We can't really pick the memories that stick with us. The moment certainly counts, but so does everything after it. Only time lends context, significance.
At the time, I thought I'd remember Peter Forsberg's first goal as a Predator forever. Everything about it seemed symbolically significant--beating the Red Wings, our long-time tormentors, in overtime, with two offensive superstars, in a display of pure skill. Surely this goal was some landmark in franchise history.
But the goal itself has become obscured by a want to forget the brief Forsberg-era altogether, with its connotations of massive playoff disappointment, hidden injuries, and the fire sale.
Instead, my most resonant memory from that season is the on-ice celebration immediately thereafter. As a throng of mustard amassed on the ice, a clean-shaven, skinny Shea Weber literally hopped from teammate to teammate, taking hugs and glove bumps anywhere they came. He lingered on the ice, as if the deeper he wandered into the huddle, the more he could ingratiate himself with the two future hall of famers at its core. By contrast, Jason Arnott deliberately skated around the pile of players, went straight for Forsberg and congratulated him with that ever-present, patronizing nice-goal-but-I-did-it-in-Game-7 smirk.
What now strikes me about that moment, however, is not the contrast between the team's next two captains, but the fact they both came off the bench--that there was a moment in Predators history, no matter how brief, in which Jason Arnott and Shea Weber sat and watched the game's most crucial minutes.
Next season, everything at the center of that huddle vanished. Forsberg's rental expired. Kariya left for what he thought would be greener pastures in St. Louis. Captain Kimmo Timonen was traded in preparation of the franchise's impending move to Hamilton, Ontario. Marek Zidlicky would be supplanted by a crop of rising blueline stars. Even the mustard jersey was gone.
When Arnott suddenly found himself at the center of the team, he reacted exactly like someone content to skate around the edges would: with mild bewilderment, begrudging acceptance. Weber acted like he was supposed to be there, growing 10 years in 2.
I rehash this now not to dump on the leadership qualities of Arnott, one of my favorite players. In fact, I think he was the perfect seat-warmer for Weber--not an impassioned leader looking to win 6 and 20's devotion, but a detached above-it-all old-timer, hoping to lend them the lofty perspective of his experience.
Rather, I bring it up now, because after the fire sale, it seemed there were, at the very least, two teams on the Predators. Trotz was forced to call upon certain players to fill holes, both in leadership and on-ice roles. And the result was one group of burgeoning star defensemen, too young to lead in the room, and another group of savvy veteran 2nd-line forwards, too old to lead on the ice, meeting on the first line.
And with J.P. Dumont and Steve Sullivan now gone, it seems the last vestiges of Jason Arnott's Predators left with them. Sure, Legwand and Erat are still here, in the same sense the roof is still on the barn. For better or worse, they're fixtures, original Predators, products of the "system" or the "Predator way." When it became Suter and Weber's time to lead, those veterans fell in line.
Sullivan and Dumont, however, seemingly gravitated toward Arnott and his subtle defiance of Trotz. Maybe they knew, on some level, that Arnott, not Trotz, had touched the trophy they so desperately wanted in the twilight of their careers. Arnott could show them the ring Trotz and Poile could only promise. And they didn't have time to wait for Weber and Suter to lead them there.
They were three players who had, through three similarly tumultuous careers, learned their own limitations. They knew their old-age surges were as much a symptom of too much opportunity as some magical chemistry together. When Arnott asked Poile for first line forwards in 2009, it was not out of humility or leadership, but an immunity to Trotz's "we can beat the odds" message. It was the kind of cold rationality that appealed to players too old to leave anything to chance.
With Arnott gone, Sully and JP seemed out of place to me. They helplessly put their faith in Weber, Suter and Rinne to basically get their names on the cup for them.
"Everyone was on board this year. We didn't have anyone taking short cuts. I think that was the biggest difference: we had a total team effort. And everyone wanted to win."
We'll never know for certain who Ryan Suter thought was taking shortcuts before this past year. But I've got a guess...and it ain't Denis Grebeshkov.
This coming season, 6 and 20 have an even bigger chance to put their stamp on the team, with potentially four defensemen--Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Jon Blum, and Roman Josi--for whom they can serve as perfect examples. For these young guys, Weber and Suter can be Forsberg and Kariya.
Maybe with a leadership once again based on adulation, not deference, this team has really come full-circle. But it wasn't a perfect transition from that era to this one. And I sincerely hope those players caught in the middle--Dumont, Sullivan, Arnott--finally find those complementary roles that best suit them elsewhere.