What do you do when your team’s owner wants out and you spend an entire summer trying to find a buyer ... and, oh yes, the roster that helped you to a club-record 51-23-8 record and 110 points is now minus star left wing Paul Kariya, No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun, defenseman/captain Kimmo Timonen and power forward Scott Hartnell?
You can’t punt in the National Hockey League, so if you’re the Nashville Predators, you turn to your coach, Barry Trotz, and say; "It’s up to you to make it all work out."
Actually, this isn’t the first time General Manager David Poile has patted his long-time friend on the back and put the team’s hopes on his coach. Poile showed the same kind of confidence in Trotz back in August 1997, when Trotz was chosen the first coach of the expansion Predators.
|After losing a number of key players in the off-season, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile will put the team's hopes on his coach Barry Trotz.
A decade later, Trotz is still the only coach the team has had — and the Preds have improved from 28-47-7 in their first season to 38, 49 and 51 wins and playoff berths in the last three.
"When I was calling around to ask advice on what I should do in terms of my highest priority of hiring a head coach, I was always told to get the most experienced coach I could get," Poile remembered. Then he laughed and added; "So I hired a coach with the least experience in the league.
"It was a gut feeling. But more important, I had watched the way Barry worked with our kids in the minors when I was at Washington. The important thing to me was that it was a good decision nine years ago ... and it looks even better today as we go forward."
In a hockey world where coaches come and go faster than you can say hello and goodbye, Trotz’ longevity is astounding. His eight seasons with the same club is surpassed only by Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff.
The 45-year-old Trotz has patience, a good sense of humor and is a great communicator. That much is obvious, because in the NHL, you either communicate and motivate or the players will tune you out and quit on you.
Facing the pressure of having to perform or be gone, Trotz is as logical in his approach as you might expect.
"I like a challenge," he said. "I like the intensity. I like a little bit of pressure to perform. What drives me as a coach is living for the moment, not for next week. I’ve got to be in the today to be my best today."
Trotz will really have to live in the moment this season in Nashville, where expectations were raised to high levels the last two seasons.
Some might say the Predators are not playing on a level field — without Kariya, Vokoun, Timonen and Hartnell, but Trotz won’t be one of them. He’ll tell you that the Preds tied for the Western Conference lead and set a franchise record with 272 goals. He’ll also point out how his offense was spread out — six players, not just the departed Kariya and Hartnell, scored 20 or more goals.
"I'm not giving up," Trotz said during the off-season after learning of the hits he took to the roster. "We still have a really good, young hockey club."
At that point, the city was in the early stages of a “Save the Preds” campaign. Owner Craig Leipold claimed $70 million in losses during the 10 years he owned the team and wanted out. Several outsiders made bids on the Predators. But eventually a group of local investors surfaced and reportedly is ready to plunk down $193 million to keep the team in town. But Poile has been forced to trim the payroll to near the lower end of the salary cap — around $35 million — instead of the top at $50.3 million.
But it’s important to remember that the structure of this franchise was built on teamwork, coaching, discipline and a strong character — and those tenets are still in force, primarily because of Trotz’s fingerprints on the team.
This season could well be the perfect backdrop for a Music City country hit — where the Nashville fans saw some of their love leave town, some jilted lyrics might fit here, a “somebody done somebody wrong” song. But the fans and team are trying to renew their vows even stronger.
The real harmony and level playing field the Predators enjoy is having Poile and Trotz in charge.
"It looks worse than it really is," Poile said of the salary-dumping trades. "There's no question Tomas is a top goaltender, but there's also no question our goaltending will be good with Chris Mason. Look at how many times with Tomas out the last two seasons Chris stood so tall for us.
"And Kimmo did it all for us. I would never say anything bad about him. But look at how much Shea Weber (17 goals) grew into the position of not only defense but power-play producer. I would just tell people that we’re really proud of our good, young defense with Shea, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis. And who's to say we're not better off by getting these guys more ice time and more responsibility at a young age?"
"We're a little leaner up front," Trotz added. "But we don't have a lot of holes to fill. We'll want some guys to step up the roles they played last year and improve."
Losing Kariya, likely losing Peter Forsberg (who has yet to decide whether he’ll return to the NHL, and, if so, with which team) plus Hartnell is a lot of lost production to overcome — even if Trotz watched while he had to sit out players such as Jordin Tootoo, Darcy Hordichuk, Jerred Smithson and even Scott Nichol on many nights last season.
|"What drives me as a coach is living for the moment, not for next week. I've got to be in the today to be my best today."
-- Barry Trotz
Considering the Predators were in first place overall in the NHL without the likes of Forsberg, Steve Sullivan, Hartnell and Martin Erat — out with injuries — Trotz may be right. It’s hard not to give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing what he can get from the players he will have to work with.
Poile did add veteran Martin Gelinas and his 14 goals and 30 assists for the Florida Panthers last season. Gelinas also won a Stanley Cup ring with Edmonton in 1990 and made a Finals appearance with Calgary in 2004, when he had eight goals, including three game-winners. But the bulk of Nashville’s scoring will likely come from players like Alexander Radulov, who earned more ice time after scoring 18 goals in just 64 games as a rookie last season, plus J.P. Dumont, who had 21 goals in his first season and four goals in just five playoff games. Radulov and Dumont figure to get most of the key situations that Kariya manned last season — one of them moving up to the No. 1 line with David Legwand and Martin Erat. Legwand and Erat both are coming off career years. Can they be penciled in for more?
Jason Arnott, who tied for the team lead in goals with 27 with Legwand, was named captain just before training camp began. More leadership and more goals are obviously expected from those two.
Arnott will once again be paired with Dumont and Sullivan ... when Sullivan returns from back surgery that will keep him out of the lineup until December.
Part of the synergy that Trotz brings to this year’s team will be seen in the growth of the offensive skills of Weber, Suter and Hamhuis on defense, plus the return to form of Marek Zidlicky. Free-agent defenseman Greg de Vries played more than 22 minutes a game in Atlanta last season, scoring three goals and 21 assists.
Mason, who replaced Vokoun down the stretch in 2005-06 and finished the season with six-consecutive wins, is the No. 1 guy this season. The Preds learned that Mason could carry the load in goal last season when he appeared in 22 consecutive games from Nov. 23 to Jan. 6 after Vokoun went down with a thumb injury. Statistically, Mason’s numbers weren’t much different from Vokoun’s: Mason was 24-11-4 with five shutouts and a 2.38 goals-against average, compared with Vokoun, who was 27-12-4 with five shutouts and a 2.40 GAA.
"I’m not going to say we’re not going to miss Paul, Tomas, Kimmo and Scott," said Mason. "But there are a lot of opportunities for us with this year’s team.
"I know one thing: This is a dream come true for me to be the No. 1 goalie on a team in the NHL. I’m sure some of the other guys want to make the most of their opportunities just like I do.
"The key point to the turnover? You can bet that Barry Trotz finds a way to put us in a win-win situation."
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Predators Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster