The struggling Nashville Predators are going to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. That has prompted rumblings among the fan base that it is time for head Coach Barry Trotz, General manager David Poile, or both to go.
Fans are disgruntled over the lack of offense, the perceived strictures of the Predators "system" on the ice, and the frustrating lack of high end talent that is in the system or currently on the ice.
To some degree, all those criticisms are accurate.
To some degree.
To understand where the Predators are today and how they got there, it is instructive to look at the developmental philosophy of this team, one that has been consistent from day one of the franchise; the personnel on the roster now and in the system; and the preparation of those players by the coaching staff.
From day one, the Predators have been a team built from the net out: solid goaltending, a quality blue line, and forwards that played a good two way game. From the inaugural season until today, the Predators have been consistent with that philosophy and have had success with it.
After the formative years that saw a rag tag bunch of castoffs win 28 games, the Predators steadily built on solid goaltending and the development of young defensemen to become a more competitive team. That philosophy paid huge dividends in the 2003 draft, which saw the team pick up Ryan Suter, Keving Klein, and Shea Weber. All emerged into solid defenders with Weber and Suter becoming elite blueliners. Pekka Rinne was drafted in 2004 and developed into a solid goaltender for the Predators.
Consistent with that philosophy was the drafting and acquiring of forwards that could play a consistently good two way game. Defensive responsibility was as important as offensive creativity and production.
Perhaps more so.
It became the "Predator Way"- be hard to play against and shut down the other team.
And while every coach in the League will say that playing a solid game in all zones is critical, every coach will also tell you that you cannot win if you don't shoot the puck and score. Now that blinding flash of the obvious may seem...well, obvious, but the fact remains that successful teams have players that can play offense as well as defense.
Has the Predators philosophy, the "Predators Way" of being tough to play against hurt the team and limited its success?
It certainly has this season as the foundational component of the Predator Way, goaltender Pekka Rinne, was felled with an infection that caused him to miss 51 games. As such, the team has struggled, playing .500 hockey and finding themselves well out of the playoff race.
Beyond that, though, the free agent acquisition of Predator type players- gritty and defensively responsible- along with the existing roster, could not score enough goals to overcome the loss of Rinne. In fact, the Predators are tied for the ignominious honor of having been shut out the most times this season.
Clearly, the philosophy of defense first can be a foundation for success.
But it cannot be the only component of a successful team.
Which brings us to...
In looking at any hockey team, there are three components of personnel: the drafting/development of talent; the evaluation of existing players on the roster and potential acquisitions; and the management of the players on the roster at the NHL level.
The imprimatur of General Manager David Poile is on all these areas.
There are numerous metrics to evaluate a GM, but in my view, one of the most important is the drafting and development of talent, which has been something the Predators have focused upon since their inception.
Since the Predators entered the League in 1998 and through 2010 (an arbitrary cutoff since those players drafted after that date are still very early in their development process), the Predators have drafted 66 forwards.
Of those 66 forwards, 15 have played 100 games in the NHL, a 23% "success" rate. I used 100 games because that usually means a player is good enough to stick around the League if he passes that threshold.
Some of these players are still on the Predators roster (Hornqvist, Smith, Wilson, Ellis) while others have been traded or retired. (The entire history of the Predators draft picks can be found here).
As a point of comparison, over the same time period, the Chicago Blackhawks drafted 78 forwards and 27 of them played at least 100 games. That is a success rate of 35%.
There are other teams that have done worse than the Predators in the development of players to become NHL ready, but the successful teams have a higher rate of developing players into NHL caliber assets.
For a team that does has not historically spend freely in free agency, scouting, drafting, and developing players is critical. And while the Predators have done a superb job of drafting and developing NHL ready blueliners, the performance in drafting and developing forwards has been suspect.
Which leads to free agent signings, which every team uses to plug holes in their roster.
With a few notable exceptions, the Predators have not been big players in the free agent market or at the trade deadlines. This past summer, Poile signed Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, and Carter Hutton. The merits of those signings, specifically term, dollars, and no movement clauses have come under criticism from fans.
