Because nostalgia is the “it” thing right now, this summer, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the off-seasons from the Predators’ past. For this series, we’re only looking at moves made between the end of the season and the start of the regular season.
Oops... I did it again,
I played with Cisar,
And then lost the game,
Ooh baby baby.
Good ol’ 2000... pop music was at its peak, Survivor was the best thing on TV, and millions of people everywhere were frantically trying to sell off all their doomsday gear after Y2K never happened.
As for our beloved Preds, they had just finished up their second season in the league, and were looking to take the next step forward as a franchise. Let’s see what they did to get there.
The Previous Season
Record: 28-40-7-7 (70 points); 4th place in Central, 13th in the Western Conference, 25th overall.
We saw a small improvement in year two from year one, albeit nothing spectacular. More importantly though, we were started to identify the players who were—and who weren’t—going to be building blocks for the franchise.
David Legwand and Kimmo Timonen each spent full seasons in the NHL for the first time, and were starting to establish themselves as centerpieces for David Poile’s project. Veteran Cliff Ronning was still the team’s biggest star, once again leading the team in goals (26), assists (36), and points (62). And Mike Dunham, not Tomas Vokoun, was emerging as Nashville’s “goaltender of the future.”
The team also bid adieu to some of the stars from season one, placing defenseman Joel Bouchard on waivers and trading Sergei Krivokrasov, the franchise’s first all-star, to Calgary in exchange for young defenseman Cale Hulse, who would become a mainstay on the blueline for the next handful of seasons.
It was a start, for sure. But it was also clear Poile needed several more young pieces to add to the pipeline.
The Offseason Moves
Key Additions: F Greg Classen (undrafted free agent), F Mike Watt (claimed off waivers from Islanders), D Brant Myhres (free agent from San Jose), F Jeremy Stevenson (free agent from Anaheim), D Mark Eaton (trade with Philadelphia).
Key Losses: F Darren Turcotte (retired due to injury issues), D Jan Vopat (retired after developing a rare skin rash...no, really), F Patrick Cote (traded to Edmonton).
Draft Results: RW Scott Hartnell (1st round, 6th overall), F Daniel Widing (2nd round, 36th overall), D Mattias Nilsson (3rd round, 72nd overall), LW Libor Pivko (3rd round, 89th overall), F Matt Hendricks (5th round, 131st overall), D Mike Stuart (5th round, 137th overall), C Matt Koalska (5th round, 154th overall), D Tomas Harant (6th round, 173rd overall), F Zbynek Irgl (6th round, 197th overall), G Jure Penko (7th round, 203rd overall), D Mats Christeen (8th round, 236th overall), D Martin Hohener (9th round, 284th overall).
Best Move: Drafting Scott Hartnell 6th overall
Yeah I know, we’re still at the point where all of the most exciting transactions happen in the draft. Not exactly “sexy,” right?
I remember at the time the Preds drafting Hartnell felt different than when they picked Legwand or Finley. There was a lot more “mainstream” buzz around #17. Part of that may have been the fact that Hartnell was the first Predators’ first rounder to start the season on the main roster the year after being drafted, and one of only two (along with Seth Jones) to make it through the full season.
His face was plastered everywhere...in all the commercials, billboards, etc. He was even the face of the “Click It or Ticket” campaign, and starred in all the P.S.A. videos and posters Tennessee Highway Patrol gave out to local schools. Speaking of schools, I remember within two years, there were like 20 kids wandering around Freedom Middle in #17 jerseys, and everyone thought they were the coolest thing.
Probably a big reason for his popularity was his style of play. Hartnell’s first season wasn’t anything spectacular on the score sheet (only 2 goals and 16 points in 75 games). In fact, it would take him a while to consistently find his scoring touch. But he always seemed to be in the middle of the action, or rather—in what’s a better way of putting that—getting under the other team’s skin.
You usually couldn’t go two or three games without seeing an opponent losing his ever-loving mind trying to beat Hartnell to a pulp. He wasn’t afraid to be physical, dish out hits, or take punishment in front of the net to get a deflection or rebound, and it was exactly the type of exciting play that helped hype a fanbase still learning the game.
Of course, one of the biggest “that’s a shame” moments in Predators history is the fact we never got to experience Hartnell in his prime.
