In a rare piece of local media criticism directed at the management of the Nashville Predators, David Boclair writes in the Nashville Scene that head coach Barry Trotz was largely to blame for the departure of Alexander Radulov, and openly questions whether he is the right man to develop the young offensive talent needed to succeed in the modern NHL.
This is a particularly critical issue in Nashville these days, as we prepare for the debut of Colin Wilson, the next great hope of the Predators organization. But is Boclair's criticism on target?
Basically, Boclair makes a two-pronged attack. First, charging that Trotz's coaching style was primarily to blame for Radulov leaving for Russia:
Radulov remains in Russia-and as a result, so does Nashville's best option for a long-term offensive solution.
Franchise officials will talk about transfer agreements, binding arbitration and the like. Then they'll throw up their arms and say there's nothing they can do.
The fact is, it's not what they should do, it's what they should have done. More to the point, it's what coach Barry Trotz should have done.
Back in 2007-08 (Radulov's one full NHL season) when he scored 26 goals and added 32 assists in 81 games, the young Russian forward touched off a league-wide debate with his exuberant goal celebrations.
Initially Trotz publicly supported Radulov because he said he believed the actions were "genuine." Eventually, though, the coach changed his approach, sided with some of the team's veteran players and worked to stifle the kid's antics. The talk was that Radulov needed to be more respectful and professional.
Trotz should have told his older players just to get the puck to Radulov and then simply to get out of the way every time the goal light came on.
Boclair, however, offers no support for the theory that Trotz was the major reason why Radulov left. He was due to make $900,000 in his next year of NHL action, and instead is making millions (tax free) in the KHL, so I'd be surprised if that didn't play a large role as well (not to mention greater opportunity with the Russian national team, which he led to a World Championship last spring).
Yes, the coach did conflict with Radulov over his celebrations, but let's not forget that one such outburst killed the team's playoff hopes in 2008 when he concussed Jason Arnott following the famous "2 goals in 9 seconds" against Detroit.
So maybe the coach was right, after all.
Trotz also insisted on getting Radulov to play within the team concept, something that's hardly unique within the NHL coaching fraternity. Nobody in their right mind would compare Radulov to Alexander Ovechkin in terms of being a generational talent that you build your team around. He has potential to be a 30-40 goal scorer, sure, but there have been no suggestions that he's a budding MVP candidate, worth setting aside the team concept and building the rest of your franchise around.
Rather than pin blame for the Radulov situation on the coach, however, I reserve more of my criticism for general manager David Poile, who was by all accounts blindsided by Radulov's move. What struck me about the whole scenario is that the Predators didn't bring in a senior Russian presence, either in the form of a veteran player or an assistant coach, to act as a mentor for Radulov, whose English was pretty limited. The linguistic and cultural barriers for a Russian in North America are still quite large, and so many organizations have been successful with their star Russian players by taking that mentoring approach (Detroit, Washington, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh all come to mind) that I wonder if Radulov felt isolated in Nashville, making the appeal of stardom back home all the more appealing. Certainly, the Predators front office was caught unawares when their star winger suddenly bolted for the KHL, a clear breakdown in communication.
Note: Mark from the View from 111 advises that the Preds did bring over Radulov's parents for the latter part of the 2007-8 season to help with his adjustment to North American life, but what I'm referring to is a member of the organization having a close working relationship.
Boclair's second charge, that Trotz may not be able to develop young talent in general, is perhaps more relevant to the current situation:
The truth is that Trotz has not shown a knack for coaching the most gifted of players. Arguably his worst performance as Predators' coach came in 2006-07-when the franchise had more overall and top-end talent than at any time, yet managed just one playoff victory.
Historically, he has gotten the most out of teams with the lowest expectations. That makes him the right guy for right now, because few around North America think too much of this year's lineup.
I think it's a bit unfair to call the 2006-07 season Trotz's worst performance; the team had a franchise-best regular season and contended for the Presidents Trophy down to the final days of the campaign. Yes, despite the injuries that hit the team the first-round playoff loss was a disappointment, but to date that's the only Predators team that truly underachieved in the post-season.
That said, however, the handling of rookie forward Colin Wilson will bear close scrutiny. With high-dollar free agents off the menu, Nashville's best hope for greater goal-scoring lies in the development of, and opportunity given to, elite young talent like Wilson.
Hey, if Pekka Rinne can't even get a confident nod as the starter in Game #1, I don 't suppose we should give the coach a free pass when it comes to lifting the Preds back into the playoffs, and beyond the first round for once.