The Predators didn't know they had a future Norris Trophy winner when they called Roman Josi's name more than a decade ago, but they were pretty sure they had at least added someone special to their defense corps.
Nashville's second-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft was named the League's best defenseman last week, the first blueliner in Predators franchise history to win the Norris.
Known for drafting and developing some of the best defensemen the game has seen over the past 20 years, the Preds have seen their fair share of talent on the back end, and Josi might just sit at the top of that group. While plenty has happened since that NHL Draft weekend back in 2008, Predators Assistant General Manager Jeff Kealty still has a vivid memory of why the team felt so strongly about Josi that they traded up in the draft to get him.
Kealty first laid eyes on the prospect back in the summer of 2007, when Josi was skating for his native Switzerland at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, an event amateur scouts look to as a strong determiner of what the upcoming NHL Draft will look like. From the moment Kealty and the Predators got a look at Josi, they were hooked.
"He played for Switzerland, and I can remember him playing against the Canadian team that year," Kealty recalled of Josi. "Now, the Canadian team in that tournament, every year, is just stacked…with all these high-end guys, and Josi played them just like you see him now. He didn't have much to work with on his team, but he had the puck all game and he had that ultra-competitiveness where you know he wanted to make a difference and was always up ice and looking to push the game forward… He didn't take a backseat to anybody, so for us as a scouting staff…he made a little bit of a statement to us. It was like, 'Here he is.'"
The Predators kept tabs on Josi throughout the 2007-08 season as he played for his hometown club of SC Bern and represented his country in the World Junior Tournament. Every time Kealty saw Josi, the teenager reaffirmed his skillset and competitiveness - someone with an upside that might see him morph into an elite NHL defenseman.
As the Nashville scouting staff made their draft preparations in the spring of 2008, Josi was understandably high on their list. While Kealty believed Josi had the potential to be a late pick in the first round, he was reasonably confident the smooth-skating defenseman would be there for the Preds on Day Two and the second round.
However, Kealty wasn't convinced Josi would still be available when Nashville's first pick in Round 2, No. 46, arrived.
Following the first round of each draft, every club has a meeting to debrief what they just witnessed and to discuss strategy for the next day. It was in that meeting where Kealty and his staff made their case that the Predators needed to find a way to move higher into Round 2 and ensure they would be able to add Josi to their prospect pool.
Video: Preds draft future captain, Norris Trophy winner
So, Predators General Manager David Poile went to work. He asked each team - starting with the club who owned the first selection of the second round, No. 31 - if they would make a deal to allow Nashville to move up. At pick No. 38, Poile found his match.
The Arizona Coyotes agreed to a deal with the Preds that if the player Nashville wanted was still available at 38, they would make the trade. After sweating it out for the first seven picks of Round 2, Josi's name was still on the board.
Poile dealt two Nashville picks - Nos. 46 and 76 in that 2008 Draft - to the Coyotes for No. 38. Nothing is ever certain in the draft, but once the Preds selected Josi, optimism was plentiful at the table.
"You never know for sure, it's not an exact science, but I just remember having a really good gut feeling on this one," Kealty said of the pick to take Josi. "We knew what we saw all year, and again, nothing is for certain, but I just think that we all felt really strong and felt really good about this. And here we are all these years later and he's a Norris Trophy winner."
Kealty recalls getting back to Nashville for Development Camp with all of the top prospects in the organization in attendance, Josi included. On the first day of camp, there was a meeting to allow for introductions, camp expectations and other pertinent details for the prospects.
Still on the high of the Josi selection just days earlier, there is one more moment from that experience Kealty will never forget.
"We're having this introductory meeting with all of the kids, and David Poile comes in," Kealty said. "He just kind of sits down next and just whispers to me, 'So, which one's Josi?'"
It wasn't long before everyone in Nashville knew exactly which one was the kid from Switzerland. Now, Josi is not only the captain of the franchise, he's also the first of the Preds to bring home the Norris.
That was worth trading up for.
"I texted him last week when we found out he was going to win the award and just said, 'It's really been a pleasure to watch you develop from the kid that we drafted 12 years ago to now,'" Kealty said of his conversation with Josi. "I was really happy for him to win the award, because sometimes with these awards, you just never know which way it's going to go. There's a lot of different factors based on the voting and all those sorts of things, and from somebody that watches a lot of hockey for a living, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind who the top defenseman in the League was this year. From that standpoint, I was just very happy for him to be recognized.
"To look back on these sorts of things, it's been really neat to just watch the whole process over the years. You remember watching them as kids and all that development to where he is now. He's one of the top players in the world, and it's really a cool experience."