Are The Preds The Team The Caps Want To Be When They Grow Up? Or Is It The Other Way Around?

The similarities are seemingly as abundant as the perceived differences between the Eastern Conference powerhouse Washington Capitals and the Western Conference’s Nashville Predators…only in reverse. Wait…Nevermind.

With not only their history and present interlinked, both teams hope there’s a Stanley Cup Final appearance is in their respective future as well. In the meantime, on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, forward Colin Wilson (center) took a Marty Erat (right) pass from behind the net and laid out to score the game-winning goal on former Predator and current Caps goalie, Tomas Vokoun. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images).

me now und believe me later…
Over the past year the Nashville Predators have made believers out of a lot of people; apparently, that includes the Washington Capitals, who in recent years have become one of the NHL’s most celebrated Beasts of the East, boasting the offensive star power of forwards Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and defenseman Mike Green.

And while the Caps have accrued the most points (337) in the league over the past three seasons, it may be surprising to some to realize, by that count they’ve also been perhaps the NHL’s foremost underachieving team in the playoffs, having advanced as far as the second round twice but no further during that three-year window of phenomenal regular season success.

Despite being routinely projected by pundits as the can’t-miss Stanley Cup finalist out of the Eastern Conference seemingly every year, the Caps’ resounding thud in the playoffs each spring has become nearly as much an annual event.

The Capitals have been built to score, and have done so with impunity throughout the Ovechkin era. What they haven’t done so well is to keep the other team from scoring; something that has become an even more magnified issue in the tight, buttoned-down defensive environment of playoff hockey. What has often appeared as an irresistible force during the regular season, Washington has time and again proven to succumb to their immovable object-like opponents come playoff time.

While it’s not always the case, they seem to give credence to the recurring cautionary pattern of one-dimensionally offensive teams that may find it relatively easy to get to the dance, but in the end rarely get the girl.

Meet Me in The Middle
In view of the current state of the Capitals and their Western Conference hosts on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, the two franchises make for an interesting study; one of a primarily offensive pedigree and one, defensive; each apparently trying to become a little bit more like the other this season in order to attain optimal balance.

In Tuesday night’s meeting, the Predators proved how far they’ve come in their quest for completeness; staying true to their nature and allowing goaltender Pekka Rinne to keep the high-flying Caps off the scoreboard until 15:14 of Period Three, when former Chicago Blackhawk-and-continuing-Preds-tormentor, Troy Brouwer’s wrister from the high slot found its way over Rinne’s right shoulder to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. There was a time not many years ago when such a late score combined with Washington’s already effective  forecheck and the stellar goaltending of former Pred, Tomas Vokoun, would have meant almost certain defeat for Nashville.

However, these Predators are proving to be perhaps even more resilient than last year’s squad. Goals by Marty Erat, Colin Wilson, and an empty-netter by Shea Weber, all in the final 4:46 of regulation gave the Predators an impressive 3-1 win, and the 14,863 fans in attendance a reason to dream about the possibility — unlikely as it may seem — that these teams might meet again later this season for stakes much higher than a regular season contest.

Nevertheless, at this point in the season the Caps and Preds have a lot more to worry about than any ill-perceived rivalry, although given the six degrees of separation they share on certain levels, the comparisons are indeed intriguing.

In what could be considered the only truly painful personnel loss from their second-round playoff run last season, the Preds’ gritty 2011 hero, forward Joel Ward signed a lucrative contract to join Washington this past summer. Additionally, goaltender Vokoun was signed to a cap-friendly, bargain-basement one-year contract; the former Preds backstop apparently opting for potential over payday to hopefully position himself to win a Stanley Cup. After losing to a superior defensive team for the third consecutive time in last season’s playoffs, it would appear that that the Predators Way has at least gotten the attention of Caps general manager, George McPhee.

It wouldn’t be McPhee’s first attempt to go to school on his predecessor to the Caps’ GM chair, but the last time he didn’t quite come away with a passing grade.

