WILL (Part 1/2)

Barry Trotz may possess a fierce-looking mug, but the personable head coach of the Nashville Predators has found a level of trust with his players, allowing them to maximize their potential and reach further into the playoffs this season than ever before. How far can they go? As far as their will can take them. (Special thanks to Paul Nicholson for the use of this photo)

Dragonslayers.
As Round Two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway tonight, the Nashville Predators, it would seem, have finally passed the test of legitimacy as a non-traditional franchise, even in the eyes of their greatest detractors. And although the love-fest engendered by the Canadian Press and other members of the hockey literati may hit a bump in the road eventually, this season has seen an unprecedented flow of positive verbiage from those who once sneered at the notion of hockey in Nashville being anything more than a passing fad.

The Preds are the sexy choice by many pundits to make it beyond even the second round, although no one would utter a syllable of disparagement if they don’t. A victory in their impending series versus the Vancouver Canucks, starting tonight in B.C., would hardly be expected, however, at this point, it’s likely that just as few would be shocked if it happens.

To borrow the phrase recently coined by Canucks play-by-play man, John Shorthouse, both teams have already slain their respective dragons. For the Predators, theirs was obviously the first round of the playoffs, against which they had fallen short on five straight occasions but finally triumphed over with a six-game series victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

Vancouver’s dragon was of course the Chicago Blackhawks, who had ousted the Canucks from the playoffs on two straight occasions, and again, in the teams’ first-round matchup this season, took the Canucks to a nerve-wracking seventh game before finally yielding in overtime this past Tuesday night.

The battle that will ensue this evening provides a tremendous undercurrent of storylines for both sides. As for me, the one I find the most compelling is the flipside of a story I wrote a month ago on Preds GM, David Poile. And indeed, flipside is an apt metaphor, for if Poile were one side of the record, Head Coach Barry Trotz would certainly be the other.

Back up the truck.
With that in mind, I think I need to restate something. In the aforementioned two-part post from the end of March, I spent considerable time singing the praises of Nashville’s team architect and his masterful job, both in building the Preds and influencing this season’s schedule to give them the greatest chance for success. And while the accolades I heaped upon Poile, in my mind, continue to be legitimate, in retrospect I believe I may have unintentionally short-changed his chief employee.

In one moment of Poile effusion, I wondered aloud if it was the head coach or the manager who should be given the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success this season (mind you, this was still even before Nashville had secured a playoff spot, much less a first-round playoff series victory).

“But really, is it even Trotz, who is to be credited for his team’s impressive response to this most difficult of campaigns? Perhaps; however the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the credit belongs chiefly to the sound (and shrewd) management of David Poile.”
Preds Peaking Right On Schedule (Part 1/2) | March 29, 2011

The fact of the matter is that when speaking of Poile and Trotz, it’s a ‘the chicken or the egg’ kind-of-circumstance. One person doesn’t necessarily provide precisely the same result without the other. Poile and Trotz are a team; perhaps the best NHL Manager/Coaching combo in more than a generation. They both deserve credit, because they work in tandem, as a single unit, and have for a long, long time.

The right man for the job.
No one with half a brain would doubt that Barry Trotz is resourceful. Seemingly every year the only bench boss to occupy the position in Music City has been forced to do more with less than perhaps any his counterparts throughout the NHL.

In recent years he’s finally been given the recognition he deserves on a league-wide scale as part of the Jack Adams Trophy conversation. Last season Trotz was a finalist for the coveted honor for the first time. It would surprise no one if he was once again selected as a finalist this year, as Nashville’s battle of attrition over the lengthy and would-be devastating losses of Matthew Lombardi, Cal O’Reilly, Marcel Goc, and Frankie Bouillon for large chunks of — or even the full regular season (in the case of Lombardi) would have laid waste a lesser coaching staff.

However, Trotz is no ordinary coach, with no ordinary resolve. It’s sometimes said that a player or team ‘willed’ themselves to win. That scenario is never more a matter of course than in NHL Hockey and with few coaches ever more likely to be behind the installation of such an attitude than Barry Trotz.

The Poile/Trotz GM/Head Coach association is far and away the longest currently running in the NHL. I predict, when all is said and done, it will be the longest-tenured in the history of the league. Poile and Trotz have been on the same page since Day One and they don’t look to be moving away from their proven method for success anytime soon.

Most of the reason for the turnaround in the opinion of former doubters is Trotz himself. Few coaches in modern history have retained the near universal respect — albeit sometimes begrudging — of Trotz, or as I like to call him, the ManitoBear.

“I scare children…”
Ever the self-deprecating sort, Trotz recently made light of his naturally stern-looking physiognomy. “I scare children,” he joked earlier this season while discussing with the press his otherwise ‘nice guy’ persona. Barry Trotz has never taken himself too seriously, yet has found a way to drive home his far-from-easy-to-execute philosophy for playing hockey like few of his peers.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in his playing days, Trotz was a defenseman by trade. Bothered by a lingering lower-back issue suffered at age 19, he never made it to the NHL, but learned to teach the game the way he played it: with grit, toughness and defensive responsibility. In an age when clutching, grabbing, and otherwise legalized obstruction was sucking the life out of NHL hockey, Trotz entered the league’s coaching ranks with a philosophy that was counter to that paradigm, yet no less defensively-minded.

Via a preexisting relationship with Poile, Trotz became the Predators’ head coach when Nashville was awarded an NHL expansion franchise in 1997. Few knew what to make of this guy, built like a fire plug and sporting his infamous permanent scowl.

But Poile knew who he was — and what he could bring to the table.

A Winning Tradition
They also knew Trotz up in Portland Maine, where for the previous four years he had been piling up wins at the helm of the Washington CapitalsAHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. Trotz led his team to the Calder Cup championship in 1993 and a return to the finals four years later.

As a former longtime General Manager in Washington, Poile had hired Trotz, first as a scout and later, the Portland head coach. Now transitioning to manage an expansion NHL franchise, Poile knew that talent — particularly that of the offensive variety — would be at a premium. So bringing in a head coach whom he knew shared his own defensively-minded team-building philosophy, with the obvious upside of a recent Calder Cup in his hip pocket, it really wasn’t as much of a gamble as it appeared to outsiders.

True to Poile’s plan, from the outset in 1998-99 season, Trotz’s Predators were competitive, although the team fell short of the playoffs for the first five years of its existence, before their breakout season of 2003-04. They earned a reputation of continually being ‘hard to play against,’ and while never offensively overpowering, were fashioned after Poile’s philosophy of strength up the middle, with solid goaltending and a responsible blueline.

Nonetheless the job of bringing in talent and then shaping it are two things entirely different. Establishing Trotz’s now-renowned, ‘Predators Way’ doctrine wasn