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9 Years in 9 Months: Predators on the Precipice

RALEIGH, NC - FEBRUARY 28:  Coach Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators watches his team play against the Carolina Hurricanes during play at the RBC Center on February 28, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - FEBRUARY 28: Coach Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators watches his team play against the Carolina Hurricanes during play at the RBC Center on February 28, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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In the first 27 games, we were like 12-11-4. Then in the last 55 games, I think we were 36-15-4. And if you were to ask me after the first 20 games, "What do you really think?" If you wanted my brutal, honest answer, I didn't think we would probably be in the position we are.

-- Barry Trotz

On the verge of yet another first-round match-up with Detroit, such was Predators coach Barry Trotz's reflection on his team's regular season. And his diagnosis seems right on the mark: for a while, this Predators team seemed destined for mediocrity. Badly out shot night in and night out, the Predators eked out an even record on the strength of incredible goaltending and power play prowess, both of which seemed unsustainable.

So what happened? The outside observer or casual local fan might attribute this season's success to more patented Barry Trotz magic. After all, the story of this Predators fits the mold of its predecessors: the team lost some key pieces in the offseason, regrouped, and made more with less.

Really, though, the defining trait of this hockey season in Nashville is how much it broke the mold.

The Predators have built a respected franchise, but to what end? To this point, they've earned respect, but in the sense that David Poile and Barry Trotz's work is admired, not in the preferred sense of scaring the fear of God into their opponents. And for many years, the Predators seemed to be working under a ceiling, both of achievement and finances--proof that something could be both good and stagnant.

David Poile, with a stable ownership group at his side and a core group he liked, set out to change all that. In the past nine months, he has affected a process of destroying and rebuilding that would take most teams years.

The story of this year's Predators is a series of necessary sacrifices and grievous mistakes, followed by an improbable recovery. And the result of it all--good or bad--will irreparably change the course of a franchise seemingly stuck for many years in second gear.

A Fish Tale

People are just excited; there's a buzz. Miami's very much a buzz town, which was part of the all-in strategy of raising the payroll, signing some free agents, and rebranding, relaunching. It creates that buzz. And now with that buzz, you combine it with a team that performs, and then you start building, and building and building, and then it keeps going. But every team is cyclical, and we think we're in the stages of a very long up-cycle.

-- David Samson, President of the Miami Marlins.

The Miami Marlins are exploring the fine line between being taken more seriously and staking out a unique identity. This offseason, they debuted a colorful new set of uniforms and logos, with a unique black and blood-orange color base. In centerfield, a nautical acid-trip of an installation from Nashville-native Red Grooms punctuates the new-found flamboyance.

Samson knows, though, that the difference between selling T-shirts and re-branding means a better product, and the Marlins are working aggressively to stifle jokes about their new jerseys with on-field performance. Sound familiar?

Yet as good as an analogue as the Marlins are for the Predators right now, it's the contrasting ways in which they reached this point that interests me.

The Marlins believe in Samson's comment about cycles so devoutly, they've practically defined the practice of dismantling and rebuilding a modern sports franchise. After winning the World Series in their fourth season in existence, the Marlins made a purely financial decision to gut the team. They traded away a slew of players, including a few potential future hall of famers, and lost 108 games as reigning champs. They then rebuilt conscientiously, won the 2003 World Series, 6 years after their first, and repeated the cycle, attempting to go for it for the third time now, 9 years later.

By contrast, in those same 9 years, the Predators have been consistently good, but not great. They've qualified for the playoffs seven out of eight times (barely missing the eighth), but have only advanced once, and only one round. The fact that their one playoff series victory is their most recent result has been hailed as a sign of progress by many, but the Predators beat by far their weakest of six opponents with--in my opinion--only their third best team (behind the '06-07 and '09-10 teams).

And in a way, this consistency has held them back. More than any other league, arguably, the NHL rewards really bad teams with the possibility of quick resurgence. Think about the recent reward for teams who spend just two seasons in the draft lottery: Toews and Kane, Ovechkin and Backstrom, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. Heck, if you're willing to suck for five years you can get Fleury, Staal, Crosby, and Malkin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the common reason given for the Preds' inability to go from perennially good regular season team to Stanley Cup contender is their lack of a top-3 forward, the type of player that usually rises to, and rarely falls from, the top of the draft.

That's not to say there's only one way to build a "Cup contender" team. David Poile almost did it the hard way. When the draft came to Nashville, he found his own twosome to build around. He took a chance and found that elusive top 6 winger, without a top-10 pick. He consistently pulled goalies out of his ass, and recruited a solid group of veterans, lead by Paul Kariya to fill in the gaps.

