The Predators, in many respects, are a hell of a team to follow. Blessed with a Top 3 goaltender in Pekka Rinne, a Top 3 blueliner and franchise face in Shea Weber, a crop of talented young players either at the NHL level (Smith, Jones, Josi, Wilson, Ekholm, Mazanec, etc.) or at the AHL level (Sissons, Watson, Beck, Hellberg etc.) and a great arena in which to watch our best go to war, the Preds Nation has a lot to cheer.
Unfortunately, what we don't have from the Preds is a sense of direction. There are a number of factors that I believe play into this. There is no chicken vs. the egg debate here (I refrained from using particular examples because everyone seems to have their own opinion on the pros and cons of a particular case), but rather an exploration, from a fans perspective, as to why the team plods forward without providing its fans an end goal.
SPOILER ALERT: in case you don't want to read this whole thing, management and coaching is reactive, not proactive. Let it sink in. Think up some examples. Hopefully, now you see my point!
During a discussion about the merits of claiming Edmonton Oilers' goalie Jason LaBarbera as a stop-gap measure while Rinne's out, Hockey Hillbilly brought up a few interesting points that got me thinking. The post in question is as follows (slightly edited, emphasis is my own):
"The Predators have already sunk heavy investments into oldsters like Cullen and Hendricks whose primary purpose appears to be to keep the ship afloat this season rather than actually sailing toward a goal - say, the Cup - long term. ... We have seen the occasional flashes in younger players... that portend greater performances in the future and surely the more they play at the NHL level (as opposed to sitting in the press box or being demoted to the Ads) the sooner that talent will mature. It's a similar situation with Mazarek and Hellberg. Let them play. Either the defense stops relying on the goaltender to save their bacon or it doesn't. Either way, the Predators are still oriented to the future. This season they are a mediocre team, at best. Jason LaBarbera isn't going to change that"
Reasonable Expectations: To Cup, or Not to Cup?
"But every team, including this one, has an end goal," you might retort, "... Lord Stanley's Cup!!!" Well, no kidding. Even the Preds have that plastered in the Bridge. In reality, however, parity in the NHL is not exactly on the rise and in the end only one team gets to hoist the prize at the end of the post-season. Let us not forget that the Preds haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs in the entire history of the franchise. Does the Cup sound like a reasonable goal to you, at least in the near (5 years) future? It certainly doesn't to me. That's not to say we can't have our sights set on the Cup; any team that makes the playoffs has a chance (thanks for that LA). For the Preds, right here and now, it is an unreasonable goal. Unreasonable goals lead to inevitable failure and disappointment. We have enough of that already.
Could we win the division with any regularity? Perhaps. Could we make it to the playoffs with some regularity (which is just as much a hallmark of this team as getting bounced early from said playoffs)? Certainly. Could we sweep one of our division rivals just to stir The Chambers Pot? Sure! Are these more reasonable goals? Without question.
Management needs to lay out its expectations for the team and the organization, both short term and long term, so that we can measure our success by our own standards. The Preds play in the Central, both old and new were/are perhaps the most competitive division in the game, and have used divisional rivals as our measuring stick. As a burgeoning franchise we couldn't have had a better model than the Red Wings. They were our measuring stick for years until we sent them packing from the playoffs, but what now? For all the positives and negatives about Predator's Hockey I think the organization's desire to return to a familiar, but not necessarily effective, structure highlights a larger problem: a lack of innovation and a reactive mindset. "It worked okay before so why wouldn't it work again?" *Shakes head, walks away*
Reasonable Expectations: Enough Meat and Potatoes.
Many an article, post, blog, and drunken tirade have been written about the final chapter of the Poile/Trotz saga. The general consensus is that while both have done admirably in the past and deserve nothing but the utmost respect, their time has come.
Let's start with Poile shall we? Forget for a moment, if you can, that this is an Olympic year. Poor asset management, a lack of warranted aggression on the waiver/trade/free agent markets, and general complacency (Stalberg should not be our best pickup of the past 5 years, period) have led to a deep (except, you know, IN GOAL) but not particularly talented team (haha! Predators Hockey) with little tradable assets. Why? Management has become reactive. Need proof? Look no further than Weber's arbitration, Suter's departure, and the Rinne injury.
Weber's arbitration nightmare was the result of plain old short-sightedness and penny pinching (that worked out well, didn't it?). Say what you will about Suter "lying" or "misinforming" the organization, but the fact is we had a Norris-level defenseman that walked because a businessman took another businessman at his word. When has that ever, in the history of ever, been good business sense? Never ever, that's when. The Rinne injury can't, and shouldn't, be put squarely on anyone's shoulders. The lack of a proven back-up plan can. We may have gotten lucky with Maz and found our next guy (who knows???) but that's still to be decided. In the meantime we're stuck wondering if we'll get a shutout or 4+ goals against.
This team has been managed to the middle and is now stuck. Talk of trading Weber (by far our most valuable asset) was unheard of before the season started but it now looks like one of the few viable options we have to bring in a decent offensive return (along with tanking for picks, blowing up the team, and trading Trotz to Winnipeg). No one wants Clune, Hendricks, Bartley, Cullen, etc. Ask yourself these two questions: why would they? And why do we have them?
Reasonable Expectations: Give the Guy(s) A Break
Yes, we're about 1,000 words in and we've barely gotten behind the bench! Oh joy! Well here goes...
Inconsistency: The Preds struggle finding their identity on the ice, despite bringing in those free-agents who were supposed to bring back the TRUE GRIT to Predator Hockey. Unfortunately, it seems like Predator Hockey is dependent upon scoring first. That's not a good sign for a team that struggles offensively and relies too heavily on its goaltender. When we are playing from behind we are a team deflated. Horndog and Smith (in the first and last 8 games of the season so far at least) are the only Preds that come to play win or lose. The rest of the team looses their mojo once we give up the lead. What may be the cause of that? Well, I'll give my guess...
Reactivity: Trotz has played fast and loose with his doghouse over the years with a majority of the ire directed towards young forwards. The tools in the doghouse at his disposal this season seem to be a combination of AHL 'conditioning stints', press box vacations, line lottery, and playing time, all of which are fair and potentially effective tools at a coaches disposal. However, they have been used TERRIBLY. Trotz seems to react to isolated instances, dole out punishment, and then not realize that the consequences of his actions ARE CONSEQUENCES OF HIS ACTIONS! The Bergs aren't scoring? Well it can't be that they're playing minimal minutes on the fourth line (or taking the night off in the press box ... or hanging with the Ads) it must be something else. Please, aint nobody got time for that nonsense. We need a clear line of succession for our guys. Rotating lines and/or players has only slowed chemistry development.
Asking Questions, Getting No Answers
The future for the Predators is up to the coaching staff and, ultimately, management but we are not privy to such prized information. We should be happy with and trust whatever scraps of information they throw from the head table or the rehearsed lines they use at the Skate of the Union. Shouldn't we? No. There are limits to what the ownership can or cannot (really it's should or should not) say to protect themselves or others around the league. That's okay, we all get that. What I'm talking about is not the ins and outs of every deal the team makes or fails to make, but rather a well-thought out plan for the future of the club. Is that too much to ask?
I made a few edits for readability, one for naughty language, and added a picture at the top - Dirk