Bittersweet homecoming in Nashville
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Sitting high above the ice at the Bridgestone Arena, Nashville Predators GM David Poile has bigger things to consider than a history lesson or a bittersweet homecoming.
Yet it is hard not to believe that all of these things, the history of the team, the return of former Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter and the woes of the current edition of the Predators, are inexorably linked.
No matter how much the players in the Predators' dressing room may want to downplay Saturday's return of Suter to the team that drafted him, nurtured him into a star and watched him sign a 13-year, $98 million contract with the Minnesota Wild on July 4, this weekend looms large on a whole range of fronts.
First and foremost, Suter or no Suter, homecoming or no homecoming, the Predators are in desperate need of points.
They have limped home from an 0-3 West Coast road trip that saw them outscored 12-3. It continued a trend that has dogged this team all year. Even when they were winning or at least collecting points early in the season, they were doing it mostly via smoke, mirrors and netminder Pekka Rinne.
But living on the edge caught up with the Predators, and the team that found enough offense to make the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons has found little this season, leaving the distinct feeling that it is all slipping away.
"It's now all caught up to us," Poile told ESPN.com before Friday's engagement with the Edmonton Oilers, a kind of undercard leading into Saturday's emotional tilt with Suter and the Wild.
"We're uncharacteristically not playing what I would call Predators hockey," Poile said.
The team's 9-9-5 record that has them outside the playoff bracket in the Western Conference is indicative of where the team is at, Poile said. And it's not good enough.
The next three weeks leading up to the April 3 trade deadline will be nervous times for the Nashville organization, and Poile has told his team as much.
"We've got to do it soon," he said. "No, not soon, we've got to do it now."
The GM recently issued a challenge to his players: give him a reason to be a buyer on April 3.
"And for your sake, don't put me in a position where I'm a seller," he said in retelling the message he conveyed to his team.
For the most part, the Predators way has been to believe in the sum of the parts when it comes to offense and rely on elite defense and goaltending to carry them forward. The team has never had a Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby or Corey Perry to lead the offensive charge, but it has perennially iced four lines that could be counted on to chip in enough goals to get the team to that three-goal threshold that has more often than not been enough for victory.
Not this year. Not yet.
"Our best players have not been our best players," Poile said.
There are lots of folks who factor into that statement.
The Predators' leading goal scorer is 22-year-old Gabriel Bourque with six goals.
Patric Hornqvist has two goals. Last season, he led the team with 27.
Sergei Kostitsyn has two goals. Last season, he had 17.
But if there is one player who illustrates the team's predicament, it's captain Shea Weber.
Signed to an offer sheet by the Philadelphia Flyers in the offseason, the Predators swallowed hard and matched the 14-year, $114 million deal. The offer sheet was presented three weeks after Suter signed his big deal with the Wild.
The two represented the complete package: the brute strength and powerful shot of Weber, the slick skating and puck-moving of Suter. They were as good a pair as there was in the NHL for a number of years. If Weber got the headlines and the accolades -- he has twice been nominated for the Norris Trophy -- then Suter was his enabler, the Tonto to Weber's Lone Ranger, the Kato to Weber's Green Hornet. They were simpatico embodied.
While it happens to every team and it is a business, Suter's loss cannot be understated given the Predators' predicament.
A year ago, the Predators had the top-ranked power play in the NHL and were eighth in goals scored per game. Weber led all defensemen with 10 power-play markers.
This year, they are 26th on the power play and 30th in goals scored. They have been shut out five times and have scored just one goal another five times. That's more than 20 percent of the entire season. Weber has zero power-play goals and just three man-advantage assists.
Coach Barry Trotz is trying to get his team back to the Predators style of getting pucks to the net and recovering them, drawing penalties and slipping in dirty goals.
But if this is about not getting enough shots -- the Predators rank last in the league in shots on goal per game and Poile points out that they are among the league's worst teams at getting shots on goal during the power play -- what is the issue?
Is it not getting the puck to the shooters at the right time, not getting shots through, players lacking the confidence to pound the puck at the net or too few players willing to pay the price to get in front to chase down loose pucks and rebound?
Are they not all questions that bring us back, perhaps inevitably, to Suter's departure and now his return in a different jersey?
At the time of Suter's signing, Poile was visibly shaken. What GM wouldn't be?
One national analyst told ESPN.com this week he still doesn't understand Suter's motivation. Nashville is a great city. Who wouldn't want to play with Shea Weber for the rest of his career, he wondered aloud. But that is a moot point.
Part of what made the situation difficult is that, in places like Nashville, there is a constant selling job that goes on from one end of the organization to the other.
From Poile's office down to the folks selling single-game tickets, the team must be sold in equal parts to the game. Poile must sell his vision to his players to keep them believing and to make them want to stay in Nashville. While the Predators are not a shrinking violet when it comes to making deals -- Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill were all acquired by Poile at the trade deadline in recent years -- they rely on astute drafting and developing players to make the machinery work in a place that will always face different economic challenges than big market teams. In turn, the team must sell those homegrown players to what has become a rabid fan base. It sells that relationship in a way that is different than big market teams like Toronto or Philadelphia, where roster turnover is a way of life. Nashville tells fans: Love these players because we have loved and nurtured them and they will play their butts off for you.
It has worked.
Heading into Saturday's game against the Wild, the Predators had sold out every home game. Nashville has turned into a rocking hockey town. But the line that separates success and failure, profits and losses, is perilously thin in many NHL markets, and Nashville is no different.
What happens to that sellout string if the team keeps losing or misses the playoffs?
That's why Suter's decision to sign with Minnesota bugged Poile so much. This wasn't just an asset that walked out the door; it was the team's blood and sweat that walked out the door. The blood and sweat of the fan base too.
Poile and the Predators invested in Suter, his future and the future he represented to the team. The fans invested in him too.
This isn't about Suter being disloyal. He invested in the team, and there is no doubt it was hard for him to leave. But he ultimately made the choice. Their fans didn't have a say in the matter and must still deal with the consequences.
Although the Predators have played twice in Minnesota already this season, Saturday represents something different, especially with both the Wild and Predators scratching and clawing to try to shoulder their way back into the top eight in the Western Conference.
"I didn't think I'd be that nervous until I actually showed up here at the rink," Suter told reporters after the Wild skated in Nashville Friday afternoon.
The Wild are staying at a hotel across the street from Bridgestone Arena, and Suter joked that he found his way to the correct dressing room.
"No wrong turns," he said. "It's weird walking into the hotel across the street. Just knowing that I'm on the other side now."
"It'll be interesting. Obviously, he kind of did what he did on his own terms," said David Legwand, the last remaining Predator from day one. "I know he loved this town; he loved playing here, but he kind of went his own way on July 4, and we'll see what the fans do. It's up to them to do whatever they want.
"I don't think we're too worried about it. He made his decision and went his own separate way, and that's something we have to live with."
It will be strange, Poile acknowledged.
"He was a big part of our team for a lot of years," Poile said. "He'll always be one of the best players that played on our team in our short history."
After the Predators' practice Thursday, Weber would not engage in any kind of whimsical discussion about his old pal's return to Nashville. Instead, he would talk only about the importance of the game against the Oilers on Friday.
"We've just got to do it. We've sat here the last couple of days talking about it. Enough talk. We just have to do it," Weber said. "Guys got to look in the mirror. Everyone's got to be accountable to themselves and to each other. If you're not playing hard for the guy beside you, you're letting him down, and I think that's been the case this year. We just got to put in that much more effort and be that much more determined."
Saturday night, those words will be put to the test against an old friend, making for an interesting homecoming.
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