The Nashville Predators are a team behind most other teams when it comes to talent and skill. At least that’s what most forum jockeys and media members will attest since the Predators have an internal budget roughly $8 million below most other teams (meaning a budget at the midpoint of the salary cap). Given the many times that David Poile, Barry Trotz, or some player talks about having to do more with less, it seems that they believe that as well. I guess the mantra of “No Excuses” isn’t that strong down on 500 Broadway is it?
Quite frankly, the belief that a team on a budget in this salary cap age can’t be successful is completely false at best and an excuse in the making at worst. Look at the teams with at least $7 million of projected cap space (courtesy of capgeek.com). Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas and Columbus are all tied for 6th in the Western Conference with 31pts. L.A. is 5th with 34pts and Colorado is 4th with 35pts. Atlanta is 5th in the Eastern Conference with 31pts and Tampa is 8th with 28pts. Only the Islanders in the East and St. Louis in the West are currently out of playoff position- and we Predator fans all know what St. Louis is capable of achieving. If 80% of those teams projected to have a final payroll near the midpoint are playing at a playoff level, why is there so much focus on those teams that have a budget? Much of the time it coincides with the fact that many of those teams working on a budget are a recent expansion team, a non-traditional market, or both- and it is another item in the list of reasons of why one of those teams can’t be successful for those ignorant of the facts. Putting that aside for the moment, I’m not naïve enough to say that there is no difference to operating a team on a stricter budget as opposed to one where the only monetary limitations are the League’s cap. So, how are those teams doing it? While there is a little variance, there is a strong commonality.
It starts with youth. Then you have to have the right mix of veterans including an elite or superstar forward. In this salary cap world every team, regardless of their budget, has to find that mix. Those teams restricted to not exceeding the midpoint should still be able to have one elite/superstar forward if a proper mix of cheap youth and good role playing veterans exist and are utilized.
How does Nashville compare to that group? Nashville does not have that elite/superstar forward. They do pay a couple of forwards (Martin Erat and David Legwand) a little too near that level, but not onerously so. Nashville does have a lot of cheap, youthful talent in Cal O’Reilly, Mike Santorelli, Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson. The problem that I see in Nashville is that there isn’t enough support given to the young players. There are enough very good veterans on this team’s forward core to spread out over three lines and allow those young players to be put into the best position possible to succeed while being mentored. What we typically see, however, are rookies bunched together on the third line with little support or mentorship on the ice. They don’t produce enough at the NHL level and then they get sent to Milwaukee and another rookie called up. Two weeks later, after that rookie didn’t produce, places will likely be swapped again because they were “tearing it up in Milwaukee”. Rinse and repeat.
Early this season, injuries forced Patric Hornqvist to play on the top two lines. He responded by being the best forward on the ice overall. While the team didn’t win as much, that was mainly due to the injuries being to those key veterans. This team still needs both skilled youth and skilled talent. Now that everyone is healthy, Coach Trotz has both at his disposal. Instead, Santorelli and Hornqvist are playing together on the third line and are seeing dwindling ice time. Playing those guys less than ten minutes a night on the third line won’t make them or the team better in the long term. It will also tire out those veterans that are not elite enough to carry the whole team for several games at a stretch. The team will likely go on several streaks, both winning and losing. That sounds familiar. That game against Calgary was a pretty good example of that rebound effect.
Earlier this season, I threw out some line suggestions. Since then, the personnel has changed, but the philosophy still stands. Build lines that play an aggressive forechecking style. To add to that, split those rookies up and allow them to succeed or fail under the tutelage of the veterans on this team. I suspect that Sullivan, Arnott, Dumont, Ward, Legwand and Erat can teach those kids a thing or two. It also might help those veterans to not have to carry the burden alone. If it betters the team, Sullivan, Arnott and Dumont should gladly accept being split. That’s what professionals and leaders would do.
As a final thought, this team would be better by adding a superstar player even at the cost of a Sullivan, Arnott, Dumont, Legwand or Erat (and a prospect or two). A superstar can consistently take over a game and help reduce the streakiness of the team. They can also accelerate the mentorship of talented youngsters. Nashville came close with Phil Kessel. There are some superstars, like a Kovalchuk, that a play should be made for if it’s there. That said, those guys can definitely choose where they want to play and Nashville could be locked out due to that. Money should not be a concern however. If David Poile could have brought Kessel into the fold at the price he signed for by trading off one of our veteran forwards and some prospects (even bringing in a third team if necessary), then he should have made that move(s). I’m not privy to the situation, so I don’t know. What I do know is that you can be a low budget team, pay a superstar the market rate, and still succeed.
James Mirtle has a pretty good look at what Phil Kessel has done since his return to the ice and its impact on Toronto. Again, Kessel may not have wanted to play in Nashville- I don’t know. If so, the issue is moot. If money was the sole issue, however, then a bad decision was made (which happens, but it should serve as a lesson learned).
About the Author: Nashville Predators Blogger, Software Engineer (C#.NET), Novice Woodworker, Southern Cook, Husband, Father of Two. You may contact me at David.R.Singleton AT gmail.com.