Thursday, July 29, 2004
Updated: August 5, 12:12 PM ET
Preds ready to take next step
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
At one point last March the Nashville Predators' mascot, Gnash, spent the better part of a week living on a platform on the radio tower that sticks up from the side of the Gaylord Entertainment Center, waiting for a Predators' sellout.
Apart from the time there was a tornado warning, Gnash stayed up there in his tent, playing video games and being serenaded by the local bands on Nashville's famous strip day and night until a local executive with Firestone took pity on the bedraggled mascot and bought the remaining tickets in question to the tune of $50,000.
Such was the state of hockey in Music City.
But that was before Nashville fans got their first taste of a trade deadline acquisition (as opposed to the trade deadline dispersal with which they had become familiar during the team's first five seasons). Steve Sullivan arrived from Chicago and immediately began filling opposition nets.
And that was before Nashville fans got a taste of their first playoff action, a compelling six-game series with division foe and dynasty-in-waiting Detroit.
There is no question, then, that the 2003-04 season was a defining moment for the Predators.
After years of disappointing developmental stagnation and the commensurate drop-off in attendance, the gritty Predators surged to their first playoff berth behind unheralded No. 1 netminder Tomas Vokoun and the slick Sullivan.
Fans rallied behind the team and playoff games were sold out. Season ticket sales are on the rise.
The key for the Predators in solidifying their fan base will come from taking that more difficult step forward, the step toward playoff player as opposed to playoff guest. The challenge is significant for a team that will once again look inward for that next evolutionary step as opposed to bringing in outside help.
General manager David Poile spoke with ESPN.com recently about the satisfaction of hosting playoff games and what the team will do for an encore.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
I was confident we were eventually going to get there. The problem was predicting when we were going to get there. I know we're building this team in the traditional sense, through the draft. I've always believed in the plan.
It was a lot better at the trading deadline, acquiring players rather than trading them away. That was a first for us. That was a clear-cut sign that we were serious about making the playoffs. It was a sign from ownership to our players and to our fans.
I think it's just a starting point for us. Drawing Detroit was just perfect for our franchise. Detroit has been the epitome of success. When they play here, there have been more Detroit fans because of the Saturn plant and the people who moved here from Michigan. They're in our area; they're in our division. It was a great matchup. And I think the fact we were competitive meant a lot for everyone.
I don't replay the series. It is what it is. If I did that, there would be more than a few Washington series I'd still be thinking about.
Before coming to Washington, Poile was vice president and general manager of the Capitals for 15 seasons.
Poile: We got off to a relatively slow start. We were 4-8 with a couple of ties, and we went into Detroit and were down 3-0 after two periods and were 20 minutes away from going 4-9 when somehow we miraculously won the game 4-3. You're always looking for defining moments throughout the season, and that was certainly one. Everybody became a believer after that, which was great, and then we worked our way into contention.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team?
Ninety percent of the time when you deal a goalie, you're dealing someone proven for someone unproven or to make room for someone unproven. In hindsight, I don't think we really knew that Tomas could do it. We knew he was a great backup and that he'd played well in stretches when Dunham was injured. I think we felt pretty good about it. But some goalies can't handle that. For us it was a great fit.
Poile: Singling out anyone from our team is difficult except maybe Tomas Vokoun, who played 73 games for us. And I know it's a cliché, but he did give us a chance to win every game. He was the glue our team needed. We don't have individuals that really light it up. We play a lot of 3-2, 2-1 games. It was gratifying for sure after trading (Mike) Dunham (to the Rangers). If he didn't do it, I think we'd have been in a heap of trouble.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
David's got a tremendous amount of talent, great speed, understands the game well. But offensively, he hasn't really blossomed, and that's really what we drafted him for.
The same with Arkhipov, who scored 20 goals (in 2001-02). If they can't do it, they're likely our third- and fourth-line centers. I guess what I'm saying is, are they miscast? We need to find those offensive leaders down the middle.
Poile: Two players stand out -- our centermen (David) Legwand and (Denis) Arkhipov. They are two centermen that should be leading us offensively and at different times have but have also been inconsistent. We have to find out if they're our first- and second-line players or are they more third- and fourth-line players.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Of the forwards, I'd have to say Libor Pivko is closest. He's a more mature player, more physically ready. He's 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, can play in all situations -- power play, penalty kill. He's just a good all-around player. I hope he sees this story.
Poile: We've had so many young players play for us. But we've got four or five in Milwaukee. Forwards, we've got Scottie Upshall, Timofei Shishkanov, Darren Haydar.
On defense, there's Andrew Hutchinson, who played 18 games for us and should be pretty close.
ESPN.com: what is the top priority in improving the organization?
Poile: At this point our potential still lies with our younger players, so it's very important that they develop and that will help the team progress.
I'd also like us to score more goals.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Poile: The first home playoff game. Looking out to see the place packed and to see the atmosphere in the building. Certainly not a completion of the plan but another step in the right direction. That was a feel-good situation.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Poile: It was after the second period on that night in Detroit in November, and we were 20 minutes from going 4-9.
ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest from hockey this off-season?
Poile: I'm trying to play golf on a little more serious level. I'm taking it up after an 18-year hiatus brought on by something called kids. Just like our team, I'd like to get out of my expansion phase. Right now I'm like Tiger Woods. You don't know what I'm working on, but I'm very close now.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.