An OTF Editorial: "The Predator Way" needs a new direction

More than any single individual, David Poile deserves credit for building the Nashville Predators into a legitimately sustainable NHL franchise. But the time has come for new leadership in Smashville.

Let me be clear about this - I'm a major David Poile fan.

Thanks to last season's Ambassadors Club sales, I received a personalized jersey from the Preds, and had the option of getting it signed by a team member - rather than going with an on-ice hero like Shea Weber or Pekka Rinne, I got Poile's John Hancock emblazoned on the logo. As I wrote recently, I believe he's a lock for the Hall of Fame in the builders category, and deservedly so.

The time has come for change, fundamental change, in the Nashville Predators organization, however, and that starts with thanking the team's one and only general manager for his incredible work establishing the Predators as a sustainable NHL franchise and wishing him the best of luck with future endeavors, most especially with Team USA at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Usually when a team stumbles for a second season in a row the coach is the first to draw the blame, but in this case, we need to look at an organizational philosophy that has failed to live up to expectations raised by its own modest success.

A Proven, But Limited, Track Record

I've admired Poile's work since his days with the Washington Capitals, who always seemed to have the deepest, most talented group of defensemen in the league. Those teams weren't without talent up front either, with offensive talents like Mike Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, Michal Pivonka & Dmitri Khristich (among others) leading the way for a consistently competitive Caps team which, much like the Predators, failed to achieve much in the playoffs.

Now in their 15th NHL season, the apex of Predators hockey has merely been to "be competitive". Despite an impressive seven playoff appearances in eight seasons from 2004-2012, this franchise has yet to achieve anything worthy of a banner to hang from the rafters at Bridgestone Arena. For a long time, one could excuse that gap in their record since at least there was an impression that the team was headed in the right direction, but events since the summer of 2012 have the franchise spiraling into mediocrity, with no turnaround in sight.

In short, this team doesn't appear to be on the path towards Stanley Cup contention any time soon, and the roster/salary situation presents serious obstacles to getting on that path given the organization's operating philosophy, which has become more deeply entrenched in the so-called "Predator Way" over the last 18 months.

Lest you think my expectations are too high, just consider the possible achievements which allow an NHL team to raise a banner for a successful season: winning a regular season division title, Presidents Trophy, conference playoff championship, or Stanley Cup championship. Since the Preds joined the league in 1998-99, only three teams have failed to achieve any of those goals: the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, and your Nashville Predators.

Somewhere down the road, when the franchise deems itself ready to establish something like a Ring of Honor, Poile's name is the very first which should etched in stone. That doesn't mean he has to be a GM for life, however.

A Plan Gone Awry

For the bulk of the Predators' existence, the team made gradual progress that fed an attitude of optimism about what the future might hold. Despite repeated playoff disappointments and the Great Fire Sale of 2007 when Craig Leipold sold the team, Poile steered the franchise through choppy waters to assemble teams that drew high regard from around the league... until the next playoffs came around.

To do this, Poile has traditionally established a core unit, then found value in depth players on low priced, short term contracts, guys who are working their tails off to earn that next deal and stay in the league. Think Scott Nichol, Jerred Smithson, Francis Bouillon, Jack Hillen, Joel Ward, Dan Ellis and many more.

With a top goalie in Pekka Rinne playing behind a pair of world-class defensemen in Shea Weber & Ryan Suter, the Preds had such a championship-caliber core to build around for a brief time, and "went for it" with a number of moves at the 2012 Trade Deadline. With Suter gone, however, the challenge is to identify that new core of difference-makers, lock them up for as long as possible, then find the right combination of players to surround those stars and put them in the position to succeed.

What we've seen ever since the summer of 2012, however, is a gentrification of the role players, lavishing too much money and too much term on contracts for Paul Gaustad, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom and Rich Clune. All four are "bottom six" forwards, with all of them under contract through at least 2016 for a combined cap hit of more than $8 million per season. A return to "Predators hockey" was heralded last summer as a way of reconnecting with the team's identity and leading a revival in Smashville.

