There's a place at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, in which kids all across North America dream about eventually playing. Y'know...the place by Rippy's and Tootsie's that was originally built for one reason, but now houses concerts through much of the year. It's that big stage, where people stand and cheer for talented people, playing together at the height of their professional careers.
I have a friend with whom I circumnavigate the lower bowl of the Bridgestone Arena during intermissions. Attending about 20 games a year, but not getting the remaining games on Vandy's cable, my friend has a unique perspective on the Predators. A fan from the beginning, he remembers every player to ever wear the blue and gold, but couldn't tell you hyper-specifically what's going on with the team now. And whereas some people who speak out of ignorance of the team's current situation might annoy me, I appreciate his ability to stay detached from the emotional ebb and flow of the season and make judgments grounded in the long view.
We always walk by the silent auction table and he often makes the same joke about the team still selling Peter Forsberg's old grocery receipts. He doesn't have to say much else--his point is well taken. I could argue until I'm blue in the face about the team's improvements since the fire sale or its chances this season and it wouldn't change popular perception: the Predators are an organization with just a brief brush with super-stardom in its history, with just one "Cup contender" team.
I'd like to say hell with popular perception--what do they know?--but unfortunately a perception problem is exactly what's facing the Predators organization now. In the NHL, Nashville is viewed as a rest stop, not a destination. And it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. In a capped league, star players only go where they think other star players want to be.
The Predators never developed a truly prime-age elite talent from prospect to pending free agent until Suter, Weber, and Rinne. They've never attracted one in free agency either.
Consider the big players Nashville has signed: Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan, and J.P. Dumont. They were all great players. But they were also all past-prime players with families: perfect customers for what the Predators were selling: a great place to live and raise a family.
That pitch hasn't changed. Barry Trotz parrots the line when asked about his star blueliners. Ryan Suter said it verbatim yesterday, at his All-Star game media scrum:
If he had his druthers, Ryan Suter said, he doesn't want to get traded. "Nashville is a great place to live and raise a family." #Flyers— Sam Carchidi (@BroadStBull) January 27, 2012
And I don't think Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are disingenuous when they praise Nashville as a place to live. They've just got their entire post-career life to raise a family and settle down. They have a much smaller window to play their best hockey and take a serious run at a Stanley Cup.
That's why Barry Trotz, David Poile, and the rest of the Predators organization need to change their tune. Stop selling Nashville as a suburb and start selling it as a stage. Nashville needs to be a place players come to challenge for the Stanley Cup every year, with private schools and income taxes being small things that tip the scale against Detroit, not major selling points.
Of course, Poile has intimated as much: that such a sea change in the Predators goal and commitment to winning is coming. But seeing is believing, at least for the people who really need to believe, if the whole thing is going to work:
"I think that's the hardest part, you look at the past and seeing guys go through your team like Forsberg, Timonen, Hartnell -- you go down the list, all you see is guys leaving. You want to believe him [Poile], they've got the right things in mind. If they say they're going to do it [increase payroll], then they should do it and we've got to trust them." --Shea Weber
Sure, the Predators look good now, fifth in the Western Conference. But let's be real: the Predators are still a hard-working team with a great goalie--the same formula as always--a formula that, frankly, hasn't won crap. And a commitment to winning means, for Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, a monetary investment. The kind of money that says, "after you two get raises, we're still going to spend that extra $10 million to get you help." Why would a premier athlete take a hometown discount, just to see the savings pocketed by an already wealthy group of owners?
Being a perennial cup contender is hard. But the hardest part is developing a core of superstars and young complementary pieces. Check!
Now Poile needs to simply finish the job: go add the two pieces that will help this team go deep in the playoffs. The way this market shakes out, a Zach-Parise-type might not be in the cards. But Weber and Suter understand that--and have said as much. Poile just needs to pay it forward. Showing he's not afraid to spend money is as important as actually spending it.
An Ales-Hemsky-type or two will be costly but well worth it. Just one or two forwards will dramatically change the complexion of this roster. Instead of Bourque, Tootoo, Spaling, Smithson, Halischuk, and Smith being the bottom six, they will be the pool from which Trotz selects the most dangerous fourth line in hockey.
If Poile stands pat at the deadline--both in keeping Suter and not adding another forward--he either drastically overestimates this team's Cup chances, the Predators' appeal to Suter, or both. If I can log onto capgeek.com on July 1, 2012 and see the Preds in the bottom three payrolls, so can Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
Preds fans don't need any excuses this time. As long as there are three-point games, there will be parity. And as long as there is Calgary, there will be delusional teams, overestimating their chances, inflating a seller's market.
Mr. Poile, you have the chance to fundamentally alter the perception of the Predators organization forever and for better. No "hockey asset" is more valuable than that. It's time to make the Bridgestone Arena the biggest stage on Fifth and Broad.