They Are Who We Thought They Were…We Hope (Part 1 of 2)

Somewhere, Denny Green is smiling.
Back in 2006, the former head coach of the NFL’s Phoenix Cardinals, Dennis Green, treated us to one of the all-time classic post-game meltdown sound bytes, evAR in the history of electronic communication.

In commenting on his team’s performance versus the Chicago Bears, a game in which the Cardinals coughed up a 23-3 lead in the 4th quarter, Green responded with his now infamous line, “They were who we thought they were…and we let ‘em off the hook!

San Jose Sharks Head Coach Todd McClelland perhaps might have been at least thinking, if not saying, the same thing to himself following last Tuesday night’s stirring 4-3 Nashville Predators victory at the Sommet Center over the Men in Teal.

Earlier, during a pregame interview with Preds Radio man, Tom Callahan, McClelland had actually offered a more complimentary version of Green’s assessment, in relation to the surprisingly-competitive contest the Predators’ had given his team a week earlier in San Jose; a game that saw defenseman Dan Boyle’s goal break a 3-3 tie with a minute left in the 3rd period, giving the Sharks the victory.

Whether it was lip service or genuine praise, the Sharks’ bench boss didn’t express a lot of surprise at Nashville’s effort last week.

“They played like the Predators play,” he said matter-of-factly. “They did what they do; they out-work teams — that’s how they have success.” Whether or not he was quite as congenial after the game, McClelland’s players may well have been leaning a bit more toward Denny Green’s end of the emotional spectrum when the final horn sounded.

If the Predators are who the Sharks thought they were, did San Jose actually believe it? Did they ‘let them off the hook?’ Nashville, for the most part, carried the play throughout the game, with San Jose’s late 3rd period goal only making the final score appear less one-sided than the game actually was.

However I’m not here necessarily to recap a victory that Preds Nation will no doubt savor as much as any this season. I personally believe this was more than a grudge-match victory over a hated rival. As one of two consecutive potential ‘statement games,’ the Preds play this week (the other being tonight at home against the east-leading New Jersey Devils), this was perhaps the Predators official coming-out party for the 2009-10 season.

Much of what follows in this post I actually wrote back in early October, following Nashville’s impressive pair of victories to open the season versus the Dallas Stars and surprising Colorado Avalanche.

I truly thought that the Preds, following a successfully portending preseason were ready to assert themselves once again as legitimate western conference playoff contenders.

Then they proceeded to lose six straight.

Fortunately for me, this time my slothfulness at getting a blog post out worked in my favor. I shelved the post I had entitled ‘So Far, So Good,’ because in fact the Predators’ season had suddenly become, ‘So Far, So Freaking Hoooorible.’

Was it the injury bug that had been biting the Preds since training camp and still appeared to have a reserved spot on the team’s bench three weeks into the season? Or was it even more serious – were the Preds what the media thought they were: a team whose lack of scoring talent had finally caught up to them?

Were we gonna have to listen to all those gas bags diss’ing our team all season long…again?

How could a team who looked so focused in preseason and so together to begin the regular campaign fall off the wagon so quickly?

Who are these guys…really?

Maybe now, we’re about to find out.

It’s ‘Put Up’ or ‘Shut Up’ time for the Preds…and Yours Truly
I’m just gonna get this out of the way, folks — I’m a Barry Trotz guy; not because I’m Preds honk, blindly faithful, or anything of the sort, but rather because I believe in the philosophy that he and General Manager David Poille are selling. I drank that Kool-Aide long ago, and I’m still parched. I realize that among even the most passionate of my fellow supporters of the Predators, there is a level of dissatisfaction with the decisions management has made in the selection of the team’s current components. Yet I stand behind those decisions, not because of their success thus far, but rather because they make sense for this team, in this market, in this economy, and at this place in time.

Am I loyal? Fiercely.
Am I knowledgeable about hockey? I’m getting there.
Do I flap my jaws about theory too much? Weeel, maybe a little.

However the reason I do, is not because I’m a Trotz-apologist. If there’s a president of the Barry Trotz fan club, it’s not me; it’s David Poille. If you discount — even for a minute — the significance of the fact that Trotz and Poille are still together after all these years, and with the same team — well, you’re dumber than I look.

Nashville is not like other NHL markets, and the trendier,  more popular methods of building a successful hockey franchise — like…oh…say…just spending more money — aren’t guaranteed to work, particularly in the salary cap era.

And if you doubt that, just look at the New York Rangers over the past decade. Everyone would LOVE for the Blueshirts to win another Cup, or at least make a serious playoff run — because, after all, they’re the Rangers, right? Yet despite the fact that they’ve thrown money around like it was made outta paper, they haven’t maintained an appealing smell in the playoffs since they last won the Cup in 1993-94.

Throughout the mid-to-latter 90s, up to the of the modern salary cap era beginning in 2005-06, the Rangers outspent the rest of the league by an average of 63.3%. Continuing to maintain yet among the highest average cap numbers in the NHL since then hasn’t helped much either, as New York, while making the playoffs each of the last four seasons, hasn’t advanced beyond the eastern conference semi-finals in over a decade.

The concept of ‘buying a championship’ hasn’t died in the NHL, it’s just day-to-day. Money can go a long way toward creating success — at least in the short term — but no longer to the exclusion of a well-planned, well-executed philosophy of team-building preceding it.

Chemistry must be cultivated. The melting pot concept of throwing together a disparate group of talented players and letting them sort it out on the field may work in baseball, but in the greatest game on ice, it’s another story altogether. The salary cap has made such a practice cost-prohibitive, so now, the delicate balance of working together as a team, with a dedicated mindset to a given style of play, is more important than ever before.

Nevertheless, the temptation to simply throw money at a problem will always be with us, despite the distance such a notion stands from practicality — and, in most cases, reality.

Which brings me back to the Poille/Trotz Tango to which the Nashville Predators have been dancing now for eleven seasons. The question is, has this current squad finally learned the steps, or is it time to move on to a new dance instructor?

Obviously, I ask the question only from a rhetorical point of view. I’ve already tipped my hand as to what I think, personally. And I believe that when the fog clears from the disco floor, this season’s Predators will still be a’ boogyin.’

Next: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

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