Monday, 8 May 2017

The MVP Isn't On The Ice

Music City is hopping once again as the Nashville Predators have done the unthinkable in sweeping the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in Round One and downing the St. Louis Blues in Round Two to advance to the Western Conference Final. Honestly, I don't know if there's a city that I've been to that enjoys a party as much as Nashville, and the Predators are giving their fans every reason to stay up late, watch hockey, and engage in celebration. While the city if known more for country music, various acts are emerging from the city in a number of genres. The one genre that you won't find in Nashville for the rest of this summer? The Blues.

The Predators look like they're having fun out there. They are getting monster contributions from their rearguards and Pekka Rinne is looking like one of the best to ever put the pads on once more. Roman Josi wad a pair of goals and three assists against St. Louis. PK Subban had a goal and five assists. Ryan Ellis had three goals in the series. In total, the six men playing defence combined for six goals and eleven assists against St. Louis, and that's a huge effort from the men who are supposed to keep the puck away from Pekka Rinne. It seems that task is made infinitely easier when it's in the other team's net.

Rinne improved to 8-2 with a 1.37 GAA, a .951 save percentage, and two shutouts - both in Chicago - in 10 games this post-season. He hasn't had to work very hard for a number of those wins in stopping 29 shots per night on average - some six less shots per night than his next closest, still-alive netminder in Braden Holtby - but some of his saves have been of the timely variety to thwart what appears to be scoring chances for the opposition. In other words, Rinne is being Rinne once again.

"He gives us the confidence," Josi told reporters. "I think every game he's been our best player. He's so confident back there. He's confident in making saves. He's confident in passing the puck. And he's been unbelievable for us."

A lot of the credit for where this team is should to GM David Poile for pulling off two monster trades to change the dynamics of his team. The first was the trade of young defenceman Seth Jones to Columbus for young centerman Ryan Johansen on January 6, 2016. At the time, there was much head-scratching about this deal, and even Poile was reluctant to give up Jones in a deal when he told Sportsnet's Hockey Central, "I never thought I would trade him. I didn’t want to trade him. I wanted to have our cake and eat it too.... It wasn't easy for me to pull the trigger."

However, the astute GM looked at his roster and realized he needed a big piece down the middle. With Columbus off to a terrible start and a coaching chance that saw John Tortorella come in and find fault with Johansen's play, things changed for Poile in terms of finding that young number-one centerman.

"It was pretty simple. I asked Jarmo if he was ever going to trade Johansen we coveted trying to get a top centre and he told me right off the bat if he was ever going to do it that it would take one of our top young defencemen," Poile explained. "Our offence has been inconsistent and we needed to find that No. 1 centre. We've been trying basically my whole career here in Nashville to get that top centreman."

The trade was exactly the change of scenery that Johansen needed. After posting 26 points in 38 games with the Blue Jackets, Johansen went out and scored 16 points in 17 games. The team, however, seemed to need some adjustment to the loss of Jones and addition of Johansen as they went 7-7-3 in those 17 games. Poile's comments at the time reflected the team's struggles despite Johansen's production.

"If you were to tell me that would have happened," Poile told Michael Traikos of the Toronto Sun, "I would have thought our record would be better. He's doing his part, but we aren't getting secondary scoring at all. If you compare our offensive statistics from last year to this year, almost every player is down. There's not too many guys that are having better seasons. So collectively, it doesn't bode well for winning."

Nashville, however, did find their stride in finishing with 96 points for the Western Conference's first wild card position, and they ended up ousting the Anaheim Ducks in seven games before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup finalists in the San Jose Sharks in seven games. No one would have predicted that the Predators would give two of the Pacific Division's best teams a run for their money in 2016, but the Predators were emerging out of the tough Central Division.

Poile, though, still thought his team lacked something in their loss to the Sharks, so he decided to re-evaluate. Once he came to a decision, he shocked the hockey world with a second trade in dealing Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for PK Subban on June 29, 2016 at 3:54pm ET. The deal, however, took a couple of days to figure out, and it wasn't a pitch made by either side despite the rumours of PK Subban being shopped at the NHL Entry Draft.

"No, that's not how it went. But it was logical how it had to go. The dollars, somewhat of a match. But I could tell you the long story about how it always goes in trades. How about Subban for a first-round pick and a younger guy? So it goes on and on," Poile told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Sun. "I think both teams are happy. Statistically, the goals and points per game are about the same. Over the past three years, I think PK is a little bit ahead of Shea per game. We're getting the same offensively. Now there's the other intangibles. Where the game's going, all that.”

