We have achieved yet another “first” for our little franchise. For the last 14 years, we’ve been the overachieving, little-team-that-could, victim of a small non-traditional market, with gritty players and a coach & GM that stretched every dollar and got more bang for the limited buck than most. Nationally, we’re mostly ignored until we can no longer be, usually when we reach the playoffs yet again while teams like the Leafs and Canadians can’t shoot straight despite all their resources and advantages.
2012 was no different. We again made the playoffs. Trotz is lauded for another 40+ win season and DP is up for GM of the year again. Part of the reason for DP’s repeat as GM of the Year Candidate and not Trotz is the “all in” deadline moves bringing in AK46, Rads, Gill, and Goose. Couple that with making it to the 2nd round last year and a strong finish this year, and “for the first time” there are expectations we’d go deep into the playoffs.
Then we roll over the Wings, putting the hockey world on notice that this isn’t your father’s Predators. These guys are going from pat-them-on-the-head-aren’t-they-a-hard-working-team to true contenders.
We’re favored by most of the elite hockey class (the initial kiss of death for the former little-team-that-could) against this year’s version of past year Predator teams. The Yotes are gritty, nameless, non-traditional market rising above ownership issues, with great defense and top goaltending. The team the elite teams would rather not play. It’s like Ali fighting Chuck Wepner. Ali’s gonna win but will never look good doing it.
Game 1 is a toss-up and we lose in OT. Preds dominate the 2nd half of the game but can’t get it by Smith. Although down 1-0, there is little worry. Now that the rust is off, Game 2 will be a repeat of Game 1 minus the rusty start and the Preds will even things up because they’re better.
Game 2 may go down in history as The Day The Preds Grew Up And Became A Big League Accountable National Sports Team. Game 2 was not a continuation of Game 1. The wheels came off of the little-team-that-could. We lost a game the elites said we shouldn’t have lost, AND our signature deadline acquisition was singled out by the national media (Keith Jones and NBC) for being a fraud and complete flop. We not only lost a game last Sunday, we lost some of the pride in our team we’ve taken for granted. We no longer had the cover of flopping while playing a team the elites always said we were inferior to (Sharks, Wings, Hawks, and Canucks). When we lost then, we were fulfilling our expectations and making them look smart. This loss burst the bubble of the Pred Mystique. We committed the unforgiveable sin. We underachieved when WE had the superior resources and advantages.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, what followed put the Preds in Bizarro World. Our two star players did what selfish, entitled star players have been doing since the beginning of time: They went out partying the night before a big game AND GOT CAUGHT!!! The only upside is, maybe it explains why the usually reliable Preds flopped so badly in Game 2.
Enter Coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile. For the last 14 years, in an NHL world where coaches and GMs are changed out like sour milk, these guys and Nashville don’t play by those reactive rules. Their stick-to-it-ness and belief in a system and a creed, defy the usual laws of NHL gravity. They represent all that is good in managing a franchise and doing things right. Not one major controversy in 14 years ….. until now. Because it’s the playoffs, expectations are high, and the rule violation is happening in front of everyone’s eyes. Pred management must decide not only how to handle the infraction, but how to turn this series around.
Predictably, they make what they termed an easy choice. One game suspension. Half the hockey world applauds and points to this as yet another example of Nashville doing things right. Even if we lose Game 3, we did the right thing and in Nashville, that’s more important. The other half of the hockey world, the half that obeys the laws of big city NHL gravity, questions whether Trotz/Poile are living in the real world. Fine ‘em, chew ‘em out, sit ‘em for the 1st period, but geez, this is the playoffs and they’re grown men. It’s not like they killed anyone. In the “Real World”, this happens all the time. It’s management’s job to sweep it under the rug and win at all costs. Must be all those dang churches in Nashville. Another reason that city isn’t big league.
Also, in the back of Barry’s mind, these two guys have messed with his team-first, defense-first, Predator Hockey. Game 2 was Exhibit A. As un-Trotz-like a game as there has ever been. So suspending the Dynamic Duo has a secondary purpose. It allows Trotz to enforce Predator Hockey and win his way, while receiving the accolades for doing-the-right-thing and suspending the bad seeds. And what happens, Game 3 is Trotz Nirvana. Preds win in ultra-typical Trotz style and instantly all the moons and stars are once again aligned. The national press gives almost a universal standing O to DP, Barry, and the team. The Good Guys won by doing the right thing. As Barry said afterward, usually you have to sacrifice something to do the right thing. We were fortunate to do the right thing and not have to sacrifice a win. (Images of George W. proclaiming Mission Accomplished on the Aircraft Carrier rush thru my head.)
But a strange thing happened on the way to they-lived-happily-ever-after-in-Smashville. Barry tells the press he may not play Rads and AK46 in Game 4.
OK, we bought into the doing-the-right-thing. But you only suspended them for one game. Now they’ve served their time, you were fortunate enough to win the game they missed, and now you may not play two of your best players electively in Game 4? Over the next 2 days, 90% of the press is openly questioning the sanity of this move.
