That's why, in the end, they paid such a high price.
Determined to upgrade the position, Nashville traded center Jerred Smithson, a player with a somewhat similar skill set to Gaustad's, to Florida last Friday.
In the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Gaustad, 30, who has seven goals and 10 assists and ranks in the top 10 in faceoff percentage this season, the Predators got a bigger, better version of Smithson, who was a valuable player for them but who had one goal and four assists in 53 games this season. In the end, Nashville ended up giving up a first-round pick for Gaustad while receiving a fourth-rounder in 2013 in return.
"That was done in reverse order," Predators general manager David Poile said. "We put ourselves, the hockey ops department, in a tough position because we knew we wanted to fill that position with Paul Gaustad and, obviously, it didn't even happen until the last moment, so we really sweated that one out. That was a calculated move that we did get done at the 11th hour."
In 479 career games – all with Buffalo – Gaustad has 181 points (71 goals and 110 assists) and 585 penalty minutes. Significantly, for Nashville, Gaustad comes with playoff experience. All three of the players they acquired over the last 10 days have gone at least as far as the conference finals in their respective careers. As a franchise, Nashville has only gone beyond the first round once, last season.
Gaustad, who played three years with Rochester in the AHL and then seven with Buffalo, said that while the trade was not a complete shock, he admitted it was "a little bit" of a shock. He talked about growing up, essentially from the time he was 18 until now, in Western New York and how he would miss some of the relationships he had.
Nonetheless, the Sabres have had a disappointing season – he claimed his share of the responsibility for that – and sit six points out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot in 12th entering Monday's games while Nashville has the fifth most points in the League and is fifth in the Western Conference.
Gaustad said he was moving forward now that he had been traded and was excited about going to the playoffs with Nashville. Buffalo beat the Preds on Dec. 3, 3-2, at Bridgestone Arena.
"Honestly, I can easily look at the balanced scorers that (the Predators) have right now," he said via conference call from the airport, as he is flying to meet the team in Carolina on Tuesday. "Playing against them is very hard. They play hard. They play the system hard. You look from the goaltender to the defensemen, the forwards, it's a balanced attack. I'm excited to join that group. Wherever they want to fit me and whatever role they need me at, I'll try my best to execute it."
Gaustad was a member of Buffalo teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in both 2006 and 2007. He played 18 playoff games in 2006 and seven the following year. He has eight points – all assists – in 38 career playoff games.
In 2006-07, Gaustad was cut by a skate and severed a tendon in his ankle, causing him to miss roughly the final quarter of the season. He returned in time for the second round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers.
"Those conference final years were exciting years," Gaustad said. "I know the work it takes to get there. Losing in Game 7 (of the ’06 Eastern Finals to Carolina) wasn't a fun thing, but I know how much work it does take to get there and I've always wanted to get back to that point and actually get beyond that to win the final stage there and win the Stanley Cup."
Nashville did not acquire him for his offense. Gaustad said he thought he'd help on faceoffs and on the penalty kill. He ranks among the top eight forwards in the League in average shorthanded time on ice.
Earlier in the morning, Preds coach Barry Trotz was detailing how Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, who had 11 points in six games, was the difference in the teams' second-round playoff series last year. With players like Hal Gill and now Gaustad, the Predators expect to have the antidote to deal with such players in the postseason.
Earlier Monday, Poile sealed a deal that landed Andrei Kostitsyn from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-round selection in 2013.
"That's exactly what we're hoping," Poile said. "We felt we just didn't have enough of that. Again, size is a little bit of an issue for us. I think with Gill and with Gaustad and even (Andrei) Kostitsyn, he's a big thick body and a hard player, we addressed that area so you learn from experiences. You look at your strengths, you look at your weaknesses. I think we've plugged in some of the things we were probably missing when we went up against Vancouver and I'd like to get the opportunity this year."
Poile admitted that he paid a heavy price for Gaustad. He said NHL teams either have to pay for the players they want either in dollars or in draft picks and that he preferred to go with draft picks. Nonetheless, he said the decision was "very tough."
"It's very, very disappointing," Poile said of the price. "That's hard. It's a credit to the scouts. We think we have enough coming in the pipeline that we can give up something like that. It's not a perfect situation. Like I said, you can't have it all ways. You can spend all your money, blow out your brains on July 1st, or you can do it this way. I'm really happy with what we've done and where we are today."
In recent seasons, Nashville has acquired numerous players who have played in the Northeast Division against Gaustad during his time in Buffalo: Gill (Montreal, Boston, Toronto), Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Francis Bouillon (Montreal) and Mike Fisher (Ottawa).
"They've made some good acquisitions," Gaustad said. "I've played against those guys. They're competitors. We've had some battles, definitely. But, again, I know how hard they work and how competitive they are. It's great to have teammates that are that competitive."
Life's about opportunity and how you respond to that opportunity, and obviously he must have some swagger about him, some confidence about him, because he was solid. He made some good saves. He was 6-foot-3 on every shot, which is a good thing for a goalie. He played well. We got a win.
— Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock on rookie goaltender Garret Sparks, who made 24 saves in his first NHL start, a 3-0 win vs. Oilers
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