09 April 2014

NHL: The (Coming) End Of An Era In Nashville

Editor's Note: This post is by Spaceman, a lifelong Predators fan.

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NHL: The (Coming) End Of An Era In Nashville

Nashville, TN

Pekka Rinne getting beat in the OT shootout

The Nashville Predators lost to the Dallas Stars last night, 3-2 in a shootout. With the loss their playoff hopes officially disappeared, the remaining three games not offering enough points to salvage a second straight train-wreck of a season at Bridgestone Arena. This is the conclusion that I’ve been expecting most of the season, at the very least since Pekka Rinne bowed out with a bacterial infection in his hip last October. Left to depend on Carter Hutton and whatever other spare parts they could pile in front of the goal, the Preds were never going to excel. At best they would’ve struggled for an eighth seed, even with Pekka in the mix. In the end they’ll fall just a bit short of that.

It’s another sad year for what not too long ago was a pretty solid hockey team. The Preds had the Chicago Blackhawks against the ropes in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs and looked poised to make a run. Had they done so things might have been different. Instead Patrick Kane became the Patrick Kane everyone knows and hates (unless they live in Chicago) and down here in Nashville we’ve sat back and watched as all the on-ice pieces of the early Preds teams have fallen away, one by one. With the departure last month of David Legwand for the redder pastures of Detroit, there is no longer a single player left in Nashville from that first team that made the playoffs back in 2003-04. What we do have left are the two pieces that were in place before a single player ever donned the blue and gold sweater, the team’s head coach and general manager, Barry Trotz and David Poile.

There’s no doubt that these two men have built something worth being proud of. In the 15 years since Nashville’s franchise first took the ice, they made seven playoff appearances under the guidance of Trotz and Poile. That’s seven more than the current Winnipeg Jets, who came into the league the same year as the Atlanta Thrashers; six more than the Columbus Blue Jackets, who entered the league in 2000; and three more than the Minnesota Wild, who came in the same year as Columbus. Moreover, Trotz and Poile managed to do this while ownership changed hands multiple times and the team’s fate in Music City was often up in the air. What they’ve accomplished here in the long term should never be in doubt: they turned Nashville into a hockey town.

These two men are both incredibly well-respected for what they’ve done, but their dual performances here in Nashville have been heading downhill since the second round of the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team finished with 104 points that season, still the third best total it’s ever put up, and finished second in the Central Division. More importantly, they did so with the last-second addition of Alexander Radulov, the reigning Kontinental Hockey League MVP, who agreed to play out the remainder of the contract he’d dropped like it was hot a few years earlier so he could head home to a big payday in Russia. After tossing the Detroit Red Wings to the curb in five games, the Preds moved on to face the Phoenix Coyotes, who had taken out the Chicago Blackhawks in Round One - and the addition of Radulov turned from a solid move to improve the team into a rock through the plate glass window of Nashville hockey success. The prodigal son went out the night before a game, a big no-no in this conservative organization, and the reverberations of his subsequent punishment shook the team hard. The Coyotes came back to win the series, and the Preds slumped off into the summer wondering what went wrong.

The 2012 off-season would see alternate captain Ryan Suter pack up for Minnesota and captain Shea Weber sign the biggest contract for a defenseman in the league’s history after nearly being snatched away by the Philadelphia Flyers via an offer sheet. David Poile was gobsmacked by the former, visibly shaken in interviews and vocal about how Suter’s decision caught him off-guard. And he essentially mortgaged the team’s future to retain Weber’s services by matching the Flyers’ offer sheet. Though retaining Pekka Rinne with a 7-year, $49-million extension in 2011-12 has to be seen as a win, his salary plus Weber’s mean that the team is shelling out $21 million per year for just its goalie and top blueliner, leaving only $50 million for the other 21 players on the roster. Put that together with some questionable trades in the lead-up to the failed 2012 playoff run -- particularly giving up a first-round pick to get face-off specialist Paul Gaustad and dealing second-rounders for defenseman Hal Gill, whose contract was renewed before being bought out, and forward Andrei Kostitsyn, who partied hardy with Radulov in Phoenix before heading back to the KHL at post-season’s end -- and Poile hasn’t even been treading water the last two seasons. He’s been drowning.

