Locked Down: Grading the Predators’ 2004 Offseason

The Preds made the playoffs, and then......... *crickets*

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.

Happy 2004 everyone!  The Incredibles were busy fighting Syndrome, Snoop Dogg was droppin’ it like it was an above-average temperature, and... um... oh who am I kidding... this was the lockout year.  This summer was awful.

Going into the offseason, we were prepared for a long, tense, likely messy labor battle between the Players’ Association and the NHL owners.  But we had no indication as to when we’d see our favorite players back on the ice.  For Smashville, the timing of all this drama was an extra punch in the gut.  The Predators had just made the playoffs for the first time, and with a core of players in their prime — like Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen, Steve Sullivan, and David Legwand — Nashville was starting to gain some clout as a “team on the rise” around the league.  However, we’d have to wait a year and a half to build off that momentum.

Anywho... let’s get back to some happy news.

The Previous Season

Record: 38-29-11-4 (91 pts), 3rd in Central, 8th in Western Conference, 16th overall.

Playoffs: Lost to Detroit in WCQF (2-4)


Reflecting back now, the entire run to the team’s first postseason was a trip, man.  Back in February, the Preds seemed like a lock to get in.  Then things got dicey, with the team only getting two wins in 12 games to start March. They battled with points in four straight games and found themselves with a chance to clinch a berth during the final home game of the season.  They wound up getting crushed by the Blues, but a few hours later, they got in by virtue of a Vancouver win over Edmonton.  Sigh. Of. Relief.

And sure, the Preds wound up losing to Detroit in round one.  But it seemed like one of the few genuine “just happy to be here” moments in team history.  There was a poetic nature to the matchup itself.  During our first six years, the Red Wings were THE dynasty... chock-full of future hall-of-famers and the destination for seemingly every free agent on the market.  The Preds, on the other hand, were the complete opposite... a team built on homegrown talent and veteran guys with chips on their shoulder.  The series felt like a culmination of everything the franchise had built towards.

There were several individual accolades as well.  Tomas Vokoun and Kimmo Timonen became the first Preds to play in the All-Star game since the inaugural season, while Scott Walker set the franchise record with 67 points.

David Poile geared up for the team’s first playoff run by adding some more firepower to the roster, including one move that — to date — is still Poile’s best deadline acquisition.  Steve Sullivan came over from Chicago in the middle of February and immediately turned heads by scoring a hat trick in his debut game.  He’d eventually finish with 30 points in just 24 games with the team in 2004 (including 10 in his first 3).

The team rounded out the deadline by bringing in third-line center Sergei Zholtok (Minnesota), stay-at-home defender Brad Bombadir (Minnesota), and tough guy Shane Hnidy (Ottawa).

Let’s see what changes Poile made after the season.

The Offseason Moves

Key Additions: D Greg Zanon (free agent from AHL), C Jerred Smithson (free agent from Los Angeles), D Andreas Lilja (free agent from Florida).

Key Losses: D Brad Bombadir (sat out during lockout, eventually signed with AHL club), F Andreas Johansson (signed in NLA), F Rem Murray (sat out during lockout, eventually signed with Edmonton), D Jason York (sat out during lockout, eventually signed in NLA), F Sergei Zholtok (signed in Belarus, tragically died during game in late 2004).

Draft Results: RW Alexander Radulov (1st round, 15th overall), C Vaclav Meidl (3rd round, 81st overall), F Nick Fugere (4th round, 107th overall), G Kyle Moir (5th round, 139th overall), D Jaane Niskala (5th round, 147th overall), RW Mike Santorelli (6th round, 178th overall), D Kevin Schaeffer (6th round, 193rd overall), D Stanislav Balan (7th round, 209th overall), D Denis Kulyash (8th round, 243rd overall), G Pekka Rinne (8th round, 258th overall), D Craig Switzer (9th round, 275th overall).

Best Move: Drafting G Pekka Rinne in the 8th Round

Four-time all-star.  Franchise leader in wins and shutouts.  Vezina Trophy winner.  NHL leader for most wins by a Finland-born goaltender.

The question of “Best Player in Predators History” is another debate for another day.  But I will make this guarantee... #35 will be the first jersey to hang in the Bridgestone Arena rafters a few years down the line.

While he’s certainly achieved “legend” status in Smashville, Pekka’s path to the NHL was a little more wild than most of our other marquee stars.  He was an 8th round draft pick in the final NHL draft to date that lasted longer than 7 rounds. He replaced former “goalie of the future” Brian Finley as Milwaukee’s starter his first year in North America, only to miss virtually all of next season after — and I still can’t believe this is actually true — getting pepper-sprayed and tackled by a pizzeria owner during a bachelor party. Two years later, he seemed ready to take over the Nashville’s starting goalie role, but a snowstorm delayed his flight, which led to Dan Ellis going on a wild late-season run and reclaiming the 1G spot.

Pekka eventually DID join the team full-time in 2008-2009, initially as Ellis’s backup.  But it didn’t long for the team to change course and say “yeahhhh he’s our guy.”  He was the NHL’s rookie of the month in February thanks to a 9-2-1 stretch (including a .944 GAA and 1.72 GAA.)  He’d finish his rookie season with seven shutouts, tied for 4th in the league. Over the next few years, he — along with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis (until he bailed) — helped the Preds develop their reputation as one of the league’s best defensive teams.

There are so many marquee moments with Rinne in net that it’s virtually impossible to go through them all in a single story section.  There’s his game-saving stop in overtime against the Canucks back in 2011...

...getting career win number 300 in front of a sold-out crowd at Bridgestone Arena, and getting emotional during the standing ovation afterwards...

