Like many of you, I received my season ticket holder renewal package in the mail recently, and am trying to figure out what to do.
The question is not whether or not I will get Preds tickets next season, because thanks to those of you who have made purchases through my Ambassadors Club link, I have over $800 in credit to start with (thanks for your support, it's greatly appreciated). Do I step up from a 15-game package to a half-season, however? Do I go for fewer games and better seats, perhaps? Throw in the artificial urgency of today's deadline (renew for half- or full-season packages by today to take advantage of a price freeze), and it's hard to know which route to take.
For many, the question of whether to invest additional time & money into the Preds boils down to the on-ice product, and it's there where things get tricky. We've seen two consecutive seasons without a trip to the playoffs, and a lack of talent at forward remains the team's most glaring flaw.
Any pie-in-the-sky toady can rattle off a list of reasons to be optimistic - simply cherry-pick the highlight moments from this season, sprinkle in optimistic assessments for how individuals might (there's that key word) improve in the years ahead, and Voila! A Stanley Cup contender is right around the corner, folks - snatch up those tickets before they're all gone!
The Song Remains the Same, But Should It?
What's jumps out at me is how remarkably long the duo of David Poile and Barry Trotz have run the show in Nashville, despite not having actually won anything worthy of hanging a banner at Bridgestone Arena. Their longevity in North American major league sports is currently surpassed only by the duo of Gregg Popovich & R.C. Buford of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, a duo which has put together Hall of Fame-worthy results during their tenure.
Consider the following review of the Spurs & Predators regimes:
|Gregg Popovich & R.C. Buford||David Poile & Barry Trotz|
|Regular Season Record||962-439||551-479-60-99*|
|Regular Season Win %||.687||.488*|
|Regular Season Division Titles||10||0|
|Playoff Record||133-83 (.616)||19-31 (.380)|
|Playoff Series Record||31-11 (.738)||2-7 (.222)|
|Franchise Players||David Robinson, Tim Duncan||Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter|
* The Predators' 60 ties from the pre-shootout era are considered half a win in the calculation of Regular Season Win Percentage. Losses are losses are losses, whether in OT or the shootout.
Yeah, that's quite a different track record, don't you think?
The San Antonio Perspective
For a head check on the validation of comparing Nashville's history with San Antonio, I consulted the only guy I know who's a fan of both teams, Paul Nicholson (of @Predfans fame and a moderator of /r/Predators at Reddit). During the course of an email conversation Paul gave me a nice primer on the Spurs' history over the last few decades, and I'll trim it down to the juiciest bits here:
Throughout the late 70s and early 80s they had success of sorts with [George] Gervin, but it wasn't anything too great. Very Preds-like in that they'd have good winning seasons, but never made it past the 2nd round in the playoffs. Often with 1st round exits. Then after Gervin left, there were 4 years of miserable teams.
(insert lazy comparison here with Preds in the playoffs then Suter leaving)
Much of the rest of the story is down to 2 episodes of amazing dumb luck (and Popovich's ego).
Lucky spot #1: Spurs win the 1987 draft lottery (they had only the 4th worst record) and get the #1 pick. The Spurs took a risk and drafted David Robinson #1 overall even though he had 2 years of Navy service to fulfill. So they get an all-time skill guy... and because he didn't come immediately, they continued to be poor and were able to draft the very talented franchise player in Sean Elliot in 1989.
Skip a few above average years (by Spurs standards at the time) with early playoff exits despite a future hall of fame coach in Larry Brown...
In 1994, Red McCombs sold the team to a local group of businessmen after making half-hearted threats to move the team. He made Popovich (who had been with the Spurs as an asst coach under Larry Brown) the GM and VP. Pop hired Bob Hill as coach. The Spurs had a great regular season that year, but a very disappointing playoff exit in the 2nd round (in 6 games) to rival Utah.
Very early into the 96-97 season, David Robinson and Sean Elliot went down with a season-ending injuries (this would be the Preds equivalent of Pekka and Weber). The team started 3-15. Popovich fired Hill and made himself coach. As a young fan at the time, I remember being pretty frustrated with this move at the time. It felt like a jerk thing to do since injuries were obviously a massive part of the poor record and Hill had had a good year the season before. The appearance wasn't made prettier by Pop's trademark no-nonsense attitude toward the media.