Changing of the Guard
Prior to becoming the Predators first — and to date, only — General Manager in the summer of 1997, one year prior to Nashville’s inaugural season of 1998-99, David Poile was coming off a long and prestigious stint as Washington’s General Manager. Following the 1996-97 season, he was relieved of duty in DC by then-owner, Abe Pollin whose Poile-built squad missed the playoffs that year, marking the first time in his 15-years as the Caps Manager that the team had failed to qualify for the postseason.

The 39 year-old McPhee was named to fill the vacated post later that summer, and Nashville’s neophyte owner, Craig Leipold, wisely snapped up the highly experienced Poile to guide his equally neophyte hockey organization. The following season of 1997-98, while the Preds were cutting their teeth on the ice (in more ways than one), the Caps were making it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history, although McPhee admittedly couldn’t take much of the credit.

He was quoted in The Washington Post, in an article printed during the Cup Final series, On June 11, 1998, saying, “I came here and David Poile and Jack Button had built a good team together. What I had to do was move the furniture around.”

After being were swept in four straight in the Cup Final by the Detroit Red Wings, McPhee determined that a little more drastic redecorating was in order.

Washington’s Stanley Cup hangover resulted in their missing the playoffs the following season in ‘98-‘99 — their second such absence in three years. At this point Pollin had had enough. He sold the team to current owner, AOL founder/wunderkind, Ted Leonsis, in 1999.

Teddy Email’ (as Leonsis was dubbed by former Washington Post Sports Columnist/Radio Host, Tony Kornheiser) would retain McPhee, and good things would follow. The team responded with back-to-back Southeast Division titles in ‘99-‘00 and ‘00-‘01, but were bounced in the first round of the playoffs each time by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was at this point that McPhee decided the house he’d inherited from Poile needed even more serious renovation. In the summer of 2001, he employed the ‘if ya can’t beat ‘em, trade for their best player’ tactic, obtaining Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr in trade for three Caps prospects, then signed the impending free agent to a then-record seven-year, $77 million contract.

The team responded by missing the playoffs again in 2001-02, and followed that with a return to the playoffs but yet another first round bounce in 2002-03. It was at that point the dark ages descended upon the hockey faithful in the nation’s capitol.

Washington failed to qualify for the postseason in 2003-04, joined the rest of the NHL in missing the entire ‘04-‘05 season via the lockout, then missed the playoffs again in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Four straight years – that’s a long drought for a team whose fans had experienced an entire generation of playoff-quality teams throughout the 1980s and 90s. There was, however, a silver lining in the midst of the darkness that made it all worthwhile for McPhee.

His team endured the second-worst record in the league in 2003-04, but won the draft lottery and were in position to select a truly generational player in the  young Russian superstar, Ovechkin, first overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Most of David Poile’s hard-nosed, largely defensive-minded Capitals players were long gone by the time the dark ages gave way to the golden light of Ovie Offense. Like any smart GM would do, McPhee began building his team around Ovechkin.

Having already drafted fellow-Russian scoring machine, Semin in the first round in 2002, McPhee used an additional first rounder from Detroit, received  in exchange for Robert Lang, to land offensive-defenseman, Green with the 29th overall pick in 2004. He later nabbed Backstrom with the Caps’ own first round (and  4th overall) pick in the 2006 draft, following the Caps’ dismal showing the season coming out of the lockout.

Things had been pretty ugly for a good while, but the glorious offensive excitement generated by Washington’s recent half-decade stroll in the valley of the shadow of death has all but made up for it.

Or has it?

Despite the success of the regular season, Washington’s suspect defensive corps and largely ineffectual goaltending has proven to be their downfall coming into 2011-12. The addition of Ward adds grit to their forward unit and experience to the penalty kill. However, bringing in Vokoun to finally halt the revolving door of washed-up vets and unproven younger backstops appears to be the linchpin move in shoring up weaknesses in an otherwise complete hockey club. And to be sure, Washington’s 16-9-5 mark coming into Tuesday night’s game in Nashville — good enough for 3rd place in the Eastern Conference would indicate that McPhee’s tweaks are having the desired effect.

But then again, we’ve seen this before, haven’t we?

