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From expansion team to playoff team

Friday, 12.01.2006 / 11:30 AM / Features
By Doug Brumley  - Nashville Predators
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From expansion team to playoff team
Predators look to build on first playoff series

Eight years may not seem very long in light of the decades of history that the National Hockey League has created, but the Nashville Predators sure have packed a lot of milestones, memories and successes into that period of time. After getting off to the best start of the franchise's existence in 2005-06, the Predators of today in many ways seem far removed from the team that first took the ice on October 10, 1998. Yet among all of the changes in personnel, win-loss records and perceptions, a number of constants have anchored the evolution of the organization from an expansion franchise to a Stanley Cup contender. Most importantly, ownership, management and the coaching staff have remained virtually unchanged, allowing an enduring commitment to a philosophy of patience to guide the many changes that have taken place since owner Craig Leipold and the National Hockey League planted professional hockey in Nashville.

Kimmo Timonen
"We've come a long way from Day One," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "I think there are only four guys left from that group, so the team has changed a lot. I think this year's team is the best we've got so far. That's the way things go. When you put the team together, it won't be very good at the start and then you get slowly better and better. That's what these guys have done."

General manager David Poile has been the architect of the Predators' ongoing construction, and head coach Barry Trotz has taken the various elements given to him by the GM and molded them to form a competitive unit. Their efforts led to the franchise's first trip to the NHL Playoffs in 2004, an accomplishment that validated the working blueprint and commanded respect from those who had been reluctant to offer it to an "expansion" team.

"That's always big--to make the first [playoff appearance] in franchise history," All-Star goaltender Tomas Vokoun said in references to the six-game series between the Predators and the Detroit Red Wings. "The Western Conference in the past here, it has been very tough to get into the playoffs. You see teams going to the finals and they didn't make the playoffs the next year. So it's a tough conference, and I think we put this team a little bit more on the map by making the playoffs and we get a little bit more respect around the league as a franchise.... I think we've been on the right path. Now that phase is over. Now we have to focus on [the fact that] we are not an expansion team any more. We have to win and obviously be winning now."

"You want to be known as a playoff team," forward Steve Sullivan said. "You want to be known as a contender. To do so you've got to get into the playoffs, and we were able to do that for the first time. I think that's why the likes of a Paul Kariya looked at our hockey team, because we did take that next step into a contending hockey club. That's a huge step and now we have to keep building on it. We can't live off what we've done in the past and we've got to make sure that we continue and better ourselves."

So far, so good. Home-grown first-round draft picks like David Legwand, Scott Hartnell, Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter are now regulars in the lineup, while talented free agents like Kariya and Sullivan have been brought in to augment a solid core that had proven its playoff capability. In the summer of 2005, a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association created a more level playing field for the league's 30 teams on and off the ice. Already Nashville has flourished under the new system, kicking off the 2005-06 season with a franchise-best 8-0 start and earning recognition and accolades from around the hockey world.

"Teams are ready to play us and they want to beat us now," goaltender Chris Mason said. "Especially when we have a record like we do right now, teams don't take us lightly."

"Obviously, the start to this season is what I thought was going to happen when I signed here
Steve Sullivan
this summer," said Sullivan, who inked a new four-year deal with the Predators in August after being acquired in a February 2004 trade and helping to clinch the playoff berth. "I think that the core players are getting older and it's a great core of young players. We've signed Paul Kariya. Tomas Vokoun is a world-class goaltender. It has all the makings of a great hockey team. I just can't see it not continuing in the future. All the right pieces are in place right now."

That hasn't always been the case. Today's lineup is a considerable improvement over the first Predators roster in 1998, which was built primarily from an expansion draft that essentially offered other clubs' less valued players.

"It was kind of a bunch of guys from around the league just kind of thrown together, obviously, from the expansion draft," Mason said. "I don't think the expectations were too high. The focus of the team was to keep games close and really keep the score low and try to just sneak a few wins in here and there."

"Obviously when we first came here we were real excited about the opportunity to start something from scratch," Trotz said. "The first year, we didn't have much talent when you really looked at it. It was actually a very fun year, because you had guys' attention. They were trying to make the NHL. There were guys that were trying to rekindle their career or get their career going, guys that were on the bubble for the longest time. They came together and played really hard. We actually got a lot more wins than I thought we might get when I looked at our lineup."

Still, the Predators didn't make a big splash in the NHL. But that was largely by design. Poile's philosophy of team-building is more tortoise than hare, and everyone knows the consistent tortoise wins in the end.

"If we're going to do this right and if we're going to be a good team and a competitive team for a lot of years and not just a flash in the pan, I firmly believe there's only one way to do it," Predators general manager David Poile said in the fall of 2000. "It's drafting younger players and giving them the time to develop and eventually putting them on our hockey club."

