By Dirk Hoag
With just over a decade in the books, the Nashville Predators have had a wild history already -- from the giddy opening seasons when each win was worth celebrating, to captain Greg Johnson leading the team to their first playoff appearance in 2004.
The Preds continued their "Little Engine That Could" journey by challenging the Detroit Red Wings for Central Division supremacy in 2007, and made their bid for the Stanley Cup by making a blockbuster deal for Peter Forsberg(notes). That story ended in disappointment, though, just another in a long series of first-round playoff ousters.
Through a franchise sale, near-relocation, and a number of off-ice distractions, the Predators have maintained a long-term focus on building their hockey organization, and the newly-hired CEO and COO have fans hoping that a new chapter is just beginning. While there have been many key figures along the way, the following four are the signature faces of the Nashville Predators.
David Poile, GM
Has there ever been an NHL executive more perfectly suited to guide an expansion franchise through its growing pains?
His Hall of Fame father, Bud Poile, was GM for two previous expansion teams in Philadelphia and Vancouver, and David got his NHL start working with the Atlanta Flames in the early 1970's. By the time he came to the Predators, he also had a long stint in Washington as the GM of some very successful regular season teams, which then disappointed in the playoffs.
His history with Nashville has been one of steady, incremental progress, interrupted only by two setbacks outside of his control. The first was the Great Fire Sale of 2007 when he had to break up the contender he had painstakingly built so that Craig Leipold could sell the team, and the next summer he lost his best young goal-scorer as Alexander Radulov(notes) bailed out on his contract for the bright lights, err, world-class play, err ... homemade borscht of the KHL.
In an era when too many GM's swap players like teenaged video gamers on a sugar high (I'm looking at you, Darryl Sutter), Poile's patient, steady hand and emphasis on drafting and development has kept the Predators punching above their weight for several years now. Just about any analysis, which attempts to measure the "bang for the buck" that teams get out of their players, has Nashville high atop the list, and there's no reason to expect that to change in the years ahead. It was no surprise that when the NHL got around to establishing a "GM of the Year" award, David Poile was named a finalist.
All that remains is to wipe away that playoff disappointment, which brings us to...
Barry Trotz, Coach
Just as Poile is the only GM Nashville has ever known, Barry Trotz has paced behind the Predators' bench for all 11 seasons. That all by itself is a remarkable achievement in modern sports, as he balances the reputation for being a players' coach along with the discipline required to run a competitive team.
For example, he had no problem bumping J.P. Dumont(notes) (Nashville's leading scorer the previous two seasons) down to the 4th line last March when Trotz felt he wasn't getting what he needed out of him. Dumont maintained his composure however, and remains committed to the Preds.He lives in Nashville over the summer, and has already started skating in anticipation of training camp. In many other cities, that player would have his agent work up a trade as soon as possible.
Trotz has truly put his stamp on this team, as the Predators have developed a reputation for a consistent style of play based on speed, puck-moving defensemen, and minimizing mistakes, while taking advantage of opponent's turnovers. They are also known as one of the hardest-working teams in the league, and rarely, if ever, do you hear of locker room dissension, even from players who have left Nashville.
The lone stain on his track record so far is the failure to get past the first round of the playoffs. Despite having the Chicago Blackhawks on their heels in Game 5 of the first round, the Preds put together one of the all-time great collapses in playoff history, giving up a shorthanded goal with seconds left in the 3rd to tie the game, and then an overtime winner to Marian Hossa(notes). Will that debacle stand as a barrier Trotz can't overcome, or a learning point that launches this team to further success? Given his track record, most Preds fans are willing to give him more time to find out.
Tomas Vokoun(notes), G
Vokoun holds a special place in the hearts of Predators fans, as he was truly the team's first big star, a goaltender of exceptional talent who led an underwhelming group of skaters to some surprising victories. As we all know (right, Colorado fans?) it's thrilling to watch a goalie bailout his team time and again, building an aura of invincibility around his net.
Back when goalies were still the hot commodity on the open market, Vokoun was one of the big pieces sent out the door when David Poile had to slash payroll. While a capable Chris Mason(notes) was waiting in the wings, many Preds fans still miss Tomas -- not just for his goaltending, but for his enjoyably awkward commercials, too.
Most of hockey's advanced stats crowd lauds Vokoun as one of the very few goalies who consistently deliver superior performance year after year. If Florida can ever figure out how to assemble a decent lineup, they could prove dangerous. But until that day comes, Vokoun's finest work came in Nashville, and the fans here will forever remember that.
Shea Weber(notes), D
Perhaps it might be a tad early to carve No. 6's visage into the edifice of Mt. Predmore, but that's only because we expect so much more out Shea Weber going forward.
Every team has big physical defensemen working theirway up through the system, but few ever put together the complete package of power, speed, hockey sense and leadership that Weber has developed. It was pretty much the easiest decision Predators' management has ever made, when Weber was announced as the team's new captain earlier this summer.
He's also made Nashville fans proud on some of hockey's biggest stages -- in 2009, he launched one of the hardest slap shots ever recorded during the All-Star weekend, and later that spring was named the tournament's top defenseman at the World Championships in Switzerland. In the Vancouver Olympics, he famously shredded a net against the Germans, and was named by the media to the All-Star team as he helped Canada win gold.
As for the road ahead? With a newly-minted "C" on his chest, the challenge for Weber is to establish the consistency in his game that will lead to Norris Trophy consideration, while leading the Predators into new territory -- a Central Division title, and a deep playoff run.