Have Grit, Need Scoring
On the other side of the aisle is a team brimming with grit, defense, and goaltending, but one who could stand to place a few more biscuits in the proverbial basket. The Nashville Predators followed David Poile’s previous master plan for success in DC to a tee — right down to their propensity to being bounced from the playoffs in the first round. However, to be fair, it appears that Poile has learned from the mistakes of his previous administration in Washington, and unlike many other influential men formerly employed in that city, is now governing based on reality and not just ideology, as circumstances have dictated.

To say that Poile’s tactics have been liberal would be like calling the Tea Party a bunch of Bolsheviks.

But I kid…

Poile has been forced to deal with circumstances he never faced during his 15 years in Washington under multi-billionaire, multi sports team-owner Pollin, who could afford to take a hit with a bad team or two every now and then, although Poile never actually gave him one.

Just seems Mister P. has this thing about always staying competitive.

Despite a fair-weather fan base that caused attendance to fall off the table after the Preds’ first two seasons, the team never tanked in the standings. Since picking second overall prior to in their expansion season of 1998, to date, the lowest owned position they’ve ever had in the NHL Entry draft is number six, a position from which they’ve chosen three times.

The days of single-digit draft order status ended for Nashville once they became a playoff team in their seventh season of existence, in 2003-04. They did pick up another high draft pick, the #7 overall selection in 2008, previously obtained from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Vokoun, which Poile used to select forward Colin Wilson, who again, just scored the winning goal Tuesday night against Caps goalie…um…Tomas Vokoun.

Um…what did I say about six degrees of separation?

The bottom line is this: unlike MOST other top organizations — particularly, those teams with high-powered offensive players who are always among the very first selected — due to the prevailing fragility of ownership and attendance circumstances, the Predators under David Poile and Barry Trotz have never been allowed to be bad enough to qualify for a high draft position that might net them a cream-of-the-draft offensive star player. Poile has been forced to put a competitive product on the ice to keep the turnstiles spinning, and even then it’s been a struggle.

Whether it is a true or merely perceived reality, teams like Washington have — repeatedly — been able to get away with a few consecutive stinker seasons and/or associated rebuilding efforts and not lose significant fan support. Some organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks have been able to manage long stretches of competitive incompetence in order to rebuild and/or reload. Ditto for Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Edmonton…need I say more?

By contrast, the Nashville’s team-building approach has been always an honest and hard-working one; not to say that the teams who have gotten rich on the draft have done so unscrupulously. I mention this only to illustrate a point; this organization has never compromised its efforts to be a playoff team each and every season, even when it might have benefited them to let things slide a little for a year or two. That’s an attitude that emanates from one man: David Poile.

Poile believes in success. He believes in building a playoff-caliber hockey team and then keeping them that way, as evidenced by the 14 consecutive playoff appearances of his teams in Washington, and in contrast to the Caps’ three consecutive finishes near the bottom of the league just five years after he left. It’s the way he’ s done things in Nashville. It’s the only way he knows.

Unfortunately, however, even the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. Poile has had his share of pitfalls in Music City, even in the midst of successfully administering his vision. He was forced to blow up the core of the 2006-07 team, arguably the best offensive squad ever assembled in Preds history. When Leipold placed the Predators up for sale in June of 2007, in order to make the financials more attractive to a potential buyer, he forbade Poile to re-sign any of the team’s foundational players who were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st.

Despite the fact that each player openly expressed a desire to return to the team, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hatrnell, and Tomas Vokoun were either asked to walk out the door or had their negotiating rights rights traded to another team.

That’s harsh, y’all!

We’ re talking here about losing four multiple-time All-Stars in Forsberg, Kariya, Vokoun, and Timonen — who was also the Preds’ Captain at the time — and a future All-Star and 30+goal-scorer in Hartnell; not a bunch of ham ‘n eggers from the beer league.

But in spite of it all, the following April, operating on only half a heart, Nashville was right back in the playoffs, pushing Detroit to six games before bowing out of the 2007-08 season.

Less than a year later, Poile was dealt the unbearably damaging hand of Nashville’ s top goal-scoring prospect, forward, Alex Radulov’s 2008 defection from the NHL to the Kontinential Hockey League of his native Russia.

The Preds became a notoriously low-scoring team immediately thereafter.

