Will the Predators Strike Again?

One thing I'm going to try and do more of as we head towards the playoffs is to publish a few more conventional posts related to the Nashville Predators. While I'm a Red Wings fan by birthright, I've always been impressed with the methodical patience and progress of the Predators organization over the years, and having lived in the Nashville area for about 18 months now, I've come to the conclusion that the Predators might just be hockey's best kept secret. OK, maybe not a total secret, as they get an occasional piece that notes their success this year. But what's happened over the last ten years in the Music City is flat-out remarkable.

Consider, for example, the management - since the summer of 1997, the Predators have had only one GM (David Poile) and one coach (Barry Trotz). How many franchises across all the major professional sports can boast such stability? And no, we're not talking about Matt Millen-style stability, where an owner hangs on to a front-office hire for no discernable reason. The Predators have had a specific philosophy guiding their personnel decisions and coaching from the start (develop from within and hustle, hustle, hustle), and it yielded slow, steady improvement year over year. With the advent of a totally different labor market in light of the new CBA, they've adjusted that philosophy by adding the stars (like Jason Arnott and Paul Kariya) that can lead a deep roster of diverse role players into the NHL's elite territory.

The current lineup certainly seems worthy of Stanley Cup contention - the forwards boast unparalleled depth, the defense helps launch the attack and is punching in some goals of their own, and the goaltending has been spectacular all season long, whether it's been Tomas Vokoun or Chris Mason in net. Now that the proverbial window has opened on Nashville's championship chances, however, what pieces might they look to add in anticipation of an intense playoff run?

To me, the obvious hole appears to be the lack of a physical, veteran presence on the blue line. With all that youth and offensive production, I just have visions of critical misplays while trying to hold a late lead that can doom a team's playoff hopes. So who's out there that might fit the bill? One prominent name featured in many trade rumors is Brad Stuart over in Boston. I've never been a big fan of Stuart, though, as he seems to be one of those guys about whom we hear that dominance is "just around the corner". One thing working in his favor is price. Stuart's impending free agency means that budget-wary teams like Nashville could take a chance on him, and if it doesn't work out, just let him walk away over the summer.

On the opposite end of the salary scale would be Philadelphia's Derian Hatcher. Now, before you spit your drink all over the computer screen at this laughable suggestion, here me out: Hatcher is still big, beefy, and has been the captain of a Cup-winning team. His glacial speed is a liability, but for the role I'm envisioning (PK duty mostly), that weakness is minimized. And for those who laugh at Hatcher's horrifying plus/minus figure this year (he's on pace for a -34), I'd point out that plus/minus is largely dependent on team play, which has been downright gruesome in Philly this year. Surround Hatcher with speedy, disciplined players and he could thrive (recall how Larry Murphy changed from goat to hero after being traded from Toronto to Detroit in the late 90's). Now, the unavoidable problem with Derian Hatcher is his contract. He's still got two more seasons at $3.5 million coming to him, which would presumably put him out of reach.

Spector mentions that the Canucks might be shopping Sami Salo, who, like Brad Stuart, is also going to be a free agent this summer. Salo, at age 32, certainly has the experience and proven performance that could help the Preds, but he's no banger, that's for sure.

Which brings us perhaps to the best option available - although, it also represents the biggest gamble. The L.A. Kings have been caught in a tailspin for months now, and dealing away veteran defender Rob Blake might be possible. The Preds would have to pay a price to get him, for sure, and his 2007-8 $6 million salary would be a tough pill for Nashville to swallow, considering that they have two major free agents of their own to sign over the summer (Paul Kariya and Kimmo Timonen). If they could find a way to make all the numbers fit under the cap, however, Blake would make an ideal addition. He's huge, physical, talented, and at the stage of his career where the chances for another Stanley Cup championship are getting fewer and farther between.

Over the last two years, we've seen Nashville management add top players where appropriate to put the team in the position to contend. Now that they've got their chance at greatness, will they pull the trigger on another such deal, or will they stand pat, confident in their cards they've been dealt?

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