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COUNTRY STRONG
Brian Cazeneuve
May 09, 2011
No history? No stars? No problem for the largely anonymous Predators, whose grinding, defense-first style has given the playoffs a whole new backbeat
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May 09, 2011

Country Strong

No history? No stars? No problem for the largely anonymous Predators, whose grinding, defense-first style has given the playoffs a whole new backbeat

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The Predators' recent success has been an exercise in patience. Poile's father, Bud, had been the first G.M. for both the Flyers (in 1967) and the Canucks (in '70), so start-up ventures are in David's DNA. He passed on a post with the Maple Leafs to take the job with expansion Nashville in 1997, and he recalls a piece of advice that he was given time and time again—Find an experienced coach; your team will be terrible, but he'll cover up a lot of sins. For his fledgling club, however, Poile was more concerned about finding someone with loyalty and patience, someone who would stick. As the former G.M. of the Capitals, Poile had taken a liking to the personable Trotz when the latter graduated from plucky 5'9", 178-pound minor league defenseman to the coach of Washington's AHL affiliate. In '97, in the days before his team even had a nickname, Trotz would go to club luncheons in the Nashville area and patiently explain such fundamentals as icing and offsides to potential fans. One day, he and former assistant coach Paul Gardner were looking through an old CHL guidebook and spotted a club called the Granby Prédateurs. They quickly added Predators to the list of names to be put up for a fan vote.

Trotz was more than loyal—he inspired loyalty throughout the organization. Assistant Brent Peterson and goalie coach Mitch Korn have been with the team since Day One. After 984 games behind the Nashville bench, Trotz has spent more time coaching a single team than all but three NHL coaches in history. In the locker room, making the rounds from stall to stall, he is a steadfast presence. "Sometimes it's your game; sometimes it's a personal thing," says Suter of the chats with his coach. "You always know he's in there with you. It's never you against him."

Though the Predators have made the playoffs in six of the last seven years, their history has been a two-act play. In 2004, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time, the Predators' payroll stood at $24 million, compared with just under $80 million for the Red Wings, their first-round opponent. Only after building from the draft did they add superstars Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg. Then, in 2007, after 106- and 110-point seasons, ownership decided to sell after slashing payroll. "We were essentially in a no-compete situation," recalls Poile, who traded or let go of Kariya, Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. "[We could either] give up or rebuild. We rebuilt. Today's team—our personnel, our approach—is a product of that desire for success no matter what."

This season, with the league's fifth-youngest team, the Predators dressed more of their own draft picks, 19, than all but one other NHL club. Nashville relies on a foundation of steady, stay-at-home defensive play, strong puck possession and aggressive forechecking to cover up for the absence of skilled forwards. The Predators finished 2010--11 as the third-stingiest club in the league, with 2.32 goals allowed per game.

Of course, Nashville did not score much either this season, averaging just 2.60 goals per game, the fewest of any club in the second round of the playoffs. The Predators spread their scoring throughout the roster, as 19 players had game-winning goals, and forwards Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat led the team with 50 points, the lowest total to lead any playoff team.

On the heels of the first-round upset of the Ducks, Nashville's young forwards were horribly flat in Game 1 against Vancouver, managing just 11 shots in the first two periods. "Too many passengers," Trotz said afterward. "They wanted it more than us." The next day he spent most of a two-hour practice in a team meeting, stressing puck control and fighting for face-offs. "It wasn't just the centers," he said. "We gave up on a lot of free pucks in the circle." In the Game 2 victory Nashville gave the puck away just three times, outshot Vancouver 46--33 and improved its face-off winning percentage from 39.4% to 57.3%. "Tonight you saw the real Predators," Trotz said. "We got everything we have out of what we've got."

That's a tribute to staying power, even for a team that seems content to keep its star power to a minimum.

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