The Nashville Predators impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final has been an unlikely one, but not a complete surprise for the Predators’ North American Amateur Scout and Montrose resident Glen Sanders.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Sanders, who took a break from the NHL Combine in Buffalo to talk to the Trail Times. “I’m not totally surprised, because after the finish of last year and then with the (P.K. Subban) trade, we expected to be pretty good, and then we had a terrible start.”
The Preds opened the season going 2-5-1 in October and struggled to a 16-14-6 record through December. Injuries hampered the team early, and inconsistent play almost derailed the Predators chances at a playoff berth. However, Nashville regrouped and came on in the second half with a 25-15-6 record to sneak into the playoff as the 16th seed.
“Be it injuries or just everyone trying to get used to playing with each other, our first two and a half months were bad,” said Sanders.
The stumble out of the gate was a stark contrast to the previous season where Nashville was one of the hottest teams in the league to begin the season, but eventually cooled off and fell in the second round of the playoffs in a seven-game series against the San Jose Sharks.
“The year before we were on fire, played unreal right up until Christmas time and then we just tailed off. So we wanted to try to peak at the right time, but there was a point where we weren’t sure we were going to make it.”
Nashville is the only team in history to make it to the Stanley Cup Final as the 16th seed and only two other teams, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers and 2012 L.A. Kings, have made it to the final as the Western Conference’s eighth seed.
But being the bottom seed didn’t make any difference when the Preds faced the Western Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Preds swept the Hawks in four straight and allowed just three goals in four games to a team that many picked as a lock on another Stanley Cup Final berth.
“I think that was the confidence builder (beating Chicago) and to do it in four,” said Sanders. “But we knew we had a talented team, and we knew our defence was as good as anybody’s, it was just going to be a matter of time. And when we won that series, 4-0, the guys just started to believe and it was like a big snowball and it just started rolling.”
The Preds went on to oust St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks in six games on their way to the battle for Lord Stanley against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And despite a Game 1 5-3 loss to the Penguins on Monday, the Predators knew they deserved better, outshooting Pittsburgh 26-12.
“It was tough the other night, but we played really well. We had a bad five-minute span that killed us, but the city is on fire right now,” he added. “We played well enough to win that game and I think our team has a lot of confidence going for them now.”
The Predators defence, anchored by veterans Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Subban, has been outstanding defensively and contributing mightily offensively as well, but the team’s ability to turn dross into gold has been a characteristic of the team’s scouting and development for many years. Young players like Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons, Pontus Aberg, and Frederick Gaudreau are stepping up particularly when top guys like Ryan Johansen are out with injury.
When asked how the Predators can turn relative unheralded players into top notch NHLers almost overnight, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette gave a lot of the credit to the Nashville scouts.
“It probably goes deeper than just a simple, ‘This is it,’” said Laviolette at a press conference Wednesday. “I think our scouts have done a good job of drafting players and players that they feel can potentially get to the National Hockey League, maybe not that top-10 first round player, but it becomes more difficult as you go deeper in the draft to find players that can make it – it probably starts with that.”
Many of those skaters now playing in the Cup Final were scouted by Sanders years ago in a remote ice hockey rink in Western Canada. Nashville boasts eight skaters that spent time in the Canadian Junior Hockey League and five of those played in the British Columbia Hockey League. Johansen played for the Penticton Vees in 2008-09, while Colton Sissons skated with the Westside Warriors in 2010 before moving onto the Kelowna Rockets. Harry Zolnierczyk laced them up with the ‘05-07 Alberni Valley Bulldogs, Matt Irwin was a defenceman for the Nanaimo Clippers from ‘04-08, and Brad Hunt won an RBC Cup with the Burnaby Express in ‘07.
“We do it as a group,” said Sanders. “There’s nobody individually who wants to take credit … but I think I’m involved in all the guys that come from our area and some from all over there, but we have a pretty big homegrown bunch of drafted players, so the scouting staff is pretty proud of that.”
Following the NHL Combine, Sanders will make his way to Nashville for Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday and Monday.
Game 2 went Wednesday night in Pittsburgh but the score was unavailable at press time.