Sunday, July 8, 2012

Will Top Talent Play in Nashville?

The Nashville Predators and their fans are still stinging from being spurned by Ryan Suter as he took his bromance with Zach Parise and his talents to Minnesota. Being rejected by Suter, the talented defenseman drafted and developed by the Predators, and seeing available free agents sign with other clubs has left a palpable sense of frustration among the Predator faithful.

That frustration has caused many of those faithful to ask if top level talent will come to Nashville.

Seeing a player like Suter leave for another team rekindles the awful memories of the Predators fire sale initiated by then owner Craig Leipold in 2007 as he positioned the team for sale. Watching stars on that team leave for other NHL clubs is painfully etched in the psyche of Predator fans, and there is no doubt that it colors today's outlook.

Then owner Leipold couldn't- or wouldn't- pay for the talent that many thought necessary to win, pleading poverty and mounting losses. As players such as Tomas Vokoun and Kimmo Timmonen were sent to the exits, the Predators were left with filling their roster mainly with their draftees developed in their system.

Fast forward to 2012, and the Predators have seen an elite player depart and questions abound about the future of another star, Shea Weber. All of a sudden, it starts to sound like 2007 all over again.

This time it's different, though.

The Predators now have a local ownership group that has committed to spend to the cap. Look at the offer to Suter, 13 years and $90 million, or consider the commitment to get Weber signed to a market contract, and it can be surmised that the words of the owners have weight.

So if the owners are ready and willing to spend, can Nashville attract the top talent?

Is Nashville a great place to live that becomes a starting point for great players that move on to other clubs or stopping point for fading players in the twilight of their career instead of a destination for elite talent? The answer to that question determines the place of the Predators in the hockey hierarchy.

Sam Page of On the Forecheck wrote a great article here about how the franchise needs to become a destination franchise. His point about moving beyond promoting the quality of life and instead promoting the quality of hockey is THE inflection point in the growth of this franchise. It is time to move to the next level not only in perception but performance.

And therein lies the rub.

Are the Predators in a Catch 22 where they need top talent to win a Cup, but will not get top talent until they win a Cup?

Yes. Sorta.

That doesn't mean that Nashville is permanently locked into the limbo of being very good in the regular season and fading in the playoffs. To get off the treadmill of being good but not great, it means that the team has to do what they did with Ryan Suter.

Open the checkbook to top flight talent.

Make no mistake, the Predators don't  have to participate in some of the silliness that occurs at the trade deadline or at the start of free agency. But the team has to pay for the talent that compliments the existing players, talent that doesn't just fill a hole but makes the team better.

Elite talent.

Obviously, that means that the price is higher for players that are difference makers.

The Predators have operated on the cheap to this point in their history. Now is the time to change that reality and bring in talent that will take the Predators from the cusp of great to elite. The fact is that if the ownership does not do that- not only this year but for years to come- then the Predators will be nothing more than a good team.

And in the NHL, you have to be elite to win the Cup.

Money obviously isn't the only variable in an athlete's decision process. Coaching, team, and quality of life on and off the ice all factor into a player deciding to cast his lot with a team. The Predators have been very good in all those areas except money.

Until now.

This is a radical change of course for the Predators, and it will take some time for their fans to get used to owners that are ready and capable of spending to the cap.

More importantly, it is going to take some getting used to by the elite players in the League. The Predators have never been engaged in attempting to attract these game changers. Showing them the positives that are in Nashville paired with contracts that are on par with the other major players will, over time, make Nashville a destination franchise.

And they will come.

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