Where the game is going is something David Poile has been adept at recognizing. Yes, he was the man who dealt Ryan Walter from Washington to Montreal for Rod Langway as Matheson points out, but he is also the man who has been continually pursuing speed and skill over grit. On April 3, 2013, Poile dealt defensive forward Martin Erat and prospect Michael Latta to Washington for blue-chip prospect Filip Forsberg. His progress and growth behind Johansen has given the Preadtors arguably the best young tandem in the game down the middle with both players being under the age of 25.

"Filip is among the most skilled, dynamic talents we've ever had in the organization and is an integral part of our success for the next six years and beyond," Poile told Mike Johnston of Sportsnet in June 2016. "While we have already seen his creativity, hockey sense and puck skills, he has yet to reach the peak of his abilities. We have full confidence that he will continue to blossom into one of the top players in the world."

Forsberg is the second highest-scoring player from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, trailing only Alexander Galchenyuk by 13 points. He has the most goals out of the picks that season, and there is still resentment in Washington over this trade as the Capitals - as pointed out in Johnston's article - have nothing to show for the trade just four years later. To say that Poile absolutely stole Forsberg from Washington wouldn't be far off from the truth. What makes this even harder to believe is that Poile got Forsberg after Erat asked to be traded out of Nashville, finding a taker in Washington who offered up a player that Poile simply couldn't refuse. From that point on, Forsberg has been a consistent producer for Nashville as the pivot on Nashville's not-oft-talked-about second line.

Poile also recognized that as the league began changing its focus, there was a need to make a change from a team philosophy standpoint when it came to how the game is played on the ice. On April 14, 2014, Poile informed Barry Trotz - the only coach in Nashville to that point - that he would not return as head coach after spending 15 seasons, 557 wins and seven playoff appearances behind Nashville's bench. Poile's search focused on someone who displayed "strong leadership and communication" skills as the Predators began to get younger with all of their young talent ready to crack the NHL roster. He landed on Peter Laviolette as the man to guide the team on May 6, 2014.

"Having reached the peak as a Stanley Cup Champion, Peter knows the intensity and urgency it will take to help our team reach its ultimate goal," Poile said in a statement. "He is a great hockey mind who not only has a winning resume, but has done it with an aggressive offensive philosophy while also excelling in helping young players reach their potential. We look forward to Peter instilling his culture in Nashville immediately following his duties coaching the United States at the 2014 World Championship."

Indeed, we've seen Laviolette's presence over the last three seasons has seen Nashville win no fewer than 41 games in any season. He has a points percentage of .598 as a coach with Nashville, and he's taken Nashville's goals-per-game number from 2.61 in 2013-14 under Trotz to 2.90 this season, the highest in franchise history. It may surprise you, but Nashville's goals-per-game average was better than Montreal, Anaheim, and San Jose this season, and they trailed the vaunted Blackhawks - whose offensive prowess is lauded by many - by 0.02 goals-per-game. In other words, Nashville's young players are getting a chance to play offence under Laviolette as opposed to playing the stifling defence for which this franchise is best known.

For the only general manager this franchise has ever known, David Poile has seen the ups and downs of this franchise. He ran an expansion draft for the Predators in which the Predators acquired some good talent in Sergei Krivokrasov, Kimmo Timonen, and Ville Peltonen for not selecting certain players in that draft. He signed Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya. He matched an offer sheet from the Flyers for Shea Weber. He watched Ryan Suter leave via free agency. He traded Weber for Subban. He's watched his team miss playoffs, lose in the playoffs, and set new franchise marks for wins and playoff success. He's been there for the first goal, the first shutout, the first win, the first loss, the first shootout, the first tie, and the last tie in franchise history. He worked through a potential sale, a finalized sale, and a near-move of the franchise. Through it all, he has made tough decisions to keep the Predators as the big ticket game in town over the winter months.

David Poile might be the best general manager there is in hockey based on his track record and accomplishments with this team, but he's certainly the Most Valuable Person in the Predators' franchise. His tireless work in the GM's office has made this Predators team one of the most fun to watch in these playoffs. More importantly, he has them a mere four wins from their first Stanley Cup Final, and just eight wins from the holiest of Holy Grails in the hockey world.

He may be the most deserving person in hockey to hoist the Stanley Cup if Nashville completes their run.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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