After two solid years after the lockout (in which he topped 22 goals both years, and got a then-career-high 48 points in 2006), Hartnell was traded to Philadelphia thanks to the relocation drama of 2007. It was in Philadelphia that he blossomed into one of the league’s top power forwards, leading Philadelphia on a Cinderella-esque Cup run in 2010, and hitting 37 goals in 2012.
We know Hartnell would finish out his career back in Smashville in the 2018 season. To this day, no Predators draft pick has more career goals, points, or penalty minutes (yes, even more than Tootoo) than Scott Hartnell. And it’s still hard not to picture him on some of those early 2010 Predators teams and wonder...“what if?”
Worst Move: Drafting G Jure Penko two picks ahead of G Henrik Lundqvist
Alright, real talk. I normally don’t like the “this team drafted X when they could have drafted Y” articles. Oftentimes, there’s like 10-15 picks between “X” and “Y,” they’re different positions, it’s a late-round pick where every other team has passed on that player as well...whatever, they’re very problematic.
This one though...it’s a tad different.
The Predators had the 203rd pick in the draft. The Rangers had the 205th pick. Both chose goaltenders.
The Predators had the first choice, and went with Penko, a Slovenian goaltender who wound up only playing 36 professional games in North America, all in the ECHL. After a brief stint in Italy, he disappeared, never to be heard from again (well...by hockey fans. I’m sure his family still...you know...knows he exists).
The Rangers made the Plan B pick. It wound up being Henrik Lundqvist. And to be fair, it actually took a while before this pick became a “steal.” Lundqvist struggled for playing time the next couple of seasons, before having a big breakthrough during the 2001 World Juniors. After having—even by early 2000’s standard—a jaw-dropping 2005 season in Sweden (1.05 GAA and .962 save %), he moved to North America and became...well...King Henrik.
What would have happened had Nashville drafted Lundqvist? Would he have had the opening to become the same elite goaltender? Would Pekka Rinne be playing elsewhere right now? Would Henrik’s fashion style involve boots, plaid button downs, and one of those fancy trucker hats from Goorin Bros. instead of his Barney Stinson-esque suit game?
We’ll sadly never know.
Guys...I promise these offseasons are going to get more exciting as the years go on.
Other than Hartnell, there weren’t really any additions or subtractions that really made a franchise-changing impact on the team. On one hand, you can say “oh well...no harm, no foul.” On the other, you can make the argument that in the team’s third offseason, you need to be more aggressive in bringing in guys who are eventually going to lead you on a postseason run. Then on some alien third hand...you can argue the team already had those types of players on the roster in Vokoun, Legwand, Hartnell, Timonen, Walker, etc. I’ll let you guys weigh in on the comments for your take.
Mark Eaton, while not exactly a “game-changer,” turned out to be a sneaky good addition, becoming one of the team’s go-to penalty killing defenders, and eventually working his way up to the top-4. He played a big role on the first playoff team, averaging 20 minutes in 2004 while leading all skaters with a +16 plus/minus.
Classen was considered one of the top college free agents when he left Merrimack College, and actually became one of Milwaukee’s best players past the lockout. The Predators gave him a few chances to stick around on the main roster (including a 55-game NHL stint in 2002), but he could never quite break through. Myhres and Watt were expected to compete for bottom six roles, but couldn’t make the cut. And while Preds fans probably know Jeremy Stevenson from later seasons, this was actually his first stint with the team. His more memorable one would come a few years down the road.
The draft class outside Hartnell wasn’t anything to write home about. Although Matt Hendricks carved out a nice little career (that’s still happening now), his most impactful seasons weren’t in Nashville.
I really have nothing else on the losses of Vopat, Turcotte, and Cote, other than each were sad in their own ways. Turcotte, at one point a consistent scoring winger in the league, only played 49 games in his two seasons with the Preds before retiring due to several injuries. Vopat shone in the inaugural season, but soon developed a rare, but serious type of rash that forced him to retire as well. Cote was a fan-favorite as the team’s enforcer, but his NHL career flamed out after leaving Nashville, and he soon found himself on a dark path that included several issues with the law, including a 30-month prison sentence for a pair of bank robberies in Quebec.
The Grade: C
Your turn to weigh in, Smashville.