Because nostalgia is the “it” thing right now, this summer, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the off-seasons from Predators’ past. Today, we’ll look at the team’s very first offseason... 1998.
Well, these offseason grades are just like, you know, our opinion man.
Ahh, 1998. *NSync and Britney Spears were topping the charts for the first time, The Dude and Jeffrey Lebowski were gracing our theatre screens, and “The Rachel haircut” was still very much a thing.
But more importantly for our hockey-fueled world? The Nashville Predators were getting ready to hit the ice for the first time.
With the inaugural season ready to go, the ownership turned to former Capitals General Manager David Poile (maybe you’ve heard of him) to build the first roster. The Preds were the first of the four new expansion teams to start play, and there was virtually no pressure on Poile to build a high-powered team right away. The goal was basically just to find the core of the team, whether they be highly-touted prospects or “depth guys” from other teams that might be ready for the next step.
So let’s see how he did.
The Offseason Moves
So this section will be a little more cut-and-dry in later years. But since the Preds...you know...filled their entire roster this offseason, we’ll break it down into sections.
Expansion Draft Key Picks
G Mike Dunham (NJ), G Tomas Vokoun (MTL), D Joel Bouchard (CGY), D Bob Boughner (BUF), LW Andrew Brunette (WSH), C Greg Johnson (CHI), RW Scott Walker (VAN).
In addition, the Preds also made some “Vegas” deals, and acquired some players in exchange for NOT selecting others.
- Sergei Krivokrasov from Chicago, in exchange for passing on G Chris Terreri
- Kimmo Timonen and Jan Vopat from L.A., in exchange for passing on D Garry Galley
- Sebastien Bordeleau from Montreal, in exchange for not taking D Peter Popovic
- Ville Peltonen from San Jose, in exchange for passing on F Tony Granato
- Darren Turcotte from St. Louis, in exchange for passing on G Jamie McLennan
Obviously, there were many more expansion moves than this, including a few notable names like Mike Richter, Uwe Krupp, and Al Iafrate...but none of them played a game for the Predators. For this, I’m only including the guys who made some sort of impact for the team that first season. (And be honest, you don’t remember Paul Brousseau or Jeff Staples anyway).
(Other) Key Acquisitions
D Jayson More (free agent from Chicago), RW Tom Fitzgerald (free agent from Colorado), D Jamie Heward (free agent from Philadelphia), D Drake Berehowsky (trade with Edmonton), D Greg de Vries (trade with Edmonton), G Chris Mason (trade with Anaheim)
I mean...there literally wasn’t a team the season prior. There were players acquired in the expansion draft that were traded or waived before the season started, but since none of them played a game for Nashville, we won’t count that.
C David Legwand (1st Rd, 2nd Overall), C Denis Arkhipov (3rd Rd, 60th overall), LW Geoff Koch (3rd Rd, 85th overall), D Kent Sauer (4th Rd, 88th overall), D Martin Beauchesne (5th Rd, 138 overall), RW Craig Brunel (6th Rd, 147th overall), LW Martin Bartek (8th Rd, 202 overall), D Karlis Skrastins (9th Rd, 230 overall).
Best Move: Selecting G Tomas Vokoun in Expansion Draft
There were a lot of guys picked or acquired during the expansion draft that played a big role in the Predators’ early history. But it’s not every day a guy you pick to compete for your third-string goaltender role winds up becoming one of the greatest players in franchise history.
Fun fact: Vokoun was one of five goaltenders the Preds picked in the expansion draft, including, legendary Rangers and Team USA goalie Mike Richter (who, spoiler alert, didn’t stay). Once the Predators struck out on Richter, it was widely expected two of the other four picks, Mike Dunham and Mikhail Shtalenkov, would compete for the starting job. Both were young backups to all-star goalies (Martin Brodeur and Guy Hebert, respectively) and seemed ready to compete for that “big jump.”
Vokoun, on the other hand, was more of afterthought in the minds of experts. He’s not even mentioned in the New York Times’ original breakdown of the expansion draft. In fact, it was widely speculated at the time the Canadiens traded Sebastien Bordeleau to Nashville as incentive for taking Vokoun over other players like D Peter Popovic. He was projected to be the third goalie, and even THAT was in doubt with other players like Dominic Roussel, a former starter with the Flyers, and Chris Mason in the organization.