The Way Up
Neverthless, the unrelenting development of defensive players in the pipeline and Rinne in goal has in recent years allowed Poile to again make filling the void in offense an action item on the organizational agenda, while still remaining true to the club’ s foundational belief in strength from the back end, forward.

Additionally, a second-generation Predators fanbase, has recently come of age; providing a more deeply-rooted enthusiasm for the team and capacity crowds in a building not long ago many assumed would never be filled on a consistent basis. Completing the metamorphosis is an ownership group that now appears willing to loosen its purse strings a bit more than in years past; realizing the need to keep the core of young veterans together instead of allowing them to leave before their time.

A new dynamic of expectation for team success is now in place. When this group of players says that nothing but a Stanley Cup will do, they mean it. There’s no more ‘just happy to be here’ at 501 Broadway. Making the playoffs is no longer a quest, but an expectation. Going beyond the second round is no longer a dream, but an assumed reality. It’s no longer wishful thinking; it’s a mindset.

All the while, Poile, the master puppeteer, has steadily made his moves. The dividends paid through the draft and development of forwards Colin Wilson and Craig Smith; the acquisition of Sergei Kostitsyn and Mike Fisher; with the obvious talents of Blake Geoffrion, Matt Halischuk, and already seen in glimpses last season, but most certain to yet be displayed in greater consistency in the future, offer Nashville a completeness of makeup that fellow Preds blogger Jeremy K. Gover of recently referred to in conversation as “a potential dynasty in the making.” And, hey, don’t laugh; I agree with him. And he wasn’t talkin’ a 1927 New York Yankees-kind-of-dynasty, or a late-1970s Montreal Canadiens variety, but of that more along the lines of a San Jose Sharks; an organization always in the hunt for the Cup; a team always to be feared. A dynasty of excellence.

The Preds are already blessed with arguably the NHL’s best goaltender in Rinne, the best defensive pair in Weber and Suter, all being molded by one of the best organizational minds in Poile and perhaps the best head coach in the NHL never to attach the phrase, ‘Jack Adams Award-winning’ as a prefix to his title (yet), Barry Trotz.

I’m a Little Bit Country, He’s a Little Bit Rock And Roll
The Caps, on the other hand, have arguably the NHL’s best team-wide offensive talent in Ovechkin, Backstrom, et al, but guess what? In the Ovechkin era, Washington hasn’t been any closer to a Cup Final than have the Preds. Both teams need balance; the yin needs more yang, and vice-versa. Each team needs more of something the other seems to possess in abundance.

The Preds need a little more sizzle; the Caps, a little more steak.

Coming into this season, George McPhee had spent the previous 13-odd years of his career reshaping the Caps away from David Poile’s image into one likened to that of his own. There is no lack of irony that he now seeks to make his team a little more ‘Predator-like.’

And good for him; kudos to any GM who rightfully identifies structural deficiency of his team and seeks to fortify it, even if the concept goes in the opposite direction of their natural tendencies. For the sake of endearingly beloved ex-Predtriats, Ward and Vokoun, I hope that McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau get their team to a Cup Final someday soon.

However it should be a point not lost on a Nashville fanbase that for years has been clamoring for more goal-scoring (and with good reason), that a team such as Washington would see fit to creep so much closer to Barry Trotz’s self-described, ‘dark side.’ That being said, there is no question that in years past the Preds have needed more consistent scoring. The difference is, this season they seem to be getting it.

Nonetheless, it’s a well-worn maxim that ‘defense wins championships.’ McPhee has been forced to learn that the hard way. And while Poile has never been averse to goal-scorers, he’s never forgotten his first nature as a hockey man and the proven success derived thereof. Poile has been patient to assure that in obtaining offensive players, they’ll fit into the system that has been a successful formula for his teams for nearly 30 years now.

One needs to look no further than the transformation of Messrs Wilson and Kostitsyn for the proof of that puddin.’

The Shea Team
What lies ahead for the Preds and the Caps is anyone’s guess. Both team’s GMs hope that this will be the season they channel the classic TeeVee character, Col. John ‘Hannibal’ Smith in saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

And when the plan of The Shea Team (as so wonderfully presented in a video by Preds Game Ops Tuesday night on the Bridgestone Arena Jumbotron) comes together, it will be an awesome thing to see.


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