Longtime Preds savor rise to the top
On Friday, January 19, the Nashville Predators awoke to a different feeling. The onetime expansion club that had for years been underdogs to most of its National Hockey League competition had at last made underdogs of everyone else. The Predators had claimed the NHL's top spot for the first time in franchise history.
Through solid all-around play, the Predators have held onto the No. 1 ranking in the days since. For the players and staff who have been with the Nashville organization the longest, the change of perspective is a welcome and satisfying one.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time now," says Predators captain Kimmo Timonen, who has been part of the franchise since Day One. "For the past couple years, it's been fun. We have gotten better every year. Now we can tell we've got the best team ever in franchise history. It's a good feeling. You want to be part of this kind of team. We can beat anybody and that's a good sign. We can go into the game and say, 'Hey, if we play our game, we're going to win the game.' The first couple of years we couldn't say that."
Indeed, the Predators' win percentage hovered below the .500 mark for the first five seasons. In 2003-04 the club finished with its first winning season, 38-29-11-4, and made its first playoff appearance. Nashville lost in the first round to its chief rival, the Detroit Red Wings. Then the team made huge strides last season, setting a franchise-best record of 49-25-8 and going into the first round of the playoffs with home-ice advantage. Once again, though, the Predators were unable to win that first best-of-seven series, this time falling to the San Jose Sharks.
So far this season, Nashville is on pace to better its 2005-06 mark and its chances for some form of playoff success look promising.
"It seems like the first couple of years we'd be close in games and we'd find ways to lose," says forward Scott Hartnell, who at age 24 has already spent five-plus seasons in Nashville. "It would happen like that. This year it seems that we're always getting that lead or if we're down a goal we know we can come back. It's just a different atmosphere, a different feeling this year. I think we approach the game the same. You get prepared the same way but it seems that we're just doing a better job of getting wins and tightening down when things get late in the game."
Healthy confidence has accompanied the success this season, and the mood in the locker room reflects that. "When you come to the rink, you smile and you have positive attitudes," Timonen says. "It carries over to the games. You can see that in practice too. Everybody's having fun--working hard but having fun. That's the way it should be."
"I think going out there and having fun and winning hockey games is our mindset," confirms center David Legwand, Nashville's first-ever entry draft selection. "We've got to keep that mindset and have fun with it. We can't worry about who is behind us. If we just win our hockey games we should be fine."
For goaltender Tomas Vokoun, the lone remaining player from the 1998 expansion draft that initially provided the Predators with most of their on-ice personnel, the rise to the top has been very fulfilling.
"When you have a chance to be somewhere this long, especially in these days, the way the business is, it's pretty special," Vokoun says. "Especially starting the franchise. That's a different feeling than you would have probably when you come in and there would be 35 years of previous history. Being here, it's a good feeling when you're building something like this. Seeing where we are today, it's a long way [from where the organization started]. Not many people who came this year or last year realize that, and I do because I've been here when things weren't so great. You remember those things. It's nice to see and I'm obviously happy for [team owner] Craig [Leipold] and for [general manager] David [Poile]. They did a great job."
Still, the Predators players are keeping their position among the NHL's elite teams in perspective. According to Timonen, holding the top spot is a nice indicator but it offers little more than that.
"It's just a sign that we've been playing hard these  games but still it doesn't bring us anything," the Nashville defenseman says. "It's a sign that we can be there and we can beat anybody in this league. Confidence-wise, that's a good thing. But still we can't say, 'OK, we're leading by [three] points, we can take it easy now.' We just have to keep it going and make sure we focus every game. We have to remember that doesn't bring us a Stanley Cup. That doesn't bring us a playoff win. It's just a good sign and a confidence booster for us."
Hand in hand with increased success comes increased expectations and pressure. The Predators seem ready to face the added challenge of being in the hot seat and knowing that 29 other teams have placed a big bull's-eye on them.
"The underdog role is nice because a lot of people don't have expectations from you," says Nashville head coach Barry Trotz, the only head coach in franchise history. "That's the good thing. But I don't mind having this [league leader] role because from my standpoint, if you can handle success and handle it the proper way, that's going to make you really a top organization or a top team. If our guys handle success and don't sit on our laurels, then I think that's great for our character. It's what separates good teams from great teams. I'd rather be a great team than just a good team."
And the players know that whatever pressure they are facing now pales in comparison to what they'll face once the regular season ends. "I don't see [the pressure] necessarily being that big now," Vokoun says. "I think the pressure is going to come when we're expected to win in the playoffs. That's when you expect to win. We've never won a playoff series and, at least for me and I guess for everybody, that's where the pressure is going to be obviously at the highest."
The good news is that the current upward trend shows no sign of slowing. Trotz and the longtime Predators believe there's still room for improvement, which makes Nashville's hockey club a particularly dangerous one for the foreseeable future.
"We've worked hard for this," Legwand says. "David, Craig and the coaching staff have done a great job assembling this team and putting the organization together. Obviously we're growing and going forward, and we're only going to get better as a group and as a team. That's something exciting."
"What I like is the growth in our players, in terms of their mindset," Trotz says. "The way they view the game, the way they have goals and aspirations within our year and within our group. That's probably the most fulfilling thing. In the expansion years it was tough to come up with those. We had certain goals but it was tough achieving some of them. And then some of those goals, to other teams--Detroit, who is always a Cup contender--they would sort of snicker at those because they were at a different level.
"I think we were able to get past that and now we're at a different level. Our mindset is at a different level. How we approach games, the professionalism that we go into every game with in terms of not trying to take any days off, that to me shows a lot about the growth personally of all the players. In the games you see the growth in terms of stats, but the growth we're talking about, there's no stat for."