...his SUPERHUMAN performance in Game 4 of the Finals, which helped Nashville even the series against the Pens...

...or accomplishing every aspiring NHL goaltender’s dream... shoving Brendan Gallagher in the face...

...nah jk, the REAL dream... winning the Vezina for the first time.

Look, I don’t know what the future holds for Rinne.  He turns 37 this year.  But if the last two seasons are any indication, his tank’s not on empty just yet.  My advice to any Preds fans who happen to be reading this?  Cherish this.  Cherish getting to head to the rink and seeing one of the best goaltenders of our generation wearing our colors, our sweater... saluting our fans after a great win.

Not bad for an 8th round pick.

Worst Move: .........

You know what, screw it... it’s the offseason... let’s go off the board.

.....Drafting F Alexander Radulov in the 1st Round

Oh c’mon, would you rather dive into this or some obscure middle-round pick who didn’t pan out?

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat: Alexander Radulov is a great hockey player, and he had some terrific moments for the Predators.  There were very few players in team history who had his ability to make the fans sit up in their seats like he did whenever the puck was on his stick.  You just felt like you were going to witness a highlight reel moment.

And yet, no other former Predator has been as synonymous with team distractions.

Things started well enough.  Radulov joined the team in 2006 as, to date, maybe the most hyped prospect in team history.  He had just finished one of the best individual QMJHL seasons since the turn of the century... capped off by a whopping 55 points in just 23 playoff games.  He finished off his rookie season in Nashville with 18 goals and 19 assists, then followed that up with a 58-point sophomore campaign (good for second or third on the team behind Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont.)

You could see a few signs of immaturity pop up now and then.  There were the penalties that made you go “oh, that was unnecessary,” like the dirty hit on Steve Bernier that got him suspended during the 2007 playoffs. And..... sigh.... the time he knocked his own captain out of the playoffs with a slightly over-enthusiastic goal celebration.

But hey, all of that happened when Radulov was 20 and 21.  He was still maturing, and to be fair, those types of things were no different than the “judgment lapses” we’ve seen from other players.  He was a young player in the NHL.  Not a big deal.

Then the transfer dispute happened.

In July 2008, with a year still left on his contract, Radulov signed with the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa, citing “better conditions” (translation: more dolla dolla bills, y’all).  The issue quickly devolved into a convoluted mess involving the Preds, the NHL, the KHL, and the IIHF.  Radulov’s new contract was voided, then it wasn’t.  He was suspended, then he wasn’t.  It was a whole thing.  Long story short, Radulov stayed in Russia, leaving the Preds without a key piece of their rebuild.

Fans and the franchise were upset, sure.  But in a weird way, we still sort of gave Radulov a pass.  He was just 21 when all this happened.  Maybe he was homesick.  Maybe the prospect of all that cash at a young age was too tempting to pass up.  Maybe he had too many people in his ear.  It was a selfish move for sure.  But once again, we used his youth — the hope of a potential return — to forgive him, especially when we got to to 2012.

Oh.... 2012.....

Radulov had just finished out his contract in the KHL, and was interested in an NHL return.  And because he left with a year on his NHL deal, the Preds still had his rights.  So, on March 22, Radulov rejoined the team in the stretch run of their best season.  He had 7 points in his 9 remaining regular season games, then 5 in the following 5 playoff games in Detroit.  Everyone was happy again.

Sigh... and then...

The night before Game 2 against Phoenix (throwback name!), both Radulov and prized deadline acquisition Andrei Kostitsyn were spotted at bars around the Scottsdale/Glendale area, and reportedly didn’t arrive back at the Preds team hotel 4 A.M. Both were suspended for games 3 and 4, and the Predators eventually lost to the Coyotes in an ugly five-game series.  It was such a knock on Radulov’s reputation, that he returned to Russia in the offseason after getting little to no interest from NHL clubs.

That was the final straw for both the team and the fanbase.

So let’s rewind back to the original pick... Am I blaming the team for drafting Radulov? Absolutely not.  He’s a great player.  He just posted back-to-back 72 point seasons (which is his NHL career high).  Even back in his Preds years, he was a game-changer.  He put up great numbers in his time here.  And as I scroll through the players selected in the 10-15 picks after Radulov, who would have been better with the 15th pick?  Travis Zajac? Wojtek Wolski?  Mike Green if you’re willing to stretch a bit?

The “bad move” aspect of this review is solely on #47.  From everything we’ve heard, the Preds gave him every opportunity to thrive in Nashville.  And in some moments, he did.  But at the end of the day, he couldn’t put his own self-interest below the team.  And as much as I’d like to see Radulov change for the better, mature a bit, and grow into a leader for younger players, recent events prove that may not happen anytime soon.

It’s a shame too.  Imagine 10 years worth of Alexander Radulov, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne playing together as a unit.

The Analysis

Alright, I’ve already taken forever with this review, so I’ll keep this short and sweet (since... you know... nothing happened the season afterwards.)

Greg Zanon and Jerred Smithson both wound up being solid depth additions.  Andreas Lilja never played with the team because of the lockout, and instead would go on to have a nice run in Detroit, including a brief stint as Lidstrom’s defense partner.... no, really.  Mike Santorelli wound up becoming a good prospect, although Smashville has a lower opinion of him now due to that awful deadline deal.  And none of the key losses did anything notable around the league post Nashville.

And as we established... Pekka = Yayyy.  Radulov = Boooo.

The Final Grade: A-

Despite the lockout, the Preds found a couple of good pieces.

Your turn to weigh in, Smashville!

How would you grade the Preds’ 2004 offseason?