Meanwhile Trotz leans on one of his mantras: Why mess with the good thing. We won without them, played a near perfect Predator Hockey game. The two guys replacing them (Wilson and Tootoo) played very well. In the Trotz Bill of Rights, you reward that and stick with it. Although Barry knows the Russian Duo are more skilled and better players, against this type of Yote team, we may be better without the potentially undisciplined wild-and-crazy-Russian-guys.
Mark that day down: Friday, May 4, 2012. The day Barry Trotz lost his coaching innocence. In the spotlight of the national hockey and sports world, he makes what appears to be an illogical, almost ideological decision to intentionally play with inferior players based on a reward system and a gut feel that this team without the undisciplined snipers has a better chance to win Game 4 than the best-predator-team-ever touted in the “all-in” promo’s for the playoffs.
Trotz found himself in a no-win situation if he didn’t win Game 4. Play them and you lose: why did you mess with the good thing from Game 3. Sit them and lose: How could you leave your two best players off the ice in the most critical game of the season. In the end, I believe Barry believed a low-scoring, defensively oriented Game 4 gave him the best chance to win. He got the game he wanted, but the Hockey Gods wrote the wrong ending. The Yotes got the bounce, Horny missed the open net, and the refs blew the whistle too soon.
And so began Barry’s nightmare ending. Not only a loss, but a shutout, with his two top scorers wearing ties instead of helmets. The predictable avalanche proceeds. Almost unanimously, the press fries Trotz. Their logic in retrospect is simple and condemning concerning Trotz. You didn’t have a choice in Game 3. They were in prison for their sins. You were not sitting them in Game 4 for those same sins. If you were, they’d have been suspended for two games. You decided you had a better chance to win without them, and you lost. You may have lost with them anyway, but as Barry said himself, we’ll never know. Barry rolled the dice and did something 90% of coaches would not have done, and it came up craps.
But it gets worse ……
As elimination Game 5 approaches, Barry is giving every indication the Bad Boys will be back in the lineup. In the mind of Trotz, using Trotz rules and credos, it’s perfectly logical to reinsert them. We lost the preceding game without them. You shake things up things aren’t working (just like you don’t shake things up when things are working), therefore they’re in. In Barry’s mind, no surprise here, lets drop the puck.
The rest of the hockey world, feeling vindicated that they were right in condemning the sitting of the boys in Game 4, now point to reinserting them into Game 5 as proof positive Trotz not only screwed up Game 4, he now is defying his own principles on two fronts:
1) If you sat them for 2 games as a punishment, and they’re a cancer in the room, then by playing them in Game 5 you’re being a hypocrite toward your team first credo. It comes off as desperation. If they violated team first, then they’re no longer part of the team. Go with what you got and lose with dignity.
2) If you sat them in Game 4 because you believe your team minus them has a better chance to beat the Yotes, then why change now? You lost on a bounce, hard luck, and a bad call Friday. Had the puck bounced the other way and the ref not experienced premature whistazation, would you be playing them in Game 5? Probably not.
The only way Barry gets out of this is if the Preds sweep 3 and win the series. Even winning 2 and losing in Game 7 will expose the missed opportunity of Game 4. If the Preds fall in Game 5, it’s a suffocating house of cards falling on DP and Barry. For the first time in 14 years, they will be ridiculed by the hockey world for underachieving and making the wrong call and costing the franchise its best chance ever for the Cup. They will then extend the doom out to the FA decisions pending. Suter will leave these bubbling southerners. AK46 and Rads decide they’d rather play in a less structured system, on and off the ice. Gill retires and Goose resigns with Buffalo. Weber signs a one year deal, setting up his eventual exit.
And the Preds go back to being the little-team-that-could, with one major exception. Lost innocence. We underachieved and blew it. We’re now just like every other team and not the team that does-it-right and is rewarded. Barry and DP stay on, defending their decisions and pointing to the trouble makers that forced the situation in the first place. The Preds will go on and have another good year next year, with a younger team and less expectations. They’ll secure the 7th slot and battle against the elites, undermanned but scrappy, and we’ll support it, love it, and hope against hope we get another chance at the Cup.
But Barry will no longer be nominated for Coach of the Year. DP will not be nominated for GM of the Year. They will both have become victims of the very type of player they’ve always preached against and rarely let inside the Pred bubble. Like Pacman took down the previously disciplined rep of Jeff Fisher, whenever you bite the apple, try to become God yourself, instead of keeping the faith in what you’ve always stood for and pass on the apple, you lose. Barry and DP’s bite wasn’t suspending Rads, it was bringing him back to USA in the first place, allowing him to freelance too much leading up to Game 2, and then putting him back in Game 5.
Anything less than a series win dooms Trotz Game 4 decision. No matter where you were on this decision before it was made, the only thing that mattered was whether we won, and we didn’t. Rads will make them look foolish by playing in Russia next year, returning as a UFA, and leaving the Preds empty handed.
Barry is a great person and a great coach. He will have plenty of opportunities to recover from the bad press he’s getting right now. And with that, comes the next “First” for the Preds. The first time we’re held accountable for losing and making questionable decisions when the Cup was on the line. No more pat-them-on-the-head cuz they grind so hard. No more look-how-much-they-get-out-of-their-limited-payroll. We’re now fair game on an even playing field in a series we should be winning.