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Central: Don't take Nashville for granted

by Larry Wigge

Nashville's Ryan Suter hopes to enjoy success on the ice with the Predators as his father, Bob Suter,
did with the famed 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team
Ryan Suter video highlights 
You could draw a plethora of parallels between the short and promising career of defenseman Ryan Suter and the eight-plus season tradition and history of the Nashville Predators.

"Never take anything for granted. Nothing," Suter said the other day in St. Louis in response to the best advice he’s ever gotten. That came from his dad to him, but it also applies to what has happened to the Predators, as a whole, since their first-round playoff loss last spring.

We all know that life is filled with chapters. Some long. Some short. This story of life in Nashville is neither mystery nor fairy tale, it’s not fictional or romantic; it’s true to life.

As we skate into the stretch run of the 2007-08 season, the first 50 games represented the same hard work and discipline that general manager David Poile learned first in his home in Philadelphia growing up and watching his father, Bud Poile, run the expansion Flyers. David took that experience on the job, first as an administrative assistant for 10 years with the expansion Atlanta Flames and then for another 15 years as GM of the Washington Capitals. In both instances, he learned how to build a team from virtually nothing — what would work and what wouldn’t.

Chapters. More precisely, history and tradition.

Suter grew up in the house of a champion. Bob Suter, Ryan’s dad, was a defenseman on the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning United States hockey team at Lake Placid. His uncle, Gary, played 17 seasons in the NHL, won a Stanley Cup in Calgary in 1989 and was selected to five All-Star Games.

Last season, Poile and Suter helped make the Predators’ eighth season their best — 51-23-8, good for a tie with the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks for the second-best record in the Western Conference and fourth in the entire NHL. But with mounting monetary losses, owner Craig Leipold was looking for a way out.

Larry Wigge Larry Wigge reports on the Central Division every week throughout the 2007-08 regular season.
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Everyone knew the next chapter would be much different. Poile had to gut the payroll to reduce the red ink Leipold faced in an attempt to hopefully attract local investors. No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun and No. 1 defenseman/captain Kimmo Timonen were traded. Stars Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg went on the free-agent market.

Clearly nothing was being taken for granted about the Predators.

Sweeping changes often bring new opportunities for a lot of players. For Suter, it was a time to step out of his development level after two seasons in the NHL into a leadership role on the ice and in the locker room.

After watching this metamorphosis, most of the hockey world assumed that the Predators were going to fade away into some Music City somebody-done-somebody-wrong song. But, those so-called experts have watched Nashville reach back for the formula that made them a top team. The club has climbed back up to challenge for second place in the Central Division before the break. The Preds went 8-3-2 leading up to the All-Star Game, gaining points in eight of the final nine games.

Most of the improvement came in the leadership ranks of the team, led by new captain Jason Arnott, forwards Martin Erat and J.P. Dumont, Scott Nichol and so many others, plus a defense that was able to erase spurts of inconsistency in goal.

Suter was definitely a part of the improvement in Nashville. His life has clearly been consumed by hockey. But it has also had changes in tradition and history over the years.

Ryan's favorite team as a youngster was the Calgary Flames. But when he was 9, that changed when uncle Gary was traded to Chicago. Then, four years later, his allegiance shifted west to San Jose, where Gary’s career ended in 2002 – just one year before Ryan was picked seventh overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by Nashville.

"It's just obvious growing up that I idolized him and wanted to be everything that he was," Ryan told me. "I remember when he was in Chicago and we’d travel down from home in Madison (Wis.) to visit and after the game I’d go down to the locker room and meet guys like Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios. Everyone was talking about my uncle Gary. It was pretty neat."

But the best part was in the summers when Gary Suter and Chelios would renew to their ties to the University of Wisconsin by coming back to work out.

"I’d get to see how he’d work in the summer at getting ready for the next season — he and Chris Chelios," Ryan recalled. "As you might imagine, all of that left quite and impression for me.

"What a lucky kid I was to sit and watch and talk about games with my dad and then learn from Stanley Cup champions like uncle Gary and Chris Chelios."

There were Gary and “Chelly” putting Ryan through the same training methods that made them so good — stationary bikes, springs, all the workouts these star NHL players did. And this second-generation Suter worked out like a 10-year NHL veteran.

