Vancouver Canucks v Nashville Predators

Sam Page of the Nashville Predators blog “On the Forecheck” has passed along a fantastically comprehensive piece we’re proud to present to you today. We hope you enjoy.

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- by Sam Page

Here’s what’s been more or less written 100 times about the trade the Predators and Capitals made at the final hour of the NHL trade deadline:

The Nashville Predators traded Martin Erat and Michael Latta to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Filip Forsberg. Nashville, with their worst regular season record in ten years, looks unlikely to make the playoffs (Editor’s note: it’s official after last night, they’re mathematically eliminated). Erat, drafted by the Predators in 1999, has played with the team his entire career, but requested a trade when it seemed the team was destined to miss the playoffs for just the second time in nine years.

Detroit Red Wings v Nashville PredatorsWashington hopes that Erat, freed from the notoriously defense-first system of Predators’ coach Barry Trotz, will be more productive offensively. Nashville hopes Forsberg, the eleventh-overall pick in the 2012, will live up the potential that caused NHL Central Scouting to rank him the second-best forward in last year’s draft behind Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov.

No deadline trade seemed more explicable. Capitals GM George McPhee, his own team struggling to make the playoffs, traded to save his job. For a Nashville team ever-strapped for goals (even Erat had managed only four this season), getting a potentially elite sniper in Forsberg was too good to pass on.

Yet, as much as pundits and fans for both teams have called it an overwhelming win for Nashville, it’s a trade no Preds fan would ever expect them to make, and a residual reluctance tinged all of GM David Poile’s post-deadline interviews.

For any close observer of the team, it’s a franchise-defining trade both potentially and literally–potentially because Forsberg could transform the team, literally because every facet of the deal is imbued with the Predators’ complicated history.

PLAYOFF ODDS

“The Nashville Predators traded Martin Erat and Michael Latta to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Filip Forsberg. Nashville, with their worst regular season record in ten years, looks unlikely to make the playoffs…”

There is considerable incentive in the NHL for a bad team to tank. Ever since the absurd 2003 Draft (in Nashville), in which seemingly every first-round pick became an All-Star–and a goalie (of all things) was taken first overall–the top two picks in the NHL draft have been golden tickets for elite NHL forwards.

The first two forwards taken from 2004-2009 could easily double as an All-Star game roster: Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby, Ryan, Staal, Toews, Kane, van Riemsdyk, Stamkos, Filatov (woops), Tavares, Duchene, Hall, and Seguin. The list of top defenseman taken doesn’t come close: Barker, Smid, Jack Johnson, Brian Lee, Erik Johnson, Ty Wishart, Thomas Hickey–you get the idea.

The explanation for this phenomenon is intuitive, albeit complicated and suited for a different article. Put simply, a great defenseman is a feat of a development, a great forward a feat of skill. Defensemen need the requisite physical strength to muscle a forward off the puck, coupled with the intelligence to anticipate plays at NHL speed. That’s why elite defenseman take longer to fully develop but typically stay productive longer.

Hockey has increasingly become a young man’s game, though. Winning a few lottery picks isn’t just a recipe for a great top line, it’s becoming a prerequisite for winning the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks and Penguins, hockey’s two best teams this season–in a tier entirely their own–have built around consecutive top-three draft picks (Kane/Toews and Malkin/Crosby, respectively).

Since the Predators first made the playoffs in 2003-04, their sixth season, the team has never been bad. They’ve only missed the playoffs once, in 2009, and by one point. They’ve also never been great and have never advanced further than the second round of the playoffs.

In a perverse way, the Predators success has prevented them from becoming elite. That’s an oversimplification, of course. But their inability to tank for a year (or four) like the Edmonton Oilers at least partly explains their perennial achilles heel–the lack of a true top-line forward. For the Predators, the prospect of losing their way to the draft lottery for two years doesn’t entice with its promises of top-six forwards, it spells the certain end of existence.

Predators’ ownership’s stated 1A goal remains winning the Stanley Cup. But the tacit addendum is winning the Stanley Cup in Nashville. And that means maintaining a minimum quality of product and consequently a minimum level of ticket revenue, enough to stave off those Canadian investors who would like to see Nashville go the way of Atlanta or Phoenix.

