The Predators organization held a press conference to wrap up the 2011-12 season on Thursday. General manager David Poile, head coach Barry Trotz and CEO Jeff Cogen each made statements, reflecting upon and dissecting a season of great progress and promise, before answering questions from the media. Nashville’s season concluded on Monday when the team lost to the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Cogen highlighted signs of a growing fan base: Attendance averaged 97.5 percent of capacity for the season and the franchise had a record 25 regular season sellouts plus five more during the playoffs. TV ratings were up 40 percent during the regular season and corporate “partnership activity increased significantly year over year,” he said, pointing to deepening relationships with elite national brands like Bridgestone and Nissan among others. The Predators Foundation also distributed a record $350,000 in grants to 113 recipients in the local community this year.
Poile pointed to his team’s elevated expectations this season versus last, and reiterated the fact that the Predators were the only Western Conference team to advance to the second round of the playoffs each of past two seasons. He credited ownership with providing the support and resources necessary to allow him to bolster his team.
Poile and Trotz both commented on the slow start to the Predators’ season. “On December 6, our record was 12-11-4 and that certainly wasn’t going to do it for the playoffs,” Poile said. “But by some of our veterans players getting better, some of our younger players getting better and some of the changes that we made—we called up two young defensemen, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis and we called up Gabriel Bourque—our team went 36-15-4 for the remainder of the season to make the playoffs.”
“David mentioned we weren’t a very good hockey team at the start of the year,” Trotz added. “We weren’t. I was wondering if we were going to have the goods to even make the playoffs. And we grew. [With] Pekka Rinne and some timely power-play goals and some young guys getting some experience, we were able to come through it in key times and we sort of just grew as a hockey team.”
Once the floor was opened up for questions, the media focused on the fates of prized defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Suter is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, barring a new contract signed with the Predators before that deadline. Weber, who would become a restricted free agent, is a player that Preds management has said they would like to lock up long-term alongside Suter. It’s going to be a busy and complex off-season for Poile, who wants to build the Predators around his two All-Star defensemen as well as goaltender Pekka Rinne, who is signed through 2019.
“I’m not going to do anything on a one-off situation,” Poile said when discussing how he’ll approach re-signing his two blueliners. “I’m going to need—if and when we have Ryan’s [indication that he] wants to sign and go forward, I’m going to tell Shea approximately what we’re doing and I need to know what he wants to do going forward. And try to make it work. Because hopefully we’ll be in the same room, if you will, and we’ll have the same goal, and that’s to win the Stanley Cup. For this to work, we’ll probably need the cooperation of everybody in doing this.”
Suter and Weber are two of a handful of players whose contracts expire on July 1. Poile and Trotz said management and the coaching staff will meet to construct a blueprint of sorts to work from this summer. “I’ll meet with the entire coaching staff just to go over everything as we do every year,” Poile said. “Go over every player, every situation before we go forward.”
Poile used center Paul Gaustad as an example of how the process might unfold for each free agent.
“Gaustad is a player that we paid a first-round pick for,” Poile said. “[He] did a really good job for what we brought him in for. We need to talk to Paul, his representative, and we need to talk to the coaches to see where he fits in. So it’s a little bit of a ‘where does he fit in?’ and if we decide that we want him or what have you, then we’ve got to sell him on his role here, we’ve got to find out whether his experience was good here in Nashville and then we’ve got to sign him. So there are a lot of moving parts right now.”
Poile indicated he may try to acquire a first- or second-round pick for the June 22-23 NHL Entry Draft to replace the ones he packaged in deals to acquire Gaustad and Hal Gill.
While Poile, Trotz and Cogen all expressed disappointment that the season ended more abruptly than expected, they pointed out that the fact no one was satisfied with the second-round playoff result is a good sign of the franchise’s growth.
“In comparison to where we were last year at this time to where we sit this year at this time, I really feel that the foundation, the core of our team, is as good as any team in the league,” Poile said. “Yes, we have work to do and we need to add to our team. We’ll have changes but I don’t think we’ll have as many drastic changes as we had last year.”
“Unfortunately we ran into a very good goaltender and a team that was playing well defensively,” Trotz said of the season-ending loss to Phoenix. “At the end of the day there’s very little separation. There’s a lot of good teams that are sitting with us right now going, ‘We felt we had the goods too.’ You need a lot of things to go right for you. They will go right. We’re learning lessons and I think our expectations have gone higher and higher every year.”