The last couple seasons were not too enjoyable for the few but fiercely loyal Nashville hockey fans out there. After back to back trips to the second round of the playoffs in 2010/11 and 2011/12, the Preds missed the playoffs during the partial lockout season of 2012/13, and again failed to bounce back in 2013/14 even after clawing their way back to a winning record, finishing 38-32-12. This turned out to be not only disappointing for fans, but a seminal moment for the franchise, as the team decided to part ways with the only head coach they have ever known during their entire 16 year history, Barry Trotz.
Trotz was as much a part of this franchise as anyone, and seeing him go was definitely a sad moment. However, Trotz’s tenure in Nashville was anything but typical. In the NHL coaches have been known to get fired less than a month after they were hired. The career of NHL head coach is anything but stable so for Trotz to spend a decade and a half in one spot could not have been less normal.
However, its not as if Trotz’s long tenure wasn’t deserved. Trotz kept the Predators competitive in spite of innumerable disadvantages felt by inherently cash strapped hockey clubs in the south with limited fanbases and the added struggle of finding it difficult to draw in free agents. Gary Bettman’s grand plan for Hockey in the South is no longer an unmitigated disaster, but it is still a struggle. Just look at the turmoil with the Phoenix Coyotes from a few years ago or the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets. Moreover, after the 2007 scare of a move to Hamilton Ontario for the Preds, we’re just lucky that they still play in Nashville. However, a big reason they stayed is Trotz.
During the nearly 2 decades when Trotz and GM David Poile led the Preds there was a unified philosophy to keep the team competitive and in the playoff hunt (in order to ensure that less dedicated fans do not lose interest in a region where so few fans are available to the sport of hockey) while also keeping costs low enough that they would stay within the team’s own more modest financial restrictions. The strategy devised to enact this plan for the new expansion club Preds was to build stout defensive teams with solid Goalkeeping as the franchise backbone, then make occasional mid season trades for added offensive firepower if it became obvious that more goal scoring was needed (which it almost always was).
Now, this strategy is in some ways defeatist from the start. It is a plan built to consistently pursue the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs, rather than swinging for the fences and pursuing championships. However, it is also perhaps the best strategy the Predators could have pursued given their limitations. They aren’t sitting on piles of cash to use to lure in free agents, and Nashville isn’t exactly a destination city for NHL players the way New York, Toronto, or LA might be. But you know what? It worked.
Part of the success involved Poile. The Predators drafted spectacularly in building the defensive core of their team drafting guys such as Shea Weber (best defenseman in the NHL for the last 6 years) and Ryan Suter and they even continued with this strategy in the 2013 draft when the best defenseman in the draft, Seth Jones, fell to them with the #4 pick. All this fit very well with Poile’s tough nosed, grind it out, defensive style. It kept Nashville competitive in a League absolutely littered with teams that had more money and more talent than Nashville.
But all good things must come to an end, and the Predators decided to say goodbye to Trotz this offseason. Happily, Trotz landed with the Washington Nationals, a team known for their offensive firepower, that collapses defensively when games get tough. Trotz seems to be the perfect coach there to make an already skilled offensive team play defense and put the whole picture together for a deep playoff run in the East.
The Predators, moreover, appear to be enacting an identical plan but in reverse in Nashville. They brought in Peter Laviolette to take over the reigns in Nashville. Laviolette is veteran NHL coach so there is zero fear that discipline would collapse on the team after Trotz’s departure. Moreover, whereas Trotz is a grind it out Defensive coach, Laviolette’s teams play a more fluid offensive style, especially his 2004/05 Carolina Hurricanes team which won the Stanley cup after scoring nearly 300 regular season goals. (Also, as an aside I feel its relevant to note that Laviolette’s teams outscored the Predators in nearly every season that Laviolette was a head coach).
This leaves the Predators at the crossroads of what could be a golden opportunity for the franchise. For the next couple years the defensive players and mindset Trotz imbued the club with are still present. However, the team has the chance to add much improved offensive play to this receipe. That, unlike the old Predators way of gutty defense and solid Goaltending alone, is the full picture of what it takes to make a Stanley Cup run. You can’t win a hockey game if you hold your opponents to 0 but can’t score yourself. For the next couple years then we should be able to maintain Trotz’s defensive mindset while also bringing the added offense that comes with Laviolette’s own style.
The first part of this goal should be easy to keep around if only considering the fact that Shea Weber, the best defenseman in the NHL, still anchors Nashville’s blueline while key guys like Ryan Ellis are still around and the next generation is in the pipes with Seth Jones. And the second part of that goal appears to be succeeding in flying colors at the moment. The Predators flew out of the gates to a 7-3-2 record at the time of my writing this and look to be every bit the team I want them to be.
Weber is an absolute beast with perhaps the most deadly (literally) slapshot in the NHL. Not only has he been known to shoot so hard he tears through the back of the net, he has also shot so hard it tears the net AND knocks a hole in the wall behind…
The most important cog to the new Preds offense is James Neal, acquired in June via a trade with the Penguins. This guy is an absolute stud of a goal scorer and is still only 27 years old. The Predators have never had an offensive player this good, this young, and still in his prime. They have had plently of good offensive players. Steve Sullivan, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott. But most of the time this guys have been brought in near the tail end of their prime. Still good players, but there was always a reason Nashville was able to pry them away from their old club. Neal is different. Neal is going to be a special player in Nashville, and he can be every bit the franchise cornerstone that Weber is. We now have both a defensive and offensive star on the team which I can only imagine means bright things.
Neal wasn’t the only new acquisition to the new Laviolette era, however. They also brought in Derek Roy who is a skilled scorer and helps overhaul the Preds offense with veterans who know how to score and know what a top offense looks like. They took a flier on Olli Jokinen who has been disappointing thus far, (perhaps not surprising considering how he has bounced around the league since being traded from the Florida Panthers in 2008, but I still think the guy can play.).
Perhaps more importantly however would be the addition of troubled center Mike Ribeiro who was cut from the Phoenix Coyotes. Hopefully Ribeiro can put his troubled past behind him with the Preds, but on the ice the man is a stellar player, the the combination of him and James Neal on the same line this year has proved devastating thus far. Moreover, to contribute to the winning mentality Laviolette has Matt Cullen, one of the stars of his Stanley Cup winning Hurricanes team on this Preds roster.
All these factors combined mean that the Preds have added a solid core of players who know what an elite, winning offense looks like. They will be able to help coach up the already talented players in the Preds system (such as Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Filip Forsberg) who have been coached to play with a defense first mentality in the past, and help them develop into full out offensive threats (which Forsberg already is… kid is a baby-faced stud out there on the first line with Neal and Ribeiro).
All things considered then it seems to me like the Preds have a real opportunity to make a legitimate playoff run here. As much as I love Trotz, the team may have cut ties with him at exactly the right time. The Defensive menace Trotz built is still largely intact with Weber, Ellis, and Jones and Pekka Rinne is still good in net. Moreover, bringing Laviolette in brought an almost instantaneous offensive makeover of the franchise with all the new influx of veteran, skilled talent. Not to mention the fact that the cupboards weren’t exactly bare on the offensive or defensive end.
This first season may be too early to ask for a deep playoff run, and indeed the Preds have cooled off of late following their blistering 5-2-0 start to the season, but this new group of Predators comes bearing a lot more hope and excitement than the teams of past seasons. The Predators were always competitive with Trotz’s style, but never flashy. That was the point. That was what they were built to do. Now, however, the team is exciting and ready to make some real noise come playoff time. I don’t know how far they’ll go, but a boy can certainly dream.