Even though he's not playing alongside his uncle, Ryan regularly makes people recall Gary. The two have similar size, temperament and their playing styles are incredibly similar.

"They're almost identical," Predators coach Barry Trotz said in admiration for the work that Ryan has done to get to the NHL. "They're both strong skaters and puck movers — and they both compete at such a high level. Gary Suter was a terrific talent for a long time in this League, and Ryan can end up being that same way."

"They're both strong skaters and puck movers -- and they both compete at such a high level. Gary Suter was a terrific talent for a long time in this League, and Ryan can end up being that same way." -- Predators coach Barry Trotz comparing Ryan Suter to his uncle, Gary Suter

At the recent All-Star Game in Atlanta, I asked Sharks coach Ron Wilson about the similarities. He said, "When you look at him, you know that he's a Suter, for sure. I think he's going to be a great defenseman."

Puck mover. Solid and smart on defense in his own zone. A real competitor in just his third season in the NHL.

I asked Ryan about his route from minor hockey in Wisconsin to the U.S. National Development Program to the Badgers and one year in the American Hockey League before joining the Predators and sticking first time out. I wondered if there were any obstacles.

He said that his name -- such a gift in growing -- was also like a sort of curse as well.

"Because of my name, there were always expectations," Ryan said emphatically. "That was good ... and it was bad, in a way. Getting here was the biggest thing. The biggest goal. My biggest dream. But it always came with a couple of questions: ‘What do I have to do to be me? What do I have to do to make my own legacy?’

"But I wouldn’t trade the ride that got me to this point in my life for anything else."

Identity is important to all of us. It is to Ryan Suter, and the just-turned-23-year-old defenseman — and the Nashville Predators — is doing a pretty good job in trying to write a new chapter in his changing life this season.

* * *

Around the Central Division — How many times have we heard the battle cry: Big players play big in big games? For the Detroit Red Wings and their so-far-unbelievable season, the first game after the All-Star break might not seem important when you’re looking from the outside. But all games are important to this Detroit team. That day-to-day drive, no matter who they face, is key. That’s why the Wings are 38-10-4 following their 3-2 come-from-behind victory against Phoenix on Jan. 30 — a game in which captain Nicklas Lidstrom was the big player who played real big. Trailing 2-1 well into the third period, Detroit tied the game at 9:09 when Lidstrom’s shot was deflected in front by Tomas Holmstrom — giving “Homer” his third straight 20-goal season and fourth in five seasons. Just 3½ minutes later, Lidstrom teed up another blast that eluded Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov for the winning margin. The goal was Lidstrom’s sixth of the season, but first at home. With one goal and two assists, it was Lidstrom’s 44th career game with three or more points. The Red Wings have a 41-2-1 record in games in which Lidstrom scored at least three points, including a current streak of 32 consecutive wins. ... Henrik Zetterberg returned from a two-game absence with back spasms to put Detroit on top against Phoenix with his 29th goal of the season. Amazing what some extra California sun and several deep massages can do for a back during the All-Star break, isn’t it? ... Do you like trends? Here’s one you might not have been expecting. With the win against the Coyotes, the Red Wings are now 10-0 in Wednesday games this season. ... Grind Line, Part II? If Darren McCarty shows the Red Wings he’s still got passion for the game in a 25-game tryout at Detroit’s Grand Rapids affiliate in the AHL, he could be reunited with former Grind Line linemates Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby later this season. ...

More on J.P. Dumont’s hot streak in Nashville. In his previous eight seasons in the NHL with Chicago, Buffalo and Nashville, Dumont’s longest point streaks were eight and seven games. This season, Dumont has really found himself. Not only is there more responsibility for the 29-year-old vet with the departures of Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Kimmo Timonen and Tomas Vokoun, but Dumont also extended his points streak to 16 games with two assists in the Preds’ 4-2 victory against Columbus on Thursday. On Friday, he signed a four-year, $16 million contract extension with the club. During the streak, Dumont has eight goals and 14 assists (only two players have longer point streaks in the NHL this season — Sidney Crosby with 19 games and Henrik Zetterberg 17. In the process, he had 20 points in January to set a team record for points in one month. ... Linemates Jason Arnott and Alexander Radulov also go into this weekend with scoring streaks — points in eight consecutive games for Arnott and goals in five straight games for Radulov to push him past his career-high in goals of 18 that he had last season as a rookie. ... With the Arnott-Dumont-Radulov line so hot, the power play has also been clicking. Arnott’s power-play tally against Columbus extended Nashville’s streak of having at least one power-play goal in home games to five.