That year the Spurs went 20-62...
Lucky Spot #2: the Spurs got incredibly lucky and jumped up to the #1 spot in the draft thanks to winning the lottery (they had the 3rd worst record in the league the year before). They weren't just lucky to get #1 when they actually had a very strong team, but lucky enough to do it in a year when there was an absolute dream player ready as the consensus #1: Tim Duncan. A team with years of success to build on tanked for one year and got one of the greatest players of all time in the draft. Look at the Spurs records from 1989 to present. That one blip was perfectly timed to grab a franchise player but not have to languish in the cellar for years.
There is no doubt that Popovich can be given a tremendous amount of credit as GM. He and his scouts are famous for finding Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker playing in Europe 'under the radar' and they've done a great job of putting together teams with very specific role players over the years, not just top talent (Bruce Bowen as a lock-down defender, Steve Kerr/Sean Elliot/Robert Horry as perimeter trigger men, etc). There's also the culture they build of accountability (Pop will bench ANYONE) and roles to play (Ginobili regularly comes of the bench because Pop thinks the strategy works). And the class guys in Robinson and Duncan both being willing to sign for less than they could command in order to build good teams around, plus Parker and others sticking around and not jumping to bigger markets certainly helped...
The Spurs certainly enjoyed a pair of magical moments there, but what makes the difference between them and other franchises is the ability to put a team around those superstars which complements their talents and delivers consistently superior results. Even now, with Tim Duncan in his 16th season (and David Robinson having retired after his 2nd championship), the Spurs own the best record in the NBA.
In light of that comparison, there's little reason to believe Poile & Trotz's jobs should be safe here in Nashville.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
In light of this season's frustrations, it's natural to want to play the blame game, and put specific responsibility on individuals for Nashville falling short of the playoffs again. The suspects are many:
- David Poile, for a rash of unwise free agent signings and a reckless gamble at the backup goaltending position
- Barry Trotz, for his handling of Viktor Stalberg and the lack of development seen by young forwards
- Patric Hornqvist, expected to step into a leadership role but has scored only 15 goals
- Colin Wilson, who has plateaued
- Pekka Rinne, who has posted an awful .884 save percentage since returning to the lineup a few weeks ago
One can spend hours going back and forth debating these points, and we've already seen plenty of that in the comments section here on the site over the last several weeks, but the key question is how does the team move forward?
In my mind, you need to identify the core strengths of this team and build around them:
- Pekka Rinne, who since 2008-9 has established himself as one of the better goalies in the league.
- A group of defensemen with dynamic offensive ability from #1 (Shea Weber) to #6 (Mattias Ekholm), and potential to improve on the defensive side of the game.
- A pair of forward prospects in Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg who could develop into legitimate Top 6 NHL forwards.
What is needed here is a major transformation among the forwards, a task which is made difficult due to the number of them who are signed through next season and (all too often) beyond.
The problem is, that area is where the Predators' leadership has shown the least ability to make a difference for several years now. Poile has failed to bring in and retain established talent, and the broader organization can't seem to draft and develop quality NHL scorers.
As we look ahead, do we believe that Poile can reverse the trend we've seen among the forwards over the last two years, or that Trotz is the coach to develop Jarnkrok and Forsberg as the team's budding offensive dynamos?
That seems like an awfully big stretch to me.
Change in the air, perhaps?
Will we see major change this off-season? The drum beats are starting to sound as ESPN.com's Scott Burnside has mused about Barry Trotz being shown the door, while rumor-monger Bruce Garrioch has speculated about David Poile's future.
I asked the Predators about the contract situation regarding David Poile and the coaching staff, but was told that the team doesn't discuss such matters, so we're left in the dark as to whether they are signed up merely through the end of this season or have future years remaining.
At this point, I hope such an issue would not be a factor in deciding the future of the franchise.
As I've said before, David Poile & Barry Trotz deserve the first two spots in any Ring of Honor or similar honor that the franchise eventually uses to celebrate the
But the message I'm hearing from almost every corner of Smashville is loud, clear, and entirely justified:
"We Want Change"
Will we get it? Stay tuned...