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February 9, 2007
  

Grand Ole Irony in Nashville
The Nashville Predators are ignoring off-ice controversies and have the Stanley Cup in their claws, writes TFP's Greg Wyshynski.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- As a writer, I don't like to traffic in irony because, honestly, I'm just not sure how to define it.

I'm one of those lunkheads who thought Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" was actually filled with ironies; turns out, being in a traffic jam when you're already late or having it rain on your wedding day are just really annoying.

I suppose there may be something ironic about the inability to label things as "ironic" because of "Ironic," but I'm uncomfortable making that leap — like Dave Coulier, I've been irreversibly damaged by Ms. Morissette, and I didn't even get a date in the theater out of it.

So keep that in mind as I make the following proclamation: There would be something very ironic about the Nashville Predators winning the Stanley Cup this season.

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(June 1) The NHL's Quiet Rebellion
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(May 11) Deep Sigh Diving
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(Apr. 27) The NHL's Attendance Myth
(Apr. 20) A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Wales Conference Playoffs
(Apr. 13) The 'Canes Scrutiny
(Apr. 06) Ruffling the Peacock's Feathers
(Mar. 30) The Next Great Hockey Town, OK?
(Mar. 23) The NHL Blog Bust
(Mar. 16) Gerber, baby!
(Mar. 09) Deadline? Dead Time.
(Mar. 02) Clearly, This Rule's a Bad Idea

Here's the scenario: The Predators are atop the Western Conference standings with the most talented team in the franchise's brief history. Yet, most of the conversation this season about Nashville has been focused off the ice: On empty seats in the arena, on city businesses that aren't financially committed to the franchise... heck, even on apathetic, unsupportive local restaurants that are being added to an ever-growing enemies' list among Predators fans.

Owner Craig Leipold told The Tennessean that he's looking to sell 40 percent of the team to local ownership in the hopes that it will ignite interest from a fickle Nashville business community. The same publication has reported that the Preds' final attendance figures — the team was averaging 14,620 per home date as of Feb. 7 — could impact everything from its portion of league-wide revenue sharing to triggering a potential escape clause in its contract with the city in 2008.

All of this off-ice strife has led to Nashville becoming the poster-child for critics of Gary Bettman's expansion into non-traditional U.S. hockey markets and, with the Penguins apparently staying in Pittsburgh, the franchise du jour for relocation speculators that have the Predators bound for Winnipeg, Kansas City, and Las Vegas (or Philadelphia, a city in desperate need of an NHL team these days).

That a team playing with the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head might win the Stanley Cup this season seems, to my admittedly untrained eye, ironic enough.

But it gets better.

Do you remember the last team that made a successful run at the Stanley Cup while surrounded by rumors about its imminent departure to another city?

 

That would be the New Jersey Devils in 1995.

And where were they headed?

Nashville, of course.

I think for Dr. McMullen's Devils and Mr. Leipold's Predators, it's more about savvy owners using apocalyptic bombast to get what they want out of local businesses, government and fans than an actual desire to leave town. Maybe the players sense that, too; because in both cases, the teams exhibited unwavering focus and unprecedented success during times of off-ice duress.

In Nashville's situation, I believe that fortitude comes from the top. General Manager David Poile is, for my money, one of the best hockey men in the business. For 15 years, he ran the Washington Capitals as a consistent playoff team, despite facing many of the same off-ice issues as the Predators are today. Outside of Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen, Poile was responsible for every member of the only Washington team to ever play for the Stanley Cup in 1998. Poile wasn't universally adored by the fans, the majority of whom slammed him for trading players like Dino Ciccarelli and failing to secure that last piece of a championship puzzle during the 1980s.

Yet today, I have Caps fans telling me he'd make a great commissioner.

Poile's made some shrewd decisions in the last two years that have cemented the Predators as a Cup contender.

Paul Kariya is still as dangerous an offensive talent as there is in the Western Conference. J.P. Dumont was a free-agent coup who's solidified the team's scoring depth; and if last year showed anything, plays like a man possessed in the post-season.

Speaking of the post-season, Jason Arnott is a center that the San Jose Sharks won't push around, and who is one of the few players in the league that can attest to literally having won the Stanley Cup for his team.

To Poile's credit, he's the one who sold some of the veterans (and more importantly, their agents) on the Predators as a contender and on Nashville as an attractive home.

Poile and his staff have also excelled with younger talent. Homegrown draft picks like Martin Erat, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are prime contributors. Suter's a 22-year-old kid who's about a plus-13 while playing the fourth-most minutes on the roster — on a conference-leading team, that's just mind-blowing.

And when everyone in hockey was ready to "Daigle" David Legwand, Poile holds onto him and watches him blossom into the kind of complete, two-way talent for which Legwand's idol Stevie Yzerman was the prototype.

Poile's best move? That came back in 1997, when he brought Barry Trotz with him after nine years together in the Capitals organization to be the Predators' first head coach.

Without any NHL experience as a bench boss, Trotz was immediately labeled by some as the kind of lamb-to-the-slaughter stop-gap that most first-season expansion coaches become. But that characterization undermined what is one of Poile's greatest attributes — just ask Legwand — which is loyalty. Trotz was going to grow with the team, as much a teacher of young players as a student of how to win in the National Hockey League. His head may have been in the gallows a few times, like near the start of the 2003-04 season after the team had regressed a bit. Yet by 2004, the Predators were a playoff team and Trotz was a Jack Adams candidate.

I love this guy, from the seven memorable years he spent toiling in the AHL to that Smylex gas grin of his. I love the way he coaches, and I love the fact that he's dedicated himself to growing hockey in one of the most non-traditional of non-traditional markets. I'm not a big believer of East Coast bias, but the disparity in platitudes handed out to Trotz and Lindy Ruff is staggering; it's like comparing the ratings for the NHL's YoungStars Game and "American Idol."

I think that all changes this year if the Predators are who I think they are. They have that magical mix of veterans who act like they've been there and young players who are desperate to know how it feels. Their quick, mobile defensive game is light-years beyond where its experience level tells you it should be. Goalie Tomas Vokoun — fragile as he is — has been waiting for the chance to Khabibulin his team to a Cup. If he falters, Nashville has what Edmonton and Carolina showed us is essential last season: Option B, in a talented kid named Chris Mason.

The powerplay needs to be better than middle of the pack, especially with the respect Kariya, Arnott and Kimmo Timonen seem to earn from opposing penalty kills. And Nashville still feels one veteran center and/or defenseman away — unfortunately, Poile isn't known for his last-minute shopping.

That said, I haven't seen many teams in the NHL this season with the total package the Predators have. They are undoubtedly a contender for the Stanley Cup Finals, an accomplishment that could break down more barriers with the Nashville community than 1,000 marketing pamphlets could.

Hey — maybe they'll meet the New Jersey Devils there.

That'd be ironic, don'cha think?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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