While the jury is still out on Stalberg, Cullen, Nystrom, and Hendricks were just more of the same for the Predators, who needed upper echelon scoring.
The Hutton signing bears mentioning, as this was a huge gamble by Poile. The status of Rinne's health and durability after major hip surgery was unknown, and the decision to go with an unproven player with 1 game of NHL experience as his backup was foolish. And it bit this team. I believe that Hutton will be a capable NHL goaltender, but to enter the season with the team's number one netminder questionable and no experienced backup was a high risk/low reward scenario
Poile has extricated himself from the awful Hendricks contract and has made some astute trades to bring in younger, offensively gifted players that will hopefully provide the boost to scoring.
And this team will need to have those players on the roster if they are going to succeed in the Western Conference.
Which brings us to how this roster is utilized by the coaching staff.
Fans are grumbling about the defense first system that the Predators play, saying it stifles offensive creativity and production.
It very well might, but every team that is in the playoffs this year will talk about their system and playing solid defense first. In fact, watch any game in any round and the premium is on being hard to play against and playing sound defense.
Sounds a lot like the "Predator Way" doesn't it?
Head Coach Barry Trotz has been the only coach this team has had, and he has undoubtedly done an excellent job of getting the most out of the talent he has been given, which at times hasn't been much. And he has the players on his roster playing all out most every night.
If the players quit on this coach and the staff and were not giving their best effort, I would have genuine concern. If it appeared Trotz had "lost the room", I would be at the front of the line saying it was time for change.
That doesn't appear to be the case.
But that is not to say that there aren't concerns with how the team is handled. Notably, the tendency to reduce the ice time of potential offensive producers because of defensive gaffes. Fans of the team have seen players get in the doghouse and have their ice time reduced or worse yet, seen those players relegated to healthy scratches. Reducing ice time is an effective strategy to get a players attention, but it certainly seems the leash is awfully short for some players.
Managing a team over the course of an 82 game season is a fluid process. Injuries move players in and out of the lineup, and sometimes I am baffled by the line combos and the placement of certain players on certain lines. But the only measure I have as a fan in the stands is the compete level- is the team still competing for the coach?
It appears to me they are.
Can more be squeezed out of the players on the roster?
I would certainly like to think that players like Colin Wilson, Gabriel Bourque and others can produce at a higher level.
Can they do that with Trotz as the Head Coach?
I don't know.
Trotz has shown that he can coach scorers and a highly productive offense, as he did with a team that included Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, and others that produced 106 points in the 2005-6 season and 110 points in the 2006-7 season.
So the question becomes has Trotz lost his touch or has this team been built in such a way that it doesn't have the talent to produce?
THE PREDATORS PROBLEM
The way this team is currently constructed requires playing their system perfectly. If they do not, if Rinne, Hutton, or whomever is in net struggles, then the probability of a win is low if non-existent. If the defense breaks down, the team struggles. There is not enough offensive firepower to consistently overcome a deficit on the scoreboard.
More troubling is the lack of offensive talent that can take control of a game. The Predators lack forwards that can skate the puck into the zone when faced with pressure, resulting in a dump and chase game that too often has seen the team lose the puck battles necessary to get control and create chances.
This points to the fact that an over emphasis on the "Predator Way" has resulted in a group of forwards in particular that cannot generate offense consistently. Yes, they are gritty and hard to play against, but offense has been sacrificed for grit.
More troubling, the Predators front office has shown a tendency to draft those type of players. Their upside is limited to third or fourth line duty. The Hockey News ranks the current group of players in the system as a C-, further evidence that elite offensive players are lacking in the system. In fact, the only Predator player that made THN's future 50 Watch was Filip Forsberg, acquired in a trade from the Washington Capitals.
If the foundation of this team is to draft and develop players, this does not bode well for the future of this team.
Irrespective of who is behind the bench.
Teams like the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues have done a good job of drafting and developing players that can play in all zones and have shown significant offensive upside. Much of their recent success is a direct result of this effort.
The Predators have not kept pace.
And until that changes, this team will continue to struggle.