With the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators finally missing the playoffs for the first time in years (2008-2009 season to be exact), it might be time to look at how the two teams with relatively low payrolls managed to have a decent amount of success. Using Capgeek's archives we can see that Phoenix ranked 29th, 22nd and 22nd in spending from 2009-2010 to 2011-2012 season, while Nasville ranked 28th, 21nd and 23rd in the same time frame.
So how did those two teams make the playoffs year after year despite never getting much attention from various experts and the low payroll?
Both teams do not possess much of high-end skill up front as that is the most expensive thing in the market. Instead both teams focus on sound two-way players with the ability to win puck-battles and play sound defensive hockey. They have sound, tough to play against two-way centers like Hanzal, Fisher, Legwand who don't posses the salary or skill of their more high end counterparts, but still provide the element needed to carry out the type of game Predators and Coyotes want to play. Both teams avoid sinking money into high end wingers instead opting for either for cheaper skill wingers like Ray Whitney (left as UFA), Sergei Kostitsyn, Radim Vrbata, or opt for wingers who provide a different game like Hornqvist and of course the big name in Phoenix – Shane Doan (more on this here),. Both teams however favor a strong and deep defense group – Yandle, OEL, Weber, Suter (left as UFA) and a plethora of other serviceable defensemen and high end prospects in both systems. Nashville also has an all-star goalie in Pekka Rinne, while Phoenix had Bryzgalov and Smith later on.
Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz are two excellent coaches who have provided their teams with a structure that lends itself to the type of players they have and can afford. Both teams place emphasis on sound, defensively aware hockey with a strong emphasis on winning puck battles which goes hand in hand with the roster both coaches have at disposal. This makes both teams hard to play against, this type of hockey tends to keep games close even when they're playing against teams that can boast a higher talent level, it is very rare that you will see either team have the kind of defensive meltdown that would put the game out of hand for them.
Drafting and development
Both teams, but especially the Predators have kept their system going with new prospects being brought in and developed. Both teams have had their defense flushed with projectable prospects. Nashville especially has been a gold mine of young defensemen over the past couple of years.
So how do the Predators and Coyotes do it?
The success of Phoenix and Nashville despite the low payrolls is a result of a well oiled machine that mixes sound roster decisions (the avodiance of high end skill and flash up front in favor of cheaper all around ability and strong defense), coaching (defensively sound teams focused on winning puck battles and outcompeting the opposition) and drafting and development (a steady intake of useful cheap young players to fill the holes) under one philosophy.
How close were/are they?
Both teams were likely a true #1 high end center away from being legitimate contenders or an overall deeper forward group. If you add more high end skill up front you arrive at the two teams who are the logical extension of the Phoenix/Nashville model – the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings who do a lot of the things the same way but with more high end skill up front. To conclude, both Phoenix and Nashville are two teams who clearly do things "the right way" but simply didn't have the financial muscle to go further than they did. If they did it wouldn't be unimaginable that you'd be looking at them the same way you look at the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings which is pretty much the same model Phoenix/Nashville uses brought to it's logical conclusion.