"Good luck down the stretch, Coach," I said as I stuck out my hand one night in the spring of 2008 to briefly say hello to former Nashville Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz. We were inside the Curb Event Center at Belmont University, my alma mater, and Preds defenseman Shea Weber was the headlining celebrity in a halftime half-court shot challenge during a home basketball game. It would be the only time I would ever meet the only head coach the Nashville Predators had ever known to that point. And now it looks like I may have to wait until my next trip to Washington, as General Manager David Poile announced this spring that Trotz would not be returning as head coach in Nashville in 2014-2015.
This may come as a shock to OTF regulars, but it's really a privilege for me to write this analysis. Barry Trotz, at times, frustrated me with his coaching decisions and public statements, like I'm sure he frustrated the likes of Ken Hitchcock, Andy Murray, Joel Quennville, and even Mike Babcock with his "200-ft. trap" coaching style.
All the same, I'm about to eat a heaping serving of crow.
38-32-12 (88 pts.), good enough for 6th in the post-realignment Central Division, 10th in the Western Conference, 19th in the NHL, and one missed trip to the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Before we get to what went right this season, let's start by asking "What went wrong?"
Pretty much everything, starting with David Poile setting Barry Trotz up to fail. Poile, it seems, heard the vocal appeals from the "DO SOMETHING" crowd (of which I was a part; I'm not pointing fingers) after missing the playoffs in a lockout-shortened season. He looked at last summer's free agent crop, found Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Viktor Stalberg, and Carter Hutton, and said to himself "that's something, I'll do that" -- never mind that the 7-year/$49 million franchise goaltender was coming off a serious hip operation with no specific timetable for return, or that there were other options still available heading into training camp in the event that the unexpected or undesirable happened. And then the worst did happen, to everyone's chagrin.
And it's not like Trotz doesn't know how to use offensive talent!
In 2006-2007, a year that featured all-star talent like Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Jason Arnott, Scott Hartnell, Alexander Radulov, Tomas Vokoun, and even Peter Forsberg after the trade deadline, the Trotz-led Preds finished with a franchise-high 51-23-8 record, good for 110 points -- just 3 points out of the Central Division championship -- and entered the playoffs 4th in the Western Conference after notching a +60 team Goals For differential.
We all know what happened next, and David Poile has since, at times, looked like a desperate poker player on tilt after being taken down to the felt one too many times in short succession.
I can't begin to imagine how hard it is to manage a professional hockey team. I can barely manage my three dogs. But it seems to me like the hits just kept coming for the Nashville Predators after the Great Fire Sale of 2007. A dearth of leadership started at the top, and it permeated throughout the organization. Barry Trotz -- not David Poile -- was the steady hand on the tiller in the years to come, guiding the franchise through rough waters on an even keel.
Barry Trotz believed so vehemently in defense, character, and grit, because that's the only hand David Poile and the hockey gods kept dealing him.
When a team is really down in the dumps, a general manager can't fire every player on the roster -- so they often fire the head coach, even though it makes little impact relative to just letting a team endure its growing pains, to "send a message" to people who are probably already listening anyway. Given how stingy David Poile is with the use of his development prospects, however, let alone his inability to retain higher quality players like Ryan Suter (a.k.a. Scott Stevens 2.0) or Martin Erat, it's a little bit difficult to blame the Predators' seeming inability to mature on Barry Trotz. If the Nashville Predators were going to fire anyone this summer, they should have fired David Poile, who has never won a Stanley Cup championship in over 30 years in the NHL. (His Team USA squad at the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi also did not even medal, despite some highlight reel-worthy heroics at times, but that's sort of beside the point.)
I derided him in April for saying so, but I have since come 180 degrees because Barry Trotz is absolutely right: this season was one of his best performances. Of course, the numbers don't show it, and it's too late to bring him back now anyway. But he and the assistant coaches found themselves in a world of pain at the beginning of this season, only to have Pekka Rinne's hip injury resurface before the season ever really got under way. Still, they "almost pulled it off."
Coach, you were a class act right up to the end.
The Road Ahead
I wish new head coach Peter Laviolette all the best in SMASHville this coming season, and in future years. But I think it's an understatement to say "the Nashville Predators organization is poorer today than it was a few months ago because Barry Trotz no longer works at 501 Broadway" -- to say nothing of the departure of goaltending all-star manufacturer Mitch Korn, or likely departure of assistant coach Lane Lambert, who spent lots of time in Milwaukee with some of the younger Preds -- and the team is still stuck with David Poile.
Will it all have been worth it? I doubt it, but as with all prognostications great and poor, only time will tell. I have never looked forward to Nashville having to try to match or beat the Washington Capitals high-powered offense, but now I will not look forward to Peter Laviolette trying to out-coach Barry Trotz when the Caps and the Preds square off.
Prediction: Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert, and Mitch Korn will provide much-needed stability to a Washington Capitals organization that has been on a seven-year roller coaster ride that's making everybody sick (and it would be bad news if the Caps can't find stability, because they're largely the only team in the DC area that ever wins anything).
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