"Once we become competitive, we want to be competitive for a lot of years," he added.

A judicious and pervasive "stay the course" mentality has keyed the transfer of Poile's philosophy from blueprint to ice rink in Nashville. Poile and Trotz remained committed to players they believed in, for example, and Leipold never pulled the plug on the GM or coach as the team struggled through its infancy.

"The biggest thing is probably that the staff has been the same over years," Trotz said. "Especially from the coaching staff. It has predominantly been the same coaching staff. We've kept key members on for long periods of time and we've stayed with our draft choices. We didn't move a high draft choice to maybe improve our team immediately. We were patient. It starts with Craig and David having a vision and staying with that vision. The vision was that we were going to develop our own players, draft well and cultivate a culture, and it might take a little longer. Originally we said we could probably [make the playoffs] in five years. The climate changed a little bit in terms of the free agency and how teams spent their money, I guess, and it just took us probably an extra year. We think that we're in a position now that every year we can expect to be a team that should be in the playoffs. Or if not in the playoffs, be right there in the hunt."

Now, with a proven contender on the ice, the organization can extend that patience to the development of its players--a relatively new luxury.

Barry Trotz
"That was some of the thought processes back in training camp: Let's do what's right for the player," Trotz said. "In the past, we had to try to do what was right, but sometimes because of depth or lack of depth you had to try to increase the timeframe for a player to develop. There is no timeframe for a player's development. Some guys get it real quickly and some guys don't--it takes a little longer--and some guys don't get it at all. We think that if you just be patient and you believe in the people and you give them direction and if they buy in, then they're probably going to be successful at what they do. That was the process this year with [Alexander] Radulov."

Radulov, a 6'1", 188-pound Russian winger, was selected in the first round by Nashville at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He attended the Predators' 2005 training camp at the age of 19 and displayed wonderful offensive skill that impressed coaches and fans alike.

"I don't think anybody could question [that] he, based on his training camp, probably made the hockey team...," Trotz continued. "But we knew long-term, the best thing for Radulov is that he go down and see if he can keep his game above the junior game, which it looks like he has. The next process will be for him to spend a little time [at the Predators' minor-league affiliate] in Milwaukee. It might be a short time, it might be a long time. Then hopefully play in the National Hockey League."

"If you take one step [at a time] and you don't skip a process, I think you get a more rounded individual and you get a more rounded player," he said.

As the pipeline fills with skilled, well-developed players, Poile has an increasing number of options at his disposal. These players can step into key roles on the team, provide depth for the organization or serve as assets in a trade.

"Now we can be patient with draft choices," Trotz said. "We can make moves. We have assets. I think no one appreciated the players that we had because we were an expansion team. Now that we're past the expansion mode and into the competitive mode, people recognize our players a lot more and put more value on our players."

"Philosophically, our scope is broadened a little bit in how we will build this team on a year-by-year basis," Poile said. "It was almost like we had blinders on in terms of being open to any other considerations other than the Entry Draft and eventually trading off veteran players to go with younger players--always trying to get younger every year. That was the way we tried to run this franchise in the first six years. Now we’ve got a good balance between younger and older players. There’s a new CBA that allows us to participate in free agency. I think we have more avenues for how to build a team right now."

As the approach to player development shifts within the Predators organization, so to do the expectations for the team's on-ice success. Now the playoff appearance that was once the Predators' goal becomes a stepping stone.

"It was huge," Timonen said of the significance of the Detroit series. "That's been our goal since Day One, but realistically in the last two or three years we've really had a chance to make the playoffs. The year before, we did it. Now we can't accept anything other than the playoffs and the Stanley Cup."

Those changing perceptions within the Predators organization were mirrored in the city of Nashville and the hockey world at large--fans, media, opponents. "I think they started understanding that we were here to stay and that we're a club that's making the right strides to become a very good team in the years to come," Sullivan said.

The Nashville Predators organization's strong ability to plan and manage resources is now visibly apparent. While today's team has already set new franchise standards for skill and success, the future remains even brighter.

"We've got a lot of good young hockey players that are not even anywhere near their prime," Kariya said.

Timonen agreed. "We've got lots of good guys and a good mix of young guys and veterans," he said. "There are so many prospects coming up from the minors.... This team has done a pretty good job of scouting and drafting people so that's going to be a big thing for many years from now. It looks good for this team."

"They've always believed in sticking with their guys and developing young players," Mason said. "Now you've got all these guys that are fairly young and they're starting to mature.... They've got such a good core and then they bring in players like Paul Kariya, and Sullivan last year. It's limitless. If guys keep improving from where they are now, you're going to have an awesome team."
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