PITTSBURGH – It all started so innocently.
David Poile saw P.K. Subban’s name appear in trade rumours, but had no idea if there was anything to them. He didn’t even bother checking in with counterpart Marc Bergevin.
Maybe, just maybe, he might never have even got that far if "Montreal" and "Nashville" weren’t grouped together in the alphabetical list of NHL teams.
"We sat beside each other at the general manager’s meetings in Buffalo at the entry draft and I just said, ‘Look, I never called you but I’m just reading all this stuff, are you trading this guy or not trading this guy?"’ Poile said Sunday, on the eve of the Stanley Cup Final. "And one thing led to another."
A veteran of more than three decades as a general manager, he quickly knew where that conversation was headed. Once it was clear Montreal wasn’t after picks and prospects, it had to be his captain Shea Weber.
Initially, Bergevin told Poile the same thing he said to reporters in a tense scrum on that afternoon of June 23 – that he wasn’t trying to trade his star defenceman, but other teams were calling.
"So you try to push him a little bit more and say, ‘So do you want to talk about something?"’ said Poile. "I just said if I was to do this, would you have interest. That was, as I call it, the big gulp for both of us. Then we spoke a little bit at the draft, we both got back to Montreal and Nashville and gulped some more and went from there."
Five days after that initial conversation, the Weber-for-Subban trade was consummated.
It was a blockbuster, the likes of which is rarely seen in today’s NHL. It also happened to be the second such deal he’d made in a matter of months after acquiring centre Ryan Johansen from Columbus for stud defenceman Seth Jones during the 2015-16 season.
For a 67-year-old hockey lifer who is risk-adverse by nature, they now stand as transactions that could become career-defining with his Predators about to face the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Stanley Cup.
"This might be a contradiction, but I see all the trades I’ve made and it’s not like that’s my first choice of how I want to run the team," said Poile. "If I didn’t make any trades that would be fine. If we did it all through the draft that would be awesome because those are the guys you’re closest to and know and spend the most time with.
"But there comes a time and a place where you need to improve your club and you’ve got to take chances and risks. I think this job is a big-time gamble. I don’t have any risk in my life, I’m as conservative as you can get. So this might be the risky side of my life."
The only GM the Predators have ever known has had to evolve along with his organization. He can still tell the story right from the very beginning, when an unfavourable expansion draft process in 1998 left Nashville with nothing "but blue-collar players, workers, what have you."
The first job was turning over that group to uncover some skill.
Once that began happening, other roadblocks appeared. Ownership changed hands once and then again, with Jim Balsillie attempting to purchase the team in 2007 with the intent to move it to Hamilton (following a failed 2006 bid to land the Penguins).
It was only in recent years where stability in the ownership suite settled things on the hockey operations side. The Predators had one of the NHL’s best defence corps and strong goaltending, but were perpetually in need of more scoring.
Some luck arrived along the way.
For example, there was hidden good fortune in a trade request from Martin Erat – a lifelong Predator with more than 700 games on his resume – during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He delivered it directly to Poile while the team was on the road in Edmonton.
"He comes up to my room and says: ‘I need a change, I don’t think we’re going to win here,"’ said Poile. "As a manager, you never want to hear that from anybody. I tried to talk him out of that for basically two or three weeks before I even made a phone call, or what have you, and he said ‘No, I’ve got to get out.’
"So we weren’t going anywhere that year and he had a no-trade contract, and to make it worse he only gave me a few teams."
The list was "no more" than five. One of the teams on it was the Washington Capitals, who were trying to get over the hump and had a highly regarded prospect named Filip Forsberg in their system.
"I called those teams and I said: ‘Here’s what I would take,"’ said Poile. "And actually, in my own mind, I was prepared to wait until July 1 because then Erat would have one more year left on his contract and I thought that maybe might even get us more.
"So I just told the ‘X’ number of teams that this is what I wanted and Washington said ‘yes.’"
Forsberg enters the Cup final as Nashville’s leading scorer with eight goals and 15 points.
What stands out most about some of Poile’s more recent moves is his willingness to take on players who had gained a reputation as the kind you can’t win with. The Mike Ribeiro situation didn’t turn out well for Nashville, but Subban, Johansen and James Neal – acquired from Pittsburgh in 2014 – have all made big contributions during this run.
Call it a market inefficiency, of sorts, even if Poile didn’t specifically view it as one.
"You hear different things about James Neal, you hear different things about Subban, you hear things about Ryan Johansen, you have to do your best investigation what you can and you have to make a gut call of whether you can now fit (them) into your franchise, your systems, your coaching staff," said Poile. "I mean, you have to have a buy-in from everybody and then you quickly have to get on the same page as that player."
For Subban, the breakthrough came right away. He appreciated that Poile invited him and influential people in his charitable foundation down to Nashville for a meeting to get working together.
He also received early encouragement from head coach Peter Laviolette.
"The one thing Lavvy said to me is we have 22 players on this team and everybody’s different," said Subban.
Without question, his was the toughest deal for Poile to make. Weber had been with the organization since 2003 – a steal with the No. 49 pick during a draft held in Bridgestone Arena – and was an extremely popular player inside the dressing room and community.
It was a trade made with the consent of ownership.
"I think they’re both top players – totally different – but one difference that may stand out somewhere down the line is they’re about three and a half years difference in age, which should eventually favour us," said Poile.
"This was right up to me to the ownership level because we wanted to know if we trade Shea Weber, is this going to affect our season ticket base?" he added. "What’s going to be the backlash? Any number of things. Cap recapture, in your locker room the chemistry, the culture. Who’s going to be the new captain? What’s the leadership going to be? On and on and on.
"There’s a ton of things to think about. It’s risky. You can think it all out, but you don’t know until it actually happens."