The new Nashville Predators? Well, at least new-ish.
It’s early, yes, and that gaudy 6-1-2 record the Team Formerly Known as the NHL’s Most Boring Squad carries into Calgary Friday night is going to be awfully tough to maintain.
But it’s the way in which Nashville is playing these days under Peter Laviolette as much as the success the team is having in the standings that’s gathering attention.
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Against a good-skating, if inexperienced, Edmonton team on Wednesday, the Predators were fast, snapped the puck around deftly all night and created lots of chances, firing 35 shots at Ben Scrivens and scoring four times despite being dominated in the faceoff circle all night.
The goal totals aren’t yet pushing Nashville into the upper echelon of the NHL’s offensive clubs, but for the first time in a long time, at least the Predators seem to be eagerly trying to score rather than simply preventing goals. Their defence pinches harder now than they ever did under Barry Trotz, and they’ll be a little more aggressive now on the forecheck.
“We wanted to play a different style,” says Nashville GM David Poile. “We’re trying to play a game where we can do more things offensively, and to do that I needed to present (Laviolette) with the tools to do the job.”
Tools, to be sassy about it, might aptly describe some of the pieces Poile added. Or perhaps rejects from the Land of Misfit Toys. More than systems, it’s clearly personnel that have these Preds looking different from the old Preds.
Mike Ribeiro, booted with extreme prejudice out of Phoenix under curious, or weird, circumstances. Derek Roy, dumped by St. Louis, now with his fifth team in four seasons. Olli Jokinen, 35, no longer wanted in Winnipeg, a combined minus-56 in his past four seasons. James Neal, not quite what the Penguins were looking for despite his obvious goal-scoring skill.
After years of drafting carefully, trying to identify character and developing a team-first concept – they called it the Nashville way – this was a hard right turn for Poile, one that came after Trotz was replaced by Laviolette.
“Who knows? It’s a bit of a gamble,” he says. “We needed to make a change. Some of these players will work out, some won’t.”
Of course, with goalie Pekka Rinne fit again and the monstrous presence of Shea Weber on the back end, the Preds probably could afford to go for a few frills. Ribeiro and Neal are so far combining well on the top line, often with impressive youngster Filip Forsberg, while Roy and Jokinen are still searching for regular roles.
Mike Fisher and Viktor Stalberg are still coming back from injuries, so the Preds should get even faster. Roman Josi has formed a fine blueline partnership with Weber, while Ryan Ellis laid out Windsor junior teammate Taylor Hall on Wednesday and is asserting himself this season after a pre-season contract spat.
Want more offence? The team went for skillful, but smallish Swiss Kevin Fiala with the 11th overall pick last June, then grabbed Russian winger Vladislav Kamenev in the second round. Forward prospects Austin Watson and Brendan Leipsic are putting up some numbers early with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.
So the Preds, after missing the playoffs the past two springs following that massive post-season disappointment in the 2012 Stanley Cup tournament, are trying to change their image, trying to put their most offensive skate forward. Poile says shoring up the team’s appeal in the Nashville market by making the style more entertaining wasn’t really part of the motivation.
The club averaged 16,600 in attendance last season, 20th in the NHL while operating out of a building that doesn’t have the capacity of many of the league’s larger rinks. Hosting the NHL All-Star Game in 2016 will bring some glitz to Music City.
“The people have been very loyal in Nashville. They understand what has happened,” he said. “But our goal is still to sell out the building, and we have a ways to go. That said, business has never been better.”
Gambling on player acquisitions has, as is the case with most executives, sometimes worked for Poile over his long career, sometimes not. It worked when he sent Rick Green and Ryan Walter to Montreal for Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, but not as well when he let Scott Stevens walk as a free agent to St. Louis in exchange for five first round picks.
Peter Forsberg didn’t pan out as a star acquisition in the ’07 playoffs. Bringing back Alexander Radulov blew up in Poile’s face in one curfew-breaking night in Arizona.
Ribeiro, in particular, is a risky investment, and we’ll see how much Jokinen and Roy have left in the tank. But ever since missing out on instant offence in the 2013 draft when Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin went with the first three picks, leaving Nashville with a pretty handsome consolation prize in defenceman Seth Jones, the Nashville hockey boss has had to try and be resourceful in his search for offensive options.
The team wasn’t going to change itself, so Poile had to come up with some un-Nashville ways to change it.
After a summer of crossing his fingers and hoping for the best, so far, so good.