This "Grit Fetish", as I like to call it, is a preference for perceived characteristics in a player like hard work and character over talent. While that sounds admirable, such an attitude understandably feeds into a popular appraisal of the Preds - that they skate with a playoff-level intensity more often than not during the regular season, allowing them to overachieve, but when the playoffs do come along, other teams "turn it on" while the Predators have already maxed out and have no room to elevate their game.

Such a mindset served to help a team near the bottom of the salary cap range overachieve relative to its budget, but teams with championship aspirations acquire or develop the high-end talent needed to make a difference when it counts.

Was this doubling-down on #grit a reaction by team leadership to the failed 2012 playoff run, and the Kostitsyn/Radulov fiasco which threw these issues into stark relief? The two most dynamic offensive performers for the Predators violated curfew and were suspended by Poile for Game 3 of the Phoenix series, a game which the Preds were fortunate to win by a 2-0 score, allowing Barry Trotz to play the "we won so I won't change the lineup" card. Two games later, the season was over, and Nashville fans looked on while notorious party monsters Mike Richards and Jeff Carter led the Los Angeles Kings to their first Stanley Cup championship.

The 2013 free agency overspend on depth players, along with the Rinne & Weber contracts, places tremendous constraints on the team's ability to address its biggest flaw - a lack of proven offensive talent at forward. Craig Smith and Colin Wilson haven't developed as reliable Top Six performers, leaving Patric Hornqvist as the lone guy you can expect to generate scoring chances night in, night out. Goal scorers on the open market usually cost a pretty penny, but funds have now pretty much all been used up in other areas.

And don't remind me again about the decision to pass up on Mikhail Grabovski, who could have been claimed off waivers and would have represented an instant upgrade at the center position.

Pressure applies to coaching, too

It's worth noting that head coach Barry Trotz is not without blame here. It's maddening to see him scratch talented players with potential like Craig Smith in favor of an "emotional" Rich Clune, whose contributions have been limited to getting in fights and taking penalties, and I've derided Trotz's hesitance to give more ice time to guys who are able to help the team out-shoot their opponents, even if they carry a bit of defensive risk.

One could also raise the question of whether some of the blame for Smith & Wilson's lack of development might fall on Trotz's shoulders, and whether his preferred style of play feeds into a perception that Nashville isn't a desirable free agent destination for offensive stars. That said, the team does still seem to be giving him a solid effort, which is usually the most obvious barometer of a coach's efficacy.

In short, I mostly agree with Jim Diamond that firing Trotz wouldn't fix what ails the Preds. Whether a new general manager would want to retain him would be an entirely separate question.

A Hockey Version of Cogen & Henry

The bottom line here is that the Predator Way has, in 15 years, built a foundation for hockey in Nashville, but has not shown the ability to rise above that and move the team into the league's elite, even for a single season. A continued devotion to that philosophy hampers the franchise in addressing its long-standing weak spot, as once again they rank among the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL.

What's needed now is a fresh attitude that moves beyond old constraints such as the low-budget "hard working scrapper" attitude, the impression that Nashville isn't an attractive destination for free agents, etc. Just as Jeff Cogen and Sean Henry have taken the arena operations to an entirely new level, pursuing opportunities for improvement on just about every front, a new approach is needed on the hockey side of the organization as well. Unfortunately, I doubt that Poile can change course so radically after all this time, especially after having made such huge investments in "grit" over the summer.

Not Now, But When?

The timing of any such change in the front office is especially precarious. There's no way the team would make a move before the Winter Olympics, as there is tremendous PR value in having your GM heading the American effort in the Games' most-watched event. If the US is able to medal, or better yet compete in the Gold Medal game, that will provide tremendously positive exposure for the team both in Nashville and beyond.

With the NHL trade deadline coming on March 5, very quickly after the Winter Games close, the next obvious spot on the calendar comes at the close of the season - giving a new regime enough time to evaluate personnel and plan ahead for the 2014 NHL Draft, which often turns into a pretty active trade market as well.

That would probably be the optimal time to make a move, allowing for a relatively smooth transition while the Preds can look at candidates from the widest possible pool to lead the team into 2014-15.

I've written in this space for more than 8 years now, and have never called for such change before. It sincerely bums me out to write this, but the David Poile era in Nashville should come to an end this season.