Where the rubber meets the road
Never let it be said that I’m silly enough to believe four games does a season make, but with the Nashville Predators’ recent resurgence, now winners of eight out of their last ten, including the last four straight, has to make one wonder how, if, as I suggested yesterday, this current five-game homestand isn’t their statement that they are most definitely back as a force to be reckoned with in the NHL’s Western Conference — particularly with the way they’ve done it recently, both at home and on the road.
Last night at the Sommet Center, the Predators dispatched the only-once-on-the-road-beaten New Jersey Devils 3-2 in the shootout, courtesy of Marty Erat’s nifty move to put the puck past Devils all-world goaltender Martin Brodeur’s right side.
It was an extremely hard-fought battle, with ‘Jersey proving their Lou Lamoriello/Jacques Lemaire-type of tight checking and trapping defense requiring Nashville to remain extremely patient, and to their credit, they were. It was a battle of two extremely similar hockey clubs, and the Predators no doubt have to breathe a sigh of relief to come away with two points instead of just one — or none.
However, with another ‘statement game’ in the rear view, we again return to the theme of this two-part question: Are they really becoming who we thought they were, or instead, are they who the media says they are — and merely catching a few good teams off guard?
Have they truly turned the corner to reclaiming their perennial position of Western Conference playoff contender, or is this simply another tease; another brief straightaway before the road for this beleaguered franchise becomes full of difficult twists and turns once again?
And just why does it matter so much right now, anyway?
‘All In’ or On the Way Out?
Maybe it’s because this past off-season was like no other. Perhaps it’s because the pressure that the Predators are under — whether real or contrived — brings to the 2009-10 NHL slate a poignancy the team has never before seen, nor may ever see again.
Saying a franchise is ‘at a crossroads’ is about as hackneyed a concept as there is in sports, however there now seems to be an urgency about this team that we’ve never before witnessed; a different kind of urgency for a different kind of Predators team.
The fact of the matter is that the Predators are not fighting for their solvency or continued residence here in Music City — that’s a dead argument for now. Rather, the question that the 2009-10 club (and the Predators organization as a whole) must answer is, “is it working?”
Forget about last season. 2008-09 was tantamount to post-traumatic stress syndrome following of that whole guillotine-hanging-over-their-heads episode of the spring and summer of ‘07. For two solid off-seasons, the Predators were under the media spotlight, with Nashville’s worthiness as an NHL city being challenged from seemingly every angle — from the Jim Balsillie ownership fiasco, to the Boots Del Biaggio financial scandal, to Alexander Radulov’s defection to the KHL.
The fact that any team met with that level of distraction could even smell a playoff run is not only a testament to its intestinal fortitude, it’s a freaking miracle. Yet Nashville fell a mere three points off the pace in the Western Conference playoff race, finishing out of the money for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
One would think that the effort and spirit the team showed in view of all they’d faced in recent years would bring with it, if not sympathy, at least some measure of respect and kudos from the media. Instead, over the off-season, the naysayers only grew louder; and as the other teams in the Central Division showed improvement in 2008-2009, the Preds were almost unanimously cast into the abyss by nearly every NHL prognosticator.
But was the jig really up? Was this franchise really done? Had the Predators finally returned to their ‘rightful’ level? And were they ever really any good in the first place?
It seems amazing to me how selectively short the memory of the media can be, and how fickle their attribution of accomplishment.
Yet despite the fact that even last season, the Predators remained extremely competitive with both of the teams everyone wants to love, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the other new media darling of the in the division, the Columbus Bluejackets (‘cuz, I mean, com’on, everybody loves ‘Hitch’), they were picked to finish last almost as a matter of course.
To be fair, the Blackhawks are to be congratulated for working their way back to prominence following a truly dreadful run for the better part of this decade. It would be easy for anyone to be excited about their foreseeable future as a franchise with a bevy of young superstars like forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, along with defenseman Duncan Keith, all reportedly being close to signing long contract extensions.
However Chicago’s new look and bright future did come at a price. The team was one of the NHL’s worst in the mid-2000s, affording them the number three pick in NHL’s Entry draft in 2004 (Cam Barker), and again in 2006 (Toews), culminating in the 2007’s number one overall pick (Kane). To their credit, it was an opportunity of which the ‘Hawks took full advantage and are now definitely reaping the benefits.
