With his team being the first in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to advance to the next round and still awaiting its next opponent, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said on Monday that the present is "new territory for me."
For the second year in a row, Nashville is enjoying some postseason success. But as Poile mentioned, this is new, since the Preds' first-round opponent was Detroit, an organization that Poile expressed great respect and admiration for and which he said Nashville has tried to model itself after.
"The fact they've made the playoffs 21 years in a row in the cap era with parity is so hard to ever duplicate that again," he said. "The fact that they're in our division, so many people from Michigan are here in Nashville. Clearly, they've been our No. 1 rival right from day one. Playing and beating the Red Wings is one of the more important things in our organization."
"We also pride ourselves the fact that Milwaukee [Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate] has made the playoffs every year we've been involved with them. They get 40 wins every year. They won a [Calder] Cup. The road to Nashville is through Milwaukee. We drafted well. That's our feeder system." -- David Poile
With that achieved, it's on to bigger and better things -- new territory, as Poile said. Last year's victory in the Western Conference Quarterfinals against Anaheim represented the first series win in franchise history for the Predators, for whom Poile is the only GM since the team entered the League in 1998. While Nashville is the No. 4 seed in the West, the Preds finished with the fifth-most points in the NHL this season.
They did so despite having one of the League's smaller payrolls. That means the building process is not one of reloading with prime free agents each year, but almost a cyclical one in which a foundation is laid and when the time is ripe, aggressive moves are made in the hope of a big run.
In February, the Preds added defenseman Hal Gill -- who did not play in the Detroit series because of a lower-body injury -- along with wing Andrei Kostitsyn and center Paul Gaustad. Then wing Alexander Radulov, who led the series with five points, returned from four years of playing in the KHL in March.
"Everybody's made a contribution," said Poile, who was named Tuesday as one of the finalists for GM of the Year, to be announced at the 2012 NHL Awards Show, June 20 at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas. "Radulov comes up big in Game 5 with a goal and an assist. Paul Gaustad is not measured by his goals and points. He went against two of the best center-icemen in the League taking a lot of draws. I thought he played really well in Game 5. Andrei Kostitsyn has a big body, got a lot of skill. They've all done a real good job. They wouldn't be playing if they hadn't."
When he made those acquisitions, Poile said that franchises have to pay for players in either dollars or draft picks. Nashville pays in draft picks. Last year, the Preds traded a first-rounder for center Mike Fisher, a key part of this team. This season, Poile traded a first-rounder for Gaustad and second-rounders for Gill and Kostitsyn. For a franchise that has built through the draft, that was a steep price and one that Poile realizes he cannot pay often.
"Absolutely not," he said. "We also pride ourselves the fact that Milwaukee [Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate] has made the playoffs every year we've been involved with them. They get 40 wins every year. They won a [Calder] Cup. The road to Nashville is through Milwaukee. We drafted well. That's our feeder system.
"To deprive our scouts of another first-round pick and a second-round, that's not going to be healthy for the long run. Now, it's up to management to find other ways to replenish the cupboard and for Milwaukee to give us the depth and to keep us this competitive until we stock the cupboard again with some good young prospects."
While Nashville has made bold deadlines moves once before -- in the 2006-07 season when it traded for Peter Forsberg, adding him to the likes of Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott -- that opportunity did not meet with success. Poile talked about how this season sort of evolved on its own.
Even though the Preds were, in Poile's words, "really happy" with their team, after an offseason evaluation, he said, "we didn't feel we could challenge for the Stanley Cup."
"Consequently, for a team that had that much success, we probably made more moves than anybody," Poile said. "We let veteran players go like Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont, Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, [Cody] Franson, [Shane] O'Brien, [Matthew] Lombardi, and we had the youngest team in the League. When we did that, I don't think anybody knew where we were going to be."
He said prognosticators had his team somewhere between the bubble and out of the playoffs despite a roster that boasted 2011 Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne, Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber and defenseman Ryan Suter.
"We went through a lot of growing," he said. "We got better and better. A lot of younger players played well and we saw we had the nucleus that we could add to it, that we thought we could have success to make the playoffs and challenge and win playoff rounds. That's why you saw us be very aggressive with the trades we made."
Now, the Preds are in a position to reap the benefits. Of the remaining field, they have the second-most points and won the head-to-head series 4-1-1 with the highest remaining seed on their side, St. Louis. When Nashville faced Vancouver in the conference semifinals last year, there was the sense that the Preds were a huge underdog against the top seed, but also other factors at work that aren't this time around.
"The excitement and I guess, honestly, the relief of doing it [finally winning a playoff round] probably was a little bit of a letdown," Poile said. "We didn't think we played our best against Vancouver, and were they better than us? Yes. With that combination, we were not able to win that series.
"I think we're a better team today. I think we're more confident and we're set up better to play longer."