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Moment like this: Grading the Predators’ 2002 offseason

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Media Day for the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

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.

Now when they see Cale and his (Boy)... they say damn (Oh Boy)
Karlis is that (Boy) that squeeze hammers (Oh Boy),
Catfish and bandanas... slapshots we don’t brandish,
Blam at the Wings’ canvas then scram with the Hawks’ leaded.

We’ve made it to 2002, folks! It was quite a time. Kelly Clarkson won American Idol after waiting a lifetime for a moment like that, Jason Bourne was still searching for his identity, and Halle Berry was making history at the Oscars.

And guess what, it was offseason number five in the Predators’ history! You might remember the team was on the upswing the summer before. Did they have the same confidence this time around? Wellllll......

The Previous Season

Record: 28-41-13-0 (69 pts); 4th in Central Division, 14th in Western Conference, 25th Overall

At the end of 2001, the Preds had flirted with playoff contention. So in that regard, 2002 was a massive step back. Injuries were a big reason why, as guys like Scott Walker, David Legwand, and Marian Cisar all missed significant time.

The bigger headline though, was the departure of some key guys during the season. Cliff Ronning, who had been the team’s leading scorer in every season to this point, was shipped to Los Angeles at the trade deadline for Jere Karalahti, a once-promising prospect we’ll get to a little later. Captain Tom Fitzgerald and perennial top-line winger Patric Kjellberg also switched teams during the year.

That said, there were plenty of things to cheer about. Scott Hartnell bucked the sophomore slump trend with 41 points. Kimmo Timonen put in a career-best season, slowly getting some recognition as one of the more exciting young blueliners in the league. And although his defensive skills weren’t exactly up to par, Andy Delmore added some punch to the Preds’ back end with 16 goals (11 on the power play).

So let’s see how David Poile and company handled things after the season.

The Offseason Moves

Key additions: F Vernon Fiddler (undrafted free agent), C Brent Gilchrist (free agent from Dallas), C Clarke Wilm (free agent from Calgary), D Pascal Trepanier (free agent from Colorado), RW Denis Pederson (free agent from Phoenix), F Andreas Johansson (free agent from NY Rangers).

Key Losses: F Stu Grimson (retired due to concussion issues), F Petr Tenkrat (signed with SM Liiga team), F Marian Cisar (signed with SM Liiga team), F Jukka Hentunen (guess what? He signed with SM Liiga team), D Jere Karalahti (sat out 2002-2003 season).

Draft Results: F Scottie Upshall (1st Round, 6th overall), F Brandon Segal (4th round, 102nd overall), F Patrick Jarrett (5th round, 138th overall), G Mike McKenna (6th round, 172nd overall), D Josh Morrow (7th round, 203rd overall), F Kaleb Betts (8th round, 235th overall), G Matthew Davis (9th round, 264th overall), D Steven Spencer (9th round, 266th overall).

Best Move: Signing Free Agent Vernon Fiddler

I’m going to show my bias here, because Vern Fiddler, to this day, still remains one of my favorite Predators of all time.

You hear all the time about players taking “the long, unconventional road” to the NHL, and Fiddler was a good example of that. He had actually left the WHL after the 2001 season, but had virtually no interest from NHL clubs, and instead, spent most of his first pro season in the ECHL, before finally getting a shot with the Norfolk Admirals.

He impressed the Preds’ staff enough to get a free agent deal, and within his first couple of seasons, the move paid off. He cemented himself as somewhat of a cult hero during his first call-up, scoring 4 goals in his first 19 games, and...you know, having the name “Vern Fiddler” in the country music capital of the world. He’d bounce between Nashville and Milwaukee for the next few seasons (becoming a huge part of the 2004 Calder Cup team), before finally staying the NHL for good in 2006.

It was his style of play that kept him in the league for more than a decade. Whenever Barry Trotz needed a little “juice” out of his team, chances are Fiddler was on the line he sent out to set the tone. He became a mainstay on the Predators’ penalty kill, and earned a reputation as one of the league’s better face-off performers, including a whopping 60.4% for Dallas during their 2014 playoff run. While he wasn’t a prolific scorer (his 32 points in 2008 was his career high), he didn’t have to be. He found his niche in the bottom six and knew exactly how he needed to play to stay there.

He left for Phoenix after the 2009 campaign, but returned for a curtain call during the 2017 Cup run, with his most memorable moment coming at the end of Game 1 in the St. Louis series.

Not a bad two decades for an undrafted free agent.

Honorable Mention: Signing Andreas Johansson (20 goals in 57 games during the ‘02-’03 season).

Worst Move: Signing free agent Brent Gilchrist

I’ll be honest...Brent Gilchrist has played on BOTH of my childhood teams, and I still forgot all about him until just now.

He had already been in the league for 15 years, and at one point, he had a reputation as a reliable two-way center with the occasional scoring touch. But injuries had taken their toll. After a big role on Detroit’s 1998 Cup Team, he only managed 134 games over the next four seasons, with only 9 goals in that time frame.

Still, the Predators needed a veteran presence after the departure of Fitzgerald and Ronning, so they took a chance on the 35-year-old, and named him an alternate captain. It just didn’t work out.

Gilchrist’s injury problems returned, and he managed just 41 games in a Predators uniform the next season. When he did play, he wasn’t as reliable as the team had hoped, finishing the year minus-11 (second-worst among forwards that season) despite only averaging about 10 minutes of icetime a game. The Preds chose not to re-sign him, and Gilchrist hung up his skates for good that offseason.

Gilchrist actually had a pretty good run in the NHL. It just didn’t work out in Nashville.

The Analysis

I mean...it’s not like this summer totally sucked, but it wasn’t exactly great, either. The offseason fell between two seasons packed with critical in-season hockey moves, so it seemed as if most of the additions were just meant to plug a few holes.

Apart from Fiddler, the Preds’ signing with the most value was Andreas Johansson, who led the team with 20 goals the following season. He was actually on pace for a lot more, but he too started getting hampered with injuries as the season went on. Clarke Wilm, while not the flashiest signing, played all 82 games the next season, chipping in a respectable 16 points from the bottom line. Pederson only played half the season and Trepanier, despite having a big role with the Avalanche the prior season, spent virtually the entire year in Milwaukee.

I’ll be honest, I’m not exactly sure what to make of the draft class, specifically Scottie Upshall. On one hand, he did enjoy a long, successful career as a bottom six “grinder.” But his better years came after he left Nashville. Plus, is that really good enough to justify him as the sixth overall pick? Especially when guys like Joffrey Lupul, Alexander Semin, Alex Steen, and Cam Ward were taken later in the first round?

Oh, also...none of the other picks played a game with the Predators, although Brandon Segal and Mike McKenna each carved out solid careers in the AHL.

As for the summer departures, it was sort of a cavalcade of missed potential. Jere Karalahti actually requested a trade specifically to Nashville, due to his friendship with Kimmo Timonen. He got his wish, but during this offseason, he got tagged with a six month suspension for a drug violation. He’d later reveal to Sports Illustrated that he battled addiction for most of his adult life, and despite getting clean and rejuvenating his career back in Europe, he’d never return to the NHL again.

Tenkrat and Hentunen were acquired midseason, and would fade into European league obscurity after the summer.

Meh.

Final Grade: C-

Don’t worry. Next season’s gets really good!