felt comfortable and I felt that we had a great team and we accomplished maybe not our ultimate goal of winning the Cup, but going to the conference finals twice and making the playoffs I think it was four or five out of six years. We had some great moments. … I don’t think I can really say who won the trade or not. I allow you guys to do that,” he said, referring to the crowd of reporters around him. “You guys have all the stats.”
Penguins forward Phil Kessel wasn’t shy about stating his opinion on Subban’s motivations. Kessel was roundly criticized during his time in Toronto, even though expectations were set unreasonably high for him; he played a key role in the Penguins’ Cup championship last season, his first season there after being traded by the Maple Leafs.
Predators general manager David Poile praised Subban’s contributions but also praised goaltender Pekka Rinne and the team’s overall depth.
“Our defense has always been one of the strengths of our team,” Poile said. “I think P.K. is a different player than Shea Weber. I think the coaches, through a little bit of experimentation, have found some defense pairings that are probably as good as any in the league. P.K. is a big part of why we are here today. I also need to and want to give credit to our whole team, our whole organization. We like to think we move together each step of the way in terms of the success we’re having. Our goaltender has been outstanding all year. Our defense has been just terrific. Our forwards, in my mind, have been really improved, probably give us the chance to come to the next step, to be here today.
“Subban has been terrific. I think as the year has gone along, after he got through a couple of injuries, an adjustment period, he’s gotten better and better with us. We look forward to him playing for us for many years. But I really think this is a team effort to get us to this point. … Unless we’re getting contributions from a lot of people, it’s not happening.”
Poile spent more than 30 years as an NHL general manager with the Washington Capitals and the Predators but this is his first trip to the Cup Final.
“I never doubted myself. I maybe doubted if this day would ever come,” said Poile, 67. “I tell you, I can’t believe how excited I am. … I’m trying to take in every moment of it, remember it, enjoy it as best I can. Maybe after all these years, maybe I have a little bit more appreciation for this than somebody who had done it at a younger, earlier age in their career.”
Pete Weber is hoping to have a Bob Miller moment.
Miller, the longtime broadcast voice of the Kings, was granted his ultimate hockey wish when the Kings won the Cup in 2012 and again in 2014. Weber, who worked alongside Miller on Kings’ broadcasts from 1978 to 1981, has been with the Predators since they debuted in 1998 and has a similar wish.
Weber and his wife, Claudia, keep in touch with Miller and his wife, Judy. They were supposed to meet at the 2016 All-Star game in Nashville but Miler suffered a mild stroke and then needed bypass surgery; Weber was with Miller earlier this year in Los Angeles when he had another stroke, which led Miller to retire from broadcasting.
“We’ve been talking a lot the last couple of weeks,” Weber said of Miller. “He told me, ‘If you’re having a party, Judy and I are coming out.’”
This will be the first Stanley Cup Final contested between two American-born coaches, since Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan and Nashville’s Peter Laviolette are both from Massachusetts. And each has won the Cup once, Laviolette with Carolina in 2006 and Sullivan with the Penguins last year.
“The fact that there’s two American coaches that are going to play against one another here, I think it speaks a little bit about the progress that hockey has made in the United States,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a lot of really good coaches that are working extremely hard to be the best at their craft.
“There’s a lot of real good American coaches, just like there’s a lot of real good Canadian coaches and European coaches and others. To be part of that American fraternity, I guess, it’s something that I’m certainly proud of.”