Poile’s performance hasn’t been all bad of late. He’s made the most of the situation in a few spots to pull off some moves that, in theory, should set the Preds up with talent for years to come. He stole Filip Forsberg from the Washington Capitals at last year’s trade deadline by dealing them underperforming and unhappy Martin Erat, the second-longest-serving player on the roster, for the Caps’ playoff push. And this year he picked up Calle Jarnkrök from the Detroit Red Wings when he shipped Legwand back to his Michigan homeland, hopefully adding the playmaking center the team has needed for years in exchange for off-loading the last few months of the Original Predator’s final contract. Some would add that he picked up Seth Jones in last summer’s draft, though that can be chalked up more to a terrible performance during the season (to land the #4 pick) and good luck (the three teams ahead of Nashville picked forwards rather than the gifted defenseman). But these moves are all about potential. If two, or even all three, of these players don’t pan out, the moves won’t look like anything better than low-risk stabs at a big payoff - less the mark of a championship-calibre GM and more the kind of moves that anybody in such a position would make.

Where Poile has truly failed, though, has been in free agency. While everyone recognizes that Nashville is a great place to live, nobody with talent seems to want to play hockey here for fair market value. Poile’s retention rate with the team’s home-grown stars upon reaching UFA status has been poor, with his one major success - Shea Weber - coming only after his hand by an offer sheet, and even then potentially hampering the club’s ability to field a competitive roster for years to come. The one time that Poile landed a true star, Paul Kariya, he made the team an immediate contender. But that was during the most tumultuous ownership period in the franchise’s history, and Kariya left almost as soon as he arrived. J.P. Dumont had a good ride here for a little while, as did Jason Arnott, the team’s last captain before the Shea Weber era, but neither achieved anything of lasting note here; Arnott was traded to New Jersey and Dumont’s contract was bought out. Since that era the team’s free-agent signings have been underwhelming at best, a motley collection of low-risk gambles and overpaid forwards who have failed to produce points at anywhere near an acceptable rate.

What’s toughest to figure out in recent seasons is whether Poile’s failure to build a proper roster for head coach Barry Trotz has held back the coach or Trotz’s style has held back the best roster that his GM could offer him. Always defensive-minded, Trotz has historically made contenders out of teams that probably shouldn’t have had a chance. That style appears to be at odds with the league’s trend toward opening up the game more and more via rule changes. Some around here think it holds back the budding offensive talents the team does have by overemphasizing the defensive side of the game, a point that doesn’t have me entirely convinced but is worth considering. But most importantly, the Trotz style lives and dies on the back of its goalie. When you’re playing a Tomas Vokoun or Pekka Rinne in net, it not only works but it can be truly thrilling stuff to watch when there’s something big on the line. When you’re relying on a mere mortal between the pipes, as the team had to do for most of this season, it often looks downright ugly, especially against divisional rivals who have been drafting and developing talented young forwards while Nashville has traded away many of its best picks in pursuit of (so far elusive) playoff success.

It’s also possible that Trotz, while respected for the job he has done in Nashville, holds Poile back when it comes to landing the kind of free agent that the team needs most. Nashville has never had a scorer, this line of thought goes, because scorers want to score and they don’t want to play defense. It’s pretty much impossible to prove this, but it’s the kind of thing that hangs around the margins of any discussion about the team. It may or may not be true, but it’s certainly easy to understand why the notion persists: the best teams in hockey tend to score a lot of goals, and even the best editions of the Nashville Predators have mostly failed to meet that standard.

All this is to say that something has to change here in Nashville, and whatever that ends up being, it’s coming soon. Fans of large-market teams want to think it’s going to be a summertime trade of Shea Weber and his enormous contract, which I suppose is possible but doesn’t seem particularly likely since he’s the team’s focal point both on and off the ice. In my estimation the right move is a dual goodbye to Poile and Trotz before some other team like the newly GM-less Vancouver Canucks can swoop in and steal away the Preds’ highly capable assistant GM, Paul Fenton. Both men have done a fine job of taking the franchise from birth to adolescence, but everybody’s time comes to an end eventually. They’ll both undoubtedly find work elsewhere - deservedly so - and Nashville can start over again with a fresh outlook. Anything less than this will be an incremental change at a time when much more sweeping action is badly needed - and in all honesty, something less is what I think is going to happen. This franchise hasn’t given me much reason to be hopeful the last few years and I don’t really expect them to start now - but I’ll be the very first to cheer if I’m wrong and they do inaugurate the next era of Nashville Predators history.

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