To solve the problem, David Poile had to play hockey’s Billy Beane and find some untapped source of top-six talent. He constructed a Stanley Cup contender out of aging All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers in 2007, including Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott, and J.P. Dumont. It didn’t work. And as a result, the Predators got trapped in an inescapable image problem that undermined their ability to sign someone younger; they became the perennially good, not great team that older players signed with en route to retirement.

“Nashville’s a great place to raise a family,” both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber familiarly parroted in 2012, just before they both tried to get the hell out of dodge.

Poile had tried to draft an elite forward that everyone else was overlooking. That almost worked, until a late-night escape to Russia. Next, he tried to invert the entire paradigm of the top-six entirely, making the Predators best forwards defensive specialists. That almost worked too, until Martin Erat himself famously screwed it all up with one turnover.

The only options Poile really had left, at this point, were to actually stink so bad they got a top draft pick or to steal someone else’s. Option #1 not being financially tenable, enter Filip Forsberg.

NO MOVEMENT

Calgary Flames v Nashville Predators“Erat, drafted by the Predators in 1999, has played with the team his entire career, but requested a trade when it seemed the team was destined to miss the playoffs for just the second time in nine years.”

Erat benefited from a pair of no-trade clauses, handed out not long after the Predators’ fire sale and near-move to Hamilton, Ontario. After losing Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Tomas Vokoun, and Peter Forsberg, David Poile stared at the abyss of rebuilding for the first time in his Nashville career. And as he would always do, he spat in it.

Five months apart, Martin Erat and David Legwand received long-term contracts with matching cap hits ($4.5M) and NTCs. Poile decided to handsomely reward his two homegrown rising stars for their loyalty to an ailing franchise. These extension also had the practical purpose of ensuring the team would hit the minimum Salary Cap floor, while the scraped by for the next few years.

Leggy and Marty, while they never lived up to those contracts, were two halves of a symbolic whole for the Predators. Legwand represented the failure of the Predators to cash in on their few high draft picks and find a top-line forward. Scouts had hailed Legwand, drafted second overall during the Preds inaugural year, as comparable to Vincent Lecavalier, taken first overall.

There’s an entire other article to be written about the history of the Nashville Predators As Told Through The Career Of David Legwand, but, in short: his offensive instincts never caught up with his speed and knack for being everywhere at once. The Predators only top-five pick ever, Legwand created that top-line forward hole the Predators could never seem to fill.

Erat, by contrast, represented the the Predators’ European scouts’ uncanny knack for bailing out the team in the draft’s closing rounds. Erat (taken 191st overall) followed in the tradition of the Karlis Skrastins (230th overall), paving the way for Pekka Rinne (258th overall), Patric Hornqvist (230th overall), and Anders Lindback (207th overall).

Legwand and Erat were also the victims of ever-changing fan opinion, in spite of their being scarily consistent careers. For the eight seasons prior to this lockout-shortened one, Erat’s point total was never lower than 49 or higher than 58. His point totals have frequently been identical in back-to-back seasons.

Yet, at various points in his Predators career, Erat was considered a pleasant surprise, a perennial disappointment, overpaid, too soft, gritty, an offensive specialist, and a two-way forward. These schizophrenic characterizations came from a fanbase struggling to reconcile the simultaneous truths that Erat and Legwand were both keeping the team afloat and holding them back.

It was impossible to imagine Barry Trotz’s system succeeding without the two players, but the contracts were universally considered the black eye of Poile’s often fantastic tenure as GM. Thus the question of whether the Preds should trade Martin Erat had always hinged on another, much more complicated question.

THE SYSTEM

“Washington hopes that Erat, freed from the notoriously defense-first system of Predators’ coach Barry Trotz, will be more productive offensively.”

David Poile and Barry Trotz are equally often hailed as the best General Manager and best coach, respectively, in the NHL. In both 2010 and 2011, Nashville’s dynamic duo was nominated for the NHL’s GM of the Year and Coach of the Year award, respectively. Yet under the guidance of this supergroup, the Predators have never made a deep playoff run. Surely, someone’s getting too much credit.

The defender of Poile and Trotz will point out how the Predators consistently making the playoffs on one of the league’s lowest payrolls. And while it is impressive, spending below the cap is not such a restriction that a team with a genius GM and genius coach should have never enjoyed a real playoff run, particularly in years in which the team spent over the cap midpoint.

