Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz had a conundrum on his hands going into the 2011-12 season.
Coming off the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff-series victory this past spring, expectations would be raised. But to reach another level, he'd have to do so with the youngest team in the NHL.
How would he accomplish that? Trotz said even he wasn't too sure. Somehow, though, it's mostly worked in the Predators' favor as they currently sit sixth in the Western Conference, but just six points behind conference-leading Chicago.
It's a good place to be now, but Trotz told NHL.com that he wasn't feeling so good when the season started.
"I was quite fearful," he said. "Sometimes when you put younger players in, from a coach's side, you get the up-close-and-personal; (but) sometimes as you go farther from the team, to ownership, management, the fans, all that, they don't realize how big of a change it is for a young player to produce in the National Hockey League. It's very difficult."
Trotz said the key was being able to rely on his veterans during the early part of the season.
"I think we needed Pekka Rinne
to be the best goalie in the National Hockey League in the first 15 games or so, so we could stabilize that, and he was," said Trotz. "Pekka Rinne
and, I think, an improved power play got us through that growing stage right at the start of the year when I thought we were fairly vulnerable at that point."
They survived that early start by going 8-5-2, and haven't looked back, going 18-11-2 since then heading into Thursday's game in Columbus.
"As the season's gone on, we've grown," said Trotz. "The youth of our hockey team has matured a bit and you see that we're fighting for first overall in the League almost. We're six points out today, but that's our expectation, to see if we can finish first in the West."
Among those younger contributors are forward Craig Smith
, who is fourth on the team with 26 points and was invited to All-Star Weekend; third-year forward Colin Wilson
, who has 24 points in 43 games after scoring 34 points in 82 games this past season; rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis
, who has 5 points and a plus-4 rating in 10 games; 23-year-old forward Nick Spaling
, who has seven goals and 15 points; and 23-year-old forward Matt Halischuk
, who is tied for fourth on the team with 10 goals.
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"I think the players have changed over the years," said Trotz. "They're more prepared. In the old days, you really had to go through the minors, you had to go through a lot of things. There was a lot more … it was a slower process to be included as a top player on a team and fit into the culture. … The guys at 20 are a lot more ready for the NHL than they probably were 10 years ago.
Trotz also has evolved.
While the foundation for Predators hockey remains as solid now as ever, he says there always is room for growth.
"Probably every year is a little bit of a hybrid of the things that we've done in the past," he said. "The foundation of the Nashville Predators is we have certain expectations. There's a certain way we have to do things to be successful. We're going to be successful as a group. I don't think we're blessed, especially up front, with anyone who's going to get us 40 goals or be a game-changer up front. So we have to do it as a committee. We have some game-changers in net, some game-changers on the blue line. So we play to our strengths."
As does the coach. Trotz isn't a yeller or a screamer. He understands that today's players subscribe to the "why" factor -- don't just tell players to do things, explain the benefits of doing the things you demand.
"We try to teach why you do this, why you don't do this, why you do that," said Trotz. "Players respect that. Coaches and players now are a lot more in a partnership than a dictatorship, which was maybe the case 20, 30 years ago. It's more of a partnership now. You have to get your top players to buy what you're selling as a coach. And they have to trust that you're doing the right things for the team."
The players certainly have bought in to Trotz's plan.
"He always seems to find that good mix of when to put the pedal down to get guys going," center Mike Fisher
, in his first full season with the Predators, told NHL.com. "The biggest thing about Barry is communication skills. They're the best I've seen from a coach. He has a good pulse from the room, on the guys, and what he needs to get guys going. With the game plan there is really no stone unturned. He is very prepared and he works so hard."
Trotz said it also helps to have a solid leadership group in place; the Predators' group is led by captain Shea Weber
and includes Rinne, Fisher, defenseman Ryan Suter
and forward Martin Erat
"We take on the identity of our leader, our leadership group," he says. "They're all very diligent players, they're all hard-working, they're all very respectful in terms of how they treat people, how they do those type of things. We've developed an accountability within the group all the time. That's the biggest thing, everyone is accountable to each other and that's part of our culture. When someone doesn't fit that mold, I think the group leans on them a little bit."
And because of having a few dependable veterans around, he's able to lean on the group and push harder than he has in years past. While that might be a bit of a change, the core principles that have made Trotz successful remain in place.
"He's still the same," Weber told NHL.com. "He knows how close we were. I think the good thing about him, he keeps the core of our team the same and the core beliefs and system stay the same and we change minor adjustments every year. Obviously, the game evolves. He watches a lot of film and studies a lot and is a very smart guy." Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor