The Nashville Predators will always be the first.
It was the Predators who kicked off the most recent round of National Hockey League expansion when they began competition in 1998-99. The Atlanta Thrashers followed a year later, and one year after that came Minnesota and Columbus.
But are the Predators the best of the bunch?
“I think all of the markets that have come in have done well in their own different way,” Nashville defenseman Shane O’Brien said. “Each building has a different feel, but I think this is one of the loudest I’ve played in, and the fans seem to be enjoying it and having a good time. The product on the ice has been good.
“We have another good team this year,” O’Brien continued. “So hopefully we can just continue building.”
The Predators conclude their current four-game road trip Monday night when they play at Columbus. It is the first meeting of the season between two of the NHL’s four tweenage teams. Over the next two weeks, Nashville also faces Minnesota (Friday), Columbus again (Dec. 1) and Atlanta (Dec. 6) — all on the road.
With all four franchises now in their second decade of competition, it is a sparkling opportunity to compare the league’s youngest teams as they continue to mature.
“I think all the teams are in that competitive phase; I don’t think there’s any team that goes, ‘Oh, we’re an expansion team,’ ” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “All of them are past that. Three or four years ago you probably looked at it, but now they’re Minnesota, they’re Columbus, it’s Atlanta.”
But none of them currently stacks up among the best in the league. By mid-November, all four were outside the top 10 of their respective conference’s standings.
It makes sense, then, to at least measure them against one another.
Head to head
The Predators entered this season with an all-time winning record against each of their expansion brethren, none more convincing than their dominance of division rival Columbus.
Nashville actually lost three of five to the Blue Jackets in Columbus’ inaugural campaign of 2000-01, but overall the Preds have a 40-12-5 advantage in the series, including victories in the last 14 meetings at home. The Predators won 12 straight overall during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons and eight of the 13 overall that have gone to overtime.
The advantages over Atlanta and Minnesota are much more modest and might be explained by the fact that Nashville had a head start on the others. The Predators were a perfect 2-0 against the first Thrashers team but just 5-4-2 since. Similarly, they went 3-0-1 against the initial incarnation of the Wild but just 12-13-7 since.
Nashville has not lost a season series to any of those three teams since 2007-08.
“They’re good hockey teams,” forward Jerred Smithson said. “… We just kind of worry about ourselves, go about our business and try to work hard. That’s the only thing we can really control.”
When it comes to making the playoffs, it’s no contest.
Nashville has been to the postseason five times in the past six seasons. That’s as many as the other three newest franchises combined. The Predators are the only member of that group to go back to the postseason in the year that followed their first appearance. Atlanta (2007) and Columbus (2009) still are in search of return trips.
Minnesota and Atlanta each have a leg up, though: Each made it in once by winning the division, which earned them a top-three seed and guaranteed home-ice advantage in the first two playoff rounds. Nashville and Columbus always have finished behind at least one of Detroit, Chicago or St. Louis in the Central Division.
“It’s hard to get to the playoffs,” Trotz said. “People will go, ‘16 teams make the playoffs’ … but it’s tough because there’s not much separation from 15 [in the conference standings] to, say, three or four. It’s tough to get in the playoffs. … It is really hard.”
Winning in the postseason is even harder. Combined, the four teams have won just two of 12 playoff series. Here’s where Minnesota holds clear-cut bragging rights. The Wild defeated Colorado and Vancouver in seven games each as they advanced to the 2003 Western Conference finals, where Anaheim swept them.
Nashville never has played a Game Seven, and Columbus and Atlanta got swept out of their only playoff appearances.
“We need one of those [playoff runs] for our team,” Trotz said.
It certainly would expand their resume.