Instead, whenever someone wants to explain the small-market success of the Preds, they simply have the choice between either man. Whether one picks Trotz or Poile seems more to do with that pundit’s general beliefs on the values of GMs versus coaches. And so each man gets hailed with equal frequency for his genius, and no one really gives it any second thought. Still, surely, someone is getting too much credit.

But trying to separate how the credit for the Preds success–and the blame for their shortcomings–should be split between Poile and Trotz is a Gordian Knot even for longtime Nashville fans.

David Poile gets lambasted for the team’s lack of offense, on account of not drafting enough skilled forwards. Still, Barry Trotz is criticized for muting the offensive talent of the Predators’ young forwards in the development process, by making them focus on defense. If Poile really has been poor at drafting skilled forwards, though, maybe Barry Trotz is getting too much flack.

On the plus side, pundits laud David Poile’s ability to find useful forwards off the scrap heap. Yet, Barry Trotz gets full marks for turning roller-hockey star Joel Ward into a specialist the Washington Capitals paid $12 million for in free agency. How does one split the credit for Joel Ward’s transformation? Does Poile get full marks for finding him, Trotz for making him useful?

The question gets especially hairy when considering Nashville’s notorious “from the goal out” system. Barry Trotz’s teams always feature strong goaltending, capable defensemen, and forwards who dump the puck deep in the opposing zone and pursue on the forecheck. Yet, the dump and chase strategy has been proven antithetical to puck possession; and virtually every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era has excelled at possession.

Should Barry Trotz tell his team to carry the puck in more? Maybe, but there’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence that this dump and chase strategy is necessitated by the talent of his forwards. So is Poile guilty for not acquiring better forwards? Sort of, except he has tried to acquire better forwards in recent years, just those forwards that better fit Trotz’s dump-and-chase system.

Before David Poile began this question-begging spending spree, however, Trotz’s style nearly answered the riddle of how to fill out a top six without top-six forwards. His 2009-10 featured a super-checking line of Jerred Smithson-David Legwand-Joel Ward that played probably the toughest minutes in the league, but chewed up and spit out opposing team’s top lines with ease.

The Predators became a mirror in which other team’s took a hard look at themselves and saw their own flaws. A nameless, faceless corps of four equally dangerous forward lines, the Predators threw the puck deep into the opponent’s zone like a grenade, waiting for them to throw it back or fumble it. Playing the Predators meant not worrying about the plays they were going to make but the mistakes you were going to make.

And it almost worked. The 2010 Predators had the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks on the ropes, up in Game 5 of a tied series with a minute to go. Then Martin Erat treated the puck like a grenade himself and committed the cardinal sin: sending a puck already deep in the opponent’s zone back up high.

In the ensuing years, Poile and Trotz let many of the unsung heroes of that team go, in an attempt to save enough money to re-sign Nashville’s holy trinity of stars, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne. Stripping down the team to convince a few players to stay was of course a quixotic plan. But Poile was willing to make a lot of compromises to again make the Predators a great team in the traditional way.

THE BIG THREE

Nashville hopes Forsberg, the eleventh-overall pick in the 2012, will live up the potential that caused NHL Central Scouting to rank him the second-best forward in last year’s draft behind Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov.

In the trinity of Weber, Suter, and Rinne, Pekka Rinne was just a surrogate. Rinne had lagged behind his contemporaries developmentally, not reaching the NHL until his mid-twenties. In fact, while Rinne toiled in the AHL, the true Holy Trinity of the Nashville Predators’ salvation had been already ordained: young phenoms and fast friends, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Alex Radulov.

Those three were meant to lead the Predators to better days. They were supposed to pull the Predators out of the mire of the 2007 fire sale and near-relocation. It often felt like hockey games happened to the Predators, but these youngsters–Radulov in particular–had potential to make it happen, to take things to the other team.

For a team that had never truly developed an elite forward, the prospect of Alexander Radulov fulfilling his 100-point potential felt like the power to make their own destiny. When Radulov fled for the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008, the Predators had lost their top young forward, yes, but also any remaining feeling of agency.

