The most common school of thought for the abbreviated NHL season is that teams must win early.
In some regards, though, the Nashville Predators are in a no-win situation.
Whatever the league decides in terms of the schedule now that the lockout, which had been enforced since Sept. 15, 2012, has ended it likely will present a significant challenge to the Predators as they pursue an eighth playoff appearance in nine seasons. Either Nashville, one of the eastern-most teams in the Western Conference, will face daunting travel demands or it will play the bulk of its games against teams from its own division, which has been one of the NHL’s best in recent seasons.
“If you’re asking me my druthers, I would rather have less travel and kind of have my fate in my own hands by playing the teams in our division to make the playoffs,” general manager David Poile said. “I think that’s how I would like [it].”
In the coming days the NHL will release either a 48- or 50-game schedule that, according to all current information, will consist solely of intra-conference contests. That means Western Conference teams will play only Western Conference teams. Likewise, Eastern Conference teams will play only Eastern Conference teams.
If the emphasis is on divisional games, it is possible those contests could comprise more than half a team’s total games. Last season, half of the eight Western Conference playoff teams came out of the Central Division and in each of the last four seasons at least three playoff teams came from that group.
If the schedule is more balanced, Nashville would have to make multiple trips to Northwest Canada (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton) as well as California (Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose).
“I worry about it a lot,” Poile said. “We haven’t even heard the format of the schedule. So I don’t know whether we’re playing six divisional games or five divisional games or if we’re making two trips to, say, the West Coast or to the Northwest or just one trip. That’s all still up in the air.
“In a shortened season, one trip to the West Coast and one trip to the Northwest would be a big saving to us in terms of the wear and tear.”
Either way, there will be no time to waste.
Poile said teams have been told the season will start Jan. 19 and likely will run through the end of April, which amounts to roughly 100 days to play the abbreviated schedule.
“That team that gets out to a good start is going to put themselves in a good position,” captain Shea Weber said. “You have to be consistent. It isn’t 80 games but it’s still going to be 48 or 50 and that’s what you’re focused on.”
Nashville originally was scheduled to play home games Jan. 19 (Chicago) and Jan. 21 (Los Angeles).
The expectation is those dates will remain set although the opponents might change. After that, the Predators will be on the road for a time while a circus occupies Bridgestone Arena.
“We have to be good right away, but every team’s the same,” center Mike Fisher said. “We have some guys that have played [overseas], some guys that haven’t. We’re all going to be in the same boat so it’s really no different than any other year. We’re going to be ready. We have a lot of built up energy and we’ll be ready to go.”
They also have to be prepared to go on some lengthy road trips, if that’s what the league decides.
“You win five in a row and that might guarantee you’re almost in the playoffs,” Poile said. “You lose five in a row and maybe you could be out of the playoffs. It’s going to be exciting. … You’re going to see 48 great games. There’s not going to be any nights off this year for anybody.
“It’s going to be like the playoffs right from Day One, especially if we play an unbalanced schedule and play more games in our division the stakes are going to be high and the games are going to be great.”