The Blue Jackets' David Vyborny (#9) and Adam Foote (#52) are two players that have drawn the interest of other teams.

Trade rumors were rampant in Columbus a few weeks ago, listing captain Adam Foote and veteran winger David Vyborny among others in the mix before the Feb. 26 trading deadline. But after the All-Star break, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson traded tough guy left wing Jody Shelley to San Jose for a sixth-round pick in 2009 instead. It could be that the Blue Jackets best trade wasn’t a trade at all. Getting Fredrik Modin, the former Stanley Cup champion and 22-goal scorer a year ago for Columbus, might qualify as a great acquisition for the Jackets. Modin ended his stretch of 35 games on the sideline with a back injury with four games on the team’s recent Western trip. After a couple of days off during the All-Star break, he stuffed home Manny Malhotra’s rebound for a goal just 21 seconds into a game against Phoenix on Jan. 29. Shelley basically ran out of ice time when Modin returned. Also, the trade of Shelley enabled the Jackets to recall forward Gilbert Brule after he spent a 12-game stint with Syracuse of the AHL; a stretch in which he regained his offensive touch with four goals and four assists in the minors. ... Those close to the Jackets will tell you that Nikolai Zherdev has been the team’s MVP of late. In addition to having five goals and seven assists in his last six home games, Zherdev has also had three goals and three assists in his last six games on the road.

While being miked up during the All-Star Game, St. Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace quipped that facing the Eastern All-Stars was at times like staring the Red Army in the face as they were tic-tac-toeing the puck all over the rink. But he had a more dizzying experience one day after the All-Star Game, when his flight from Atlanta to Toronto to join the Blues was canceled. He spent most of the day at the airport, finally getting a flight to Toronto at 9 p.m. More problems, however. Legace’s equipment wasn’t on the trip. It finally arrived in Toronto five hours before game time. And all Legace did was stop 23 of 25 shots in a 3-2 win to end the Blues’ winless skid — 0-5-2 — at seven games. ... Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya were two of the leaders coach Andy Murray called out before the Blues returned to action in Toronto. The two wound up on the same line against the Maple Leafs, and Tkachuk responded with two goals on the team’s only shots in the first 5:41 of the game, both tip-ins. His last two-goal game? Dec. 10, 2005 at home against the New York Rangers.

GM Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard challenged the Chicago Blackhawks to show more commitment to winning following a press gathering after the Hawks lost 1-0 at home against Columbus on Jan. 24. The tongue-lashing was supposed to make the players more ready for their first game after the All-Star break as the team began a seven-game, 16-day trip in Colorado on Jan. 30. But the preparedness wasn’t there as the Avalanche rolled to a 3-0 first-period lead en route to a 6-3 win, so Savard had the players watch a replay of the first period and write down the three things they disliked most. It was a resounding hat trick — turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. ... With 17 goals and 20 assists, Robert Lang is closing in on his eighth consecutive 50-point season. ... In the first half of the season, Yanic Perreault was clearly Chicago’s biggest disappointment in the free-agent market last summer. Could his two-goal game late in the third period against Colorado be a sign that his game is about to shape up? ... Now the good news: Jonathan Toews, out since early January with a knee sprain, skated with the team Feb. 1 and his tentative return to the lineup is Feb. 13 at Columbus.

The week ahead -- Coach Joel Quenneville returns to St. Louis with his Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 2. But the name that has been more prominent for the Blues against the Avs the last two seasons has been former Avalanche winger Dan Hinote. One of Hinote’s five goals last season came against Colorado and two of his four goals this season came in a 4-1 Blues victory against the Avalanche on Oct. 12. ... Washington at Columbus on Feb. 5 is a marquee matchup of two of the next great Russian stars -- Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals and Nikolai Zherdev of the Blue Jackets. ... Columbus at Phoenix on Feb. 7 is the return to that memorable Rick Nash goal Jan. 17 in which the Jackets power forward turned Coyotes defensemen Keith Ballard and Derek Morris inside-out with a couple of dazzling dekes before beating goalie Ilya Bryzgalov for the winning goal with just 21.5 seconds left in a 4-3 Blue Jackets victory.

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