But Vokoun quickly benefited from some shuffling on the main roster. Shtalenkov was traded before the season started, and one of the guys the Preds got in return, Eric Fichaud, became the backup. Then Mike Dunham got hurt early in the season. Then a few weeks after that, Fichaud got hurt. That cleared the way for Vokoun to get his first real look with the club, and his first NHL minutes since the 1996-1997 season.
Impact-wise, Vokoun’s first season was...fine; at least in regards to a team in its first season. He led the team with a 2.95 GAA, and tied with Dunham with a .908 save percentage. However, he was at the center of several moments that quickly made him a fan favorite, including a 50-save performance against the defending champion Red Wings, and getting the first shutout in team history. It was enough to keep him on the roster to spell Dunham for the next several seasons.
In 2003, Vokoun would finally get the keys to the franchise. The team traded Mike Dunham to the Rangers, opening the door for Vokoun to become the team’s full-time starter. That’s when he transitioned from “fan favorite” to “team legend.”
In his four seasons as the full-time starter, Vokoun had 122 wins and a .916 save percentage. The highlight may have come in 2004, when he became the first Predator to play in the All-Star Game since the inaugural season, and backstopped the team to its first playoff appearance.
All of that began as an afterthought pick in the expansion draft.
- Acquiring Kimmo Timonen and Jan Vopat from Los Angeles, in exchange for not picking Garry Galley in the expansion draft
Worst Move: Selecting Red Wings F Doug Brown in the Expansion Draft
For the most part, there really weren’t any transactions that were horribly “bad” ahead of the Predators’ first season. The only slightly embarrassing moment was the drama surrounding Doug Brown.
Unlike the team’s picks of Uwe Krupp, Al Iafrate, and Mike Richter (all of whom were unrestricted free agents and were considered just rolls of the dice), Brown was under contract, and the team expected him to play a big role on the team after a 42-point season with the Red Wings. Instead, he refused to play.
“Detroit’s Doug Brown balked after the Predators plucked him in the expansion draft, and Nashville sent him back to the Red Wings. No one else has reacted that negatively to being a Predator.” - San Francisco Chronicle, 1998
In the grand scheme of things, it was no harm no foul. In fact, the Predators got another prospect, Petr Sykora (no, not THAT Petr Sykora), and a 2nd round draft pick in exchange for shipping Brown back to Detroit.
It’s who they passed on to select Brown in the first place that stings a little bit: Mike Knuble.
At the time, Knuble was still a very raw prospect with the Red Wings, and hadn’t yet earned a full-time roster spot among the Yzermans, Fedorovs, and Shanahans of the world. He was left unprotected and, chances are, likely would have jumped at the chance for more playing time on an upstart team.
Instead, Knuble was traded to the Rangers, then the Bruins, where he started a run of 9 straight seasons with a least 21 goals (hitting 30 twice).
Who knows if Knuble would have had the same impact in Nashville. But it remains a fascinating “what if” had they taken a flier on a young scoring prospect, instead of taking a shot at Brown, an aging veteran who only played 3 more seasons in the league.
If Poile’s mission was just to form the core of an early team, then mission accomplished. Even apart from Vokoun, he got great value out of the expansion draft process. Kimmo Timonen became the team’s number 1 defender (and a three-time all-star with the Preds), while guys like Greg Johnson and Scott Walker would play big roles in the team’s early playoff runs. Others, like Sergei Krivokrasov (the team’s first all-star), Bob Boughner, and Andrew Brunette, were top contributors within the first couple of seasons.
The star of the draft class, of course, is David Legwand. While he may not have ever developed into the star you’d expect with the Number 2 pick, he still holds most of the team’s all-time scoring records. Poile also hit on two other picks, Denis Arkhipov (111 points in 4 seasons with the team), and, somewhat surprisingly, their 9th round pick Karlis Skrastins, who became the first draft pick to play a game for the NHL club. He developed into a reliable penalty killer, and most notably at one point, had the league’s longest-active “iron man” streak with 495 consecutive games played.
The Predators didn’t make a huge splash in free agency, but then again, expansion teams usually don’t. Tom Fitzgerald did become the team’s first captain, and the man behind one of the most bad-ass moments in team history. Jamie Heward, believe it or not, was the team’s highest scoring defender in his first and only season with the team. Jayson More, sadly, retired halfway into the season due to concussions. The Shtalenkov trade, which was briefly covered in the Vokoun breakdown, actually brought in a good return in Drake Berehowsky, who scored 32 points in the 2000 season.
The Final Grade: A-
Not too shabby.
What say you, Preds nation? What was your favorite/least favorite move from the 1998 offseason?