If David Legwand created the top-six forward hole, Radulov’s departure made it a crater. So again unwilling and unable to rebuild, the Preds fell back into the warm embrace of “the system.”

After the 2010 debacle, the Predators tried to become a more conventional team, built around star players, with a clear hierarchy of talent in their four forward lines. But building around three young superstars, none of whom was a forward, was highly irregular in the modern NHL. And the Predators became a weird compromise of the conventional 2007 team and the 2010 team, which had exemplified the system. The result was something fundamentally unsound.

The reality was that the Predators still had no top-line offensive forward–in fact, the forward corps in Nashville has gotten weaker every year since 2010. And now the team lacked the stalwart defensive players allowed to walk in free agency, including Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, and Dan Hamhuis.

To atone, Poile sought out forward help, but only those forwards pre-screened for Barry Trotz’s style. He forgot that the prototypical Predator was born out of necessity, built off the scrap heap. Instead of seeking to develop cheap two-dimensional players, they merely sought expensive one-dimensional players of a different kind, those which they found most agreeable with the existing way of doing things.

When Poile really went for it before the 2012 playoffs, hoping to entice Suter and Weber to stay, he pulled the coup of bringing in potential top-six forward Andrei Kostitsyn and prodigal son Radulov.

Unfortunately, bringing in top offensive talent only solved half of the Predators problems. The defensive structure that made the 2010 so effective was still missing. The Predators had never really replaced Goc, Ward, or Hamhuis, and still very green players like Roman Josi, Kevin Klein, and Nick Spaling proved an achilles heel.

And with no all-world fourth line to absorb all the toughest minutes, Nashville miscast Martin Erat as a do-it-all first-line forward who would play against the opponent’s top players and still manage to contribute offensively. While Erat usually rose to the occasion admirably, he couldn’t produce reliably at both ends in the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The infamous incident with Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn being benched two games for misconduct was a red herring. Nashville got flat beat, by a Coyotes team that had beat the Blackhawks in the first round, much in the same way the Preds almost had two years prior.

THE CYCLE BROKEN

When the Philadelphia Flyers signed Shea Weber to a heavily front-loaded 14-year offer sheet this offseason, they damaged the Predators ability to effect progress in the most fundamental way possible. For the first time in the team’s history, David Poile was ready for an on-the-fly rebuild–if only the Flyers would send burgeoning top-six forwards Sean Couturier and Luke Schenn to Nashville–and he couldn’t do it.

The Predators had to match the offer sheet, most simply because they couldn’t stake the survival of the franchise on the gradual reward of four first round picks. Breaking the cycle of young homegrown stars leaving the team seemed important too–a modest step toward making Nashville a destination city.

But the offer sheet, because it required $26 million in bonuses to be paid out in the first calendar year–the “poison pill” concocted by the Flyers’ accountants–prevented the Predators from upgrading in the short-term.

So, again, the Predators had a weird out-of-sorts team. The young defense finally congealed, with Roman Josi and Kevin Klein enjoying breakout years along with the usually steady play of Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne. But their breakouts, like most good developments in the team’s history, came a day late and a dollar short, as the forward corps, lead by Martin Erat, bottomed out to expansion-era levels.

Yes, Martin Erat was one of the Predators best forwards before being traded to the Capitals–but only by default. He remained the victim of too much responsibility, following the systematic depletion of the team’s forward talent since 2010.

If Nashville had any Stanley Cup aspirations in the short term, they needed to do three seemingly impossible things: shed one of their two most prohibitive forward contracts (Erat or Legwand), acquire a potential top-six forward, and align the ages of their forward talent to better match their defense talent, lest they suffer a repeat of 2012.

The Filip Forsberg trade did all three. The Predators, ever the risk-averse fan-pleasing franchise they are, never wanted to trade Martin Erat. But Erat asked for the move, and in so doing, may have unwittingly saved the Preds.

After the 2007 talent drain, Martin Erat took the thankless job, along with the second-best forward prospect of the 1998 draft, to keep the Predators going. Ironically, again, Martin Erat has taken the Predators halfway toward a better tomorrow in a way that may tarnish his standing with Nashville’s fans.

Now it’s up to the second-best forward prospect of the 2012 draft, Filip Forsberg, to take them the rest of the way.