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Trotz has been the perfect match, mentor for Preds

by David Kalan
After 65 scoreless minutes Saturday, it took 11 rounds before the Detroit Red Wings handed the Nashville Predators a 1-0 shootout loss. While the Predators were on the short end, they still picked up their 92nd point of the season, one that kept them ahead of the Red Wings for fifth place in the West.

Just another spring of quietly creeping up on the usual suspects for coach Barry Trotz and company.

In fact, the Predators are dangerously close to becoming one of those usual suspects; with less than two weeks left in the regular season, Nashville is on track for its fifth postseason berth in six years, a number bested by only four teams in the League over that span. It's a far cry from the early days of the once-middling expansion team, and for the man who shepherded Nashville through its growing pains, the task still seems daunting.

"I remember hanging up the phone and saying, 'I wonder if I bit too much off,'" Trotz said. "There were nights when I looked at our roster and I was going, 'How are we going to compete against the Colorados and Detroits of the world?'"

The Predators struggled for their first six years, not once reaching the 40-win plateau, but Nashville has done it every season since, winning the sixth-most games in the League from 2005-09. And for each of those seasons, Trotz has steered the ship, a rarity in a league where most head coaching offices might as well have revolving doors.

The Preds are now in their 12th year with Trotz at the helm, a stretch during which the eight teams to win Stanley Cups have had 40 coaching changes between them. It seems unlikely that Trotz could have lasted this long. The volatile NHL coaching market aside, Trotz had never coached at the top level before taking the reins in Tennessee. Instead he had toiled as a scout for the Washington Capitals before eventually coaching the AHL's Portland Pirates, with whom he won a Calder Cup in 1994.

"When I started here in Nashville, I called a number of my peers and I asked them what to do coaching-wise. Everyone I talked to said you should hire the most experienced coach possible," said David Poile, Nashville's general manager who, along with Trotz, has been in his current capacity since the Predators' inception. "I went with the least-experienced coach, someone who had never coached in the National Hockey League before, hoping and believing that this could turn into a long-term relationship."

That's exactly what Poile got with Trotz, who over the course of his tenure has shown he just may be the best coach casual fans have never heard of. Despite ownership questions in recent years and the financial constraints of playing in a nontraditional market, Nashville is consistently in the playoff pack.

Of course, to say the franchise has been bereft of talent over the years is unfair. Poile has provided Trotz with a stable of players that are not only skilled, but as Trotz puts it, "fit our culture". Panthers All-Star netminder Tomas Vokoun cut his teeth under Trotz, and Blues winger Paul Kariya spent two very productive seasons in Nashville. But this is a team that won a playoff game, in its sixth season, before it ever signed an all-star free agent.

In his tenure in Nashville, Peter Forsberg may be the only elite superstar Trotz has had among his charges -- for a grand total of 17 games.

"We've let a lot of top-end talent go," Trotz said. "The Kimmo Timonens, the [Scott] Hartnells, the Paul Kariyas, those people. They all wanted to stay here, and I think we could have been a top-level team year in and year out, but that wasn't the case. So getting your mind and arms wrapped around the reality that we're not playing with the same deck as Detroit and the New York Rangers, it doesn't mean we can't win. We just have to do it a different way."

And yet, the different deck hasn't kept Nashville from drawing hands just as good, if not better, than its more established counterparts, and Trotz's longevity and growth as coach are among the biggest reasons why.

"If you look at the most successful businesses, there's usually some stability within the organization in terms of their leadership," Poile said. "Barry has a strong ability to adjust to what he's given."

In 11 seasons, Trotz hasn't so much as been a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the League's top coach, despite a history of doing more with less. Attracting attention is difficult in a place where the ice plays second fiddle. Nashville is no hockey wasteland, but it's not Toronto, Montreal or Chicago either. College football and the NFL's Titans dominate the Volunteer State, and the average Tennessean is far more likely to know Derek Dooley replaced Lane Kiffin at the University of Tennessee than they are to realize that Trotz once again has the Predators on the cusp of a playoff berth.

That's just fine with Trotz, who dismisses individual praise and says he prefers to fly under the radar. According to him, the people around him are the keys to his success, and after 12 years in Nashville -- Buffalo's Lindy Ruff is the only active coach to have held his post longer -- he has no intentions of jetting north to one of the League's glamour jobs.

"This has become my home," Trotz said. "I've actually been in Nashville longer than I had been in my hometown growing up. Three of my children have gone through their whole schooling process on one job in one city, which in my profession doesn't happen very often. Between me and Lindy I think we both would say that we're very fortunate."

While the Preds have become a regular in springtime, postseason success has eluded them. Still Trotz points to Nashville's 2008 first-round loss to the eventual-champion Red Wings as one of his prouder moments. Were it not for two disallowed goals the League later acknowledged were legitimate, Trotz feels his squad would have taken the series, bringing the franchise its first playoff series win and pulling it one step closer to the ultimate goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Music City.

For Trotz however, lifting the chalice will not be what defines him.

"Growing up everyone wants to win the Stanley Cup," Trotz said. "But if you don't it doesn't mean that you've failed or you didn't get to live your dream. I get to live my dream."

Winning the Cup one day would be a fitting coda to that dream for Trotz and the Predators. And after that, sports fans across the continent might finally know his name.
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