In 2006-2007, when the team that desperately needed to perform didn't perform, however, the prospect of sale reared its ugly head. Craig Leopold walked right up to the master architect, finally marveling at his realized building, and asked if he'd ever operated a wrecking ball before.

Though Coach Trotz was not entirely sad to see the masterpiece go: "I have a bunch of Rembrandts and all I need is my house painted."

Boulder Up the Mountain: Take Two

In the aftermath of Leopold's fire sale, David Poile seemed content to do it the hard way again. Except this time, he had Suter and Weber to build his franchise around. Of course, finances were always a problem, but the business side would improve. And before enacting "Plan A," Poile had to clear the deck and endure a few more seasons near the bottom of the league's salary structure.

In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 offseasons, Poile let two types of players go. He jettisoned the interim leadership group of captain Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont, neither of whom always saw eye-to-eye with coach Barry Trotz. He also let a lot of high-end complimentary pieces leave for fairly rich salaries on the the free agent market. This group included Dan Hamhuis and Joel Ward. He even let some nice players in Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc, and Shane O'Brien leave for some pretty modest prices.

The end result was a lot of money and sweater letters in David Poile's pocket, all heirlooms saved for Suter and Weber, when the time was right. Most analysts pegged these annual offseason exoduses as the cost of being a hockey franchise in Nashville, as if the 2006-07 fire sale had always been the franchise's MO.

Really, though, Poile was executing a plan. The Predators would remain a good team, while cutting payroll and receiving reimbursement checks from the league for being under the cap mid-point. And starting in the 2011-2012 offseason, that money would go first to Weber and Suter (and Pekka Rinne), then to building a team around them. This was the season Plan A went into effect, the season a perpetually good team would start to meet the money to make it better.

There were just two problems with this plan, though. Weber and Suter weren't exactly on board. And the team wasn't good anymore.

Too Much, Too Soon

Well, we just couldn't quite agree on the term, the length or the structure.

-- David Poile, on negotiations with Shea Weber this offseason

At least they agreed on what was for lunch.

To his credit, David Poile didn't panic. Assuming this year's Predators team would build on the success of last year's progress, the the team could feasibly restart negotiations on January 1st with their franchise player.

Except last year's progress was somewhat illusory--the team's first round win was a function of a weaker opponent. And the Predators' willingness to jettison complimentary players, in order to save money for Weber's contract, had ironically given Weber two new reasons not to sign a contract: (1) the team was worse and (2) the front office had yet to demonstrate a willingness to invest in building a team around him.

Problem #2 would have probably been manageable, had problem #1 not existed. But the Predators' willingness to let players like Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi, Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, and Steve Sullivan go last offseason seemingly had a lot to do with a few standout performances down the by some highly-touted rookies. Standout performances that were not likely to repeat.

Take Blake Geoffrion. He scored six goals in 20 games, largely a function of his usage by Trotz and a small sample size. He took 58% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, giving him plenty of chances, and made the most of those chances, scoring on one out of every four shots.

Year S% Zone% G +/-
2010 25% 58% 6 +2
2011 0% 35% 0 -2

Now, without players like Goc and Ward around to take the defensive zone draws, the Preds struggled early at moving the puck out of their zone. There were fewer offensive zone starts to go around and Blake found himself skating up ice. He got fewer chances and looked invisible.

The Predators demoted Geoffrion to Milwaukee after a quarter-season as disappointing as his debut was promising. Barry Trotz claimed Blake wasn't keeping up with the pace of the game, but a more accurate statement was that Blake hadn't progressed enough to fill the gaping holes in the forward lineup.

Another prominent case of too much responsibility too soon was Jonathon Blum. After being a +10 from the time of his late-season call-up to the Predators' elimination by the Canucks, Barry Trotz penciled in Blum as the Predators' number-three defenseman in training camp.

Year PDO Zone% +/-
2010 1068 50.3 +8
2011 990 44.4 -14

This season, however, Blum seemingly did a 180, logging a terrible -14 in another spate of games on the second pairing. Did Blummer forget how to play defense? More likely, the same factors that made his +10 an overestimation of his talent made his -14 too low. With Blum on the ice in 2010, the Predators had an otherworldly and unsustainable 14% shooting percentage, which inflated the offensive component of his +/-. In 2011, Rinne and Lindback combined for a .880 SV% with Blum on defense, sinking the defensive component of his +/-.

Did Rinne's SV% with Blum on the ice drop because Blum was playing worse and giving up harder-to-save chances? It's a moot point: in the long run, individual defenseman don't really influence SV%, and Rinne's would have likely regressed, creating a perceived improvement in Blum's defense.