The Predators on the other hand, despite being an expansion team in 1998-99, have been competitive in nearly all of their eleven NHL seasons and since the initial expansion draft have never picked higher than sixth, which is generally one or two places beyond the cutoff for true superstar talent in the entry draft.
That’s not to say that Nashville hasn’t done well drafting. Apart from the apparent less-than-full value they received in selecting David Legwand 2nd overall in the expansion draft of 1998, along with the definite mistake of going after goalie Brian Finley with the number six overall pick in 1999, General Manager David Poile has exhibited wonderful acumen in choosing talent that has built the Predators into a solid franchise, particularly deep from the defensive and goaltending standpoints.
The problem has of course been with the offense. Goals have been a premium commodity for the franchise in all but the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, when the Paul Kariya-led offensive corps seemed to score with relative ease. It was in those days that Nashville seemed to have more difficulty keeping other teams off the scoreboard than it did putting biscuits in the basket.
In view of the overall plan of management throughout the past decade of Predators hockey however, I believe the progression of this team as one created with a defensively-led mentality is not a circumstance dictated solely by personnel.
Smart and (S)martr
Ever really wonder why Barry Trotz has lasted so long as Predators Head Coach? It’s because he and David Poile are as much of one mind as Jaques and Lou over in New Jersey. The Predators have been buily from the ground up according to a well-honed and strategized concept that Barry Trotz and David Poile have devised together.
I firmly believe that the only way that Trotz would be wrested from the Nashville bench is if Poile were to exit first. They’re tied at the hip, those two, and now, after all these years together, have crafted a team that is truly composed in the way their collective hockey philosophy would dictate.
Poile and Trotz’ system is one of a simple, yet unwavering commitment to all-out defensive discipline and a blue-collar offensive mindset. In years past, the components weren’t always there – from either an talent level or player buy-in standpoint.
During the aforementioned Kariya years, while the Predators scored with the top offensive teams in the league, if you looked at Barry Trotz’s mug during a game, you’d have thought somebody had just shot his dog.
The Preds needed a star, and Paul Kariya needed a team who would make him theirs. PK was who PK has always been — a scorer. He wasn’t a two-way player in the way that Trotz would have liked, but he transformed Nashville into a contender with a recognizable name to place on their marquee, and for that Preds fans will always be grateful.
Nevertheless, he was the leader of the Preds’ offense, and as he was somewhat loosey-goosey on the defensive end, so were the Predators. Only since Kariya left in the inaccurately-called, ‘fire sale of ‘07’ and the Preds have seen the true maturation of defensemen Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter and budding superstar Shea Weber, along with the and/or development of forwards Joel Ward, Jordin Tootoo, Patric Hornquivist, and return to form of Steve Sullivan, has Trotz finally assembled a team that is both willing and able to fully buy into the Trotz/Poile system.
Earlier in the year, around and during the time that the Predators were stumbling through a six-game losing streak, Tootoo had yet to play a game; J.P. Dumont twice missed multiple games with head and leg injuries, and Captain Jason Arnott was out for two weeks with an arm injury.
The Preds weren’t whole; and given the requirements of what they MUST do to be successful, they simply couldn’t get into synch. Now that the team is healthy, we’re getting a glimpse at what can be, and recently, what has been. Trotz no longer looks tortured on the bench. The team looks relaxed, and confident, yet totally focused on the ice.
They’re finally playing Predators hockey with no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. What are even more welcome are the oft-frustrated expressions on the faces of the opposition.
The Tootoo-Train is doing his thing once again, and the Preds are finally experiencing some success on the power play. Most importantly, they’re committing a staggeringly low number of penalties themselves, giving them even more of an edge in puck possession and that all-important composure factor — they’re keeping theirs while their opponents are becoming more and more frustrated.
But again, is a four-game streak enough of a sample? Is eight out of ten? Only time will tell.
Is the plan that David Poile and Barry Trotz have devised and adhered to so patiently over the past eleven seasons finally working to the fullest? Is this the year that we truly see the beginning of a bountiful harvest for years to come?
Who are these guys?
I for one believe that they are who we thought they were.