The Kids Are Alright

The 2011-12 Nashville Predators may not be forward Jordin Tootoo‘s team, per se, but he’s playing like it is. Tootoo and the young Preds continued their strong preseason showing with a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Photo: NHLI via Getty Images)

All Growed Up
We’ve all seen it. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen it numerous times; in your own children, in those of your friends and extended family, etc. It’s that seeming flip of a switch; that growth spurt; that ‘ah-HA’ moment.

It’s the coming of age; the point at which a young person matures — not necessarily to complete ‘adult’ status, but to a stage that indicates they’ve turned the corner. It’s a proud look; a confident look; a hungry look; a look that says, “I like who I’m becoming, and I want more.”

It’s a beautiful thing to see.

I’m seeing it in the Nashville Predators.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s just the preseason, and just because the Preds’ pushed their record to 5-1 with Wednesday night’s near-thorough 4-1 home domination of the Washington Capitals at Bridgestone Arena, making them the only five-win team in the NHL’s 2011 exhibition season, so what? The games don’t count, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Dress rehearsals don’t count either, but they’re often accurate representations of that will happen when the curtain goes up for real.

I see hunger in the eyes of these Predators — and confidence. In each of the last three games, the Preds have fallen behind in the first period, only to come storming back to take control of the game soon thereafter.  This bunch never seems rattled; they seem to never doubt the power of their overriding work ethic; applying their drastically improved team speed to not only get the puck into the offensive zone, but to get back on defense before opponents can gain any rhythm on scoring chances. I keep waiting for them to return to their typical give and take, but all they seem to want to do is take.

I mean seriously, where are their manners? Kids these days…

Their tenaciously active sticks are frustrating opponents on defense and their decidedly improved puck movement has become surprisingly effective on offense. These Preds look like they actually have a purpose in the offensive zone, and if you’ve been following this team for more than a few years and don’t think that’s a refreshing change, I’m sorry, but you haven’t been paying attention.

But speaking of hunger, there should now be no doubt that the new Jordin Tootoo is not an aberration, but a revelation. Toots could well be one of the most dangerous fourth line players in the NHL this season. His re-inspired play, which began as a byproduct of his voluntary involvement in NHL/NHLPA‘s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program at the end of last December is now in full bloom.

Tootoo followed up one of the prettiest, grittiest goals of his career in Saturday night’s win over the Winnipeg Jets  with one of the best passes— also borne of pure grit and determination — in the game Wednesday night, leading to the goal by Matt Halischuk that turned out to be the game winner.

A Changing of the Guard
Steve Sullivan
is gone, as is J.P. Dumont. There are no more Jason Arnotts, Kimmo Timonens, or Paul Kariyas left to look to for leadership; Tomas Vokoun plays for the other team now.

What began as a movement is now a revolution. The Predators have experienced their first complete transfusion of new blood replacing the old, and the patient’s color has fully returned.

Shea Weber may have been team captain last season, but it still didn’t feel like it was his team. THIS feels like his team; and Pekka Rinne’s; and Ryan Suter’s; and in a way, Jordin Tootoo’s as well, if for no other reason than his going out of his way to lead by example.

At least in the post-Leipold years, the Preds have always been a family; this team looks like a unit.

The hockey pundits have taken their usual Missourian stance in touting Nashville’s chances this season; some slotting the team to finish in its customary 5th-to-8th position in the Western Conference standings, while others assume that the loss of veterans like Sully and last season’s playoffs hero Joel Ward will cause the Preds to take a step back, placing them out of the running in the über-competitive West.

I have in the past grown exuberant over flashes of the kind of play the Predators are featuring now, only to be disappointed when they later returned to earth, so I’ll attempt to temper my enthusiasm here just a bit. However, there is a difference in this team compared with the more veteran, talent-laden teams of the middle-2000s that they remind me of, and it goes well beyond star power or age. I keep coming back to the concept of hunger.

There are, really for the first time in the team’s history, real opportunities to be won by young Predators players, providing an atmosphere of competition we’ve just never seen before. Despite the inherent unfairness of being displaced by injury just as he was getting his chance last season, Cal O’Reilly is again scrambling for a roster spot, battling rookie wunderkind, Craig Smith, and even this early is playing desperate hockey. Jordin Tootoo, in a contract year, battles to reclaim his livelihood — perhaps even his life; he’s playing every shift like it’s his last. Even guys like Marty Erat, perhaps the Predators most perplexing of all offensive enigmas, whose game normally heats up like crockpot from the start of the season, is now making like a microwave, with a goal and an assist in the only two games he’s played so far in the preseason.

Head Coach Barry Trotz has always liked his veterans, and apart from David Legwand, Mike Fisher (oh yeah, remember him?), and Erat, this team really has none to speak of. The commitment to building from within and now, as Preds radio PBP man, Tom Callahan so aptly coined it on the post-game show last night, this “flipping the kids the keys to the car,” has to be a daunting experience, even for him.

But make no mistake, the ‘teenagers’ are in the driver’s seat, folks, and so far, they’re motorin’ along pretty good.


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4 Responses to “The Kids Are Alright”

  1. amy anderson September 30, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Make no mistake-this is the team of destiny. Mr. Stanley, meet the Predators! whoo hoo!!!!!

    • AJ in Nashville September 30, 2011 at 7:42 am #

      Hope you’re right, Amy! Thanks for commenting! :)

  2. Cisar September 30, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Another great read, AJ.

    • AJ in Nashville October 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

      Thanks, Cisar! :)

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