Again, it seems likely Blum's results in 2010 made Poile at least comfortable, if not eager, in letting two solid defensemen in O'Brien and Franson leave in the offseason. And again, he got burned when the results weren't repeatable.

The cumulative effect of these under-performing youngsters and the loss of some defensive stalwarts was a team getting badly out shot every game, buoyed by its super goaltender.

Turns out the financially stripped-down Predators played like the financially stripped-down Predators. David Poile's plan of selling off a ton of payroll and going for it in the same season suddenly seemed like wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Early struggles bore out the inherent contradiction of needing to both save money to sign Weber and Suter and spend money to convince them to stay.

And while it seems like a foreseeable problem, the narrative promoted by the Predators and their fans, even in spite of the communication breakdown with the franchise player, was one of progress. Convinced in the wisdom of "out with the old, in with the new," we fixated on what we hadn't lost. Niclas Bergfors is The Next Sergei Kostitsyn.

Forget Shane O'Brien's penalty killing, he took to many penalties. Forget Joel Ward's ability to make any line productive, he couldn't even make himself productive. Forget Cody Franson's dearth of shots, he seriously lacked in hits.

And in all this forgetting, we forgot why these players made the Predators good. I was as guilty as anyone, pimping Ryan Suter and giving Weber the business when he arbitration. Then I turned heel on Suter, when he wouldn't sign long-term either.

Accelerating Plan A

We actually took a step backwards

--David Poile, on his team's offseason

A shared trait of all disastrous front office regimes, across sport, is fundamental lack of self-awareness. Those management teams which drive franchises into the ground convince themselves of a story, in which they're not the problem, and believe more and more in that story the worse things get. These type of General Managers talk a lot of about "process" and "the plan."

I give Poile all the credit in the world for not doubling down on the narrative. He had a bad offseason, he came out in the media and called it a bad offseason, and he became aggressive in making it right.

As a fan, this season has felt like a series of glimpses into a hundred tangent universes, all containing a different future for the Predators. On one day Ryan Suter will be traded to Philadelphia, the next day he's going to sign for seven years in Nashville, and by Friday we're sure he's going to Detroit in the offseason. Hell, an Antti Pihlstrom goal in a KHL quarter-final game almost cost the Preds their best forward before the playoffs. It's been that kind of season.

David Poile shook off visions of grandeur, took a hard look at these possible futures, and picked the one best for his team.

It started with the aforementioned rookies. Rookies were going to fill big roles on this team--that was a fact of life--but the Preds needed the right rookies for the right jobs. Jon Blum and Blake Geoffrion were rewarded based on how they fit into a past Predators team. Roman Josi and Gabriel Bourque represented a new, realistic look at team needs.

Josi struggled against bigger forwards, like Blum. But he excelled, unlike Blum, on the man advantage, and lead a second unit power play on a team that relied on its power play for offense. Similarly, Gabriel Bourque lacked the offensive creativity absent in the games of Matt Halischuk and Blake Geoffrion. But like Joel Ward's massive frame, Bourque's speed created time and space for his line mates. And suddenly the Predators regained the winger that could fix any line, making sure pucks were moving in the right (re: North-South) direction.

The trade deadline acquisitions filled in the rest. Gaustad provided possession, Gill penalty killing, and Andrei skill. Radulov helps too.

Because It's the Cup

I'm not saying there's no way the Predators retain their star players, should they not go very deep in these playoffs. But what are the chances Weber stays if Suter leaves? And what are the chances Suter leaves in the Preds only advance one or no rounds, versus say to the conference or Cup finals?

I'm not in these players heads, but there's a certain type of success that will necessarily change the way these players think of Nashville and the Predators. One run changes the Predators from "the team that drafted me" to "the team on which I won the Cup (or the Western Conference)." David Poile doesn't need to sell anyone on a plan if the results are already there.

But I didn't write all this to convince you of the potential importance of the Preds doing well in these playoffs. Everyone and their mom already grasps that.

My point is simply that the franchise has already changed, forever and for better. The perpetuity of good-not-great Predators teams, respected by all but feared by none, are coming to an end, one way or another. After hovering in the airspace between the fifth and ninth seed for too many years, David Poile is flying this plane into the sun. And maybe it doesn't make it out of the atmosphere. But you never win what you don't go for.

Either this team does something special and starts a dynasty around Weber, Suter, Rinne and Radulov or the team fizzles out and it starts a rebuild around Josi, Ellis, Smith and Bourque. Either way, it's going to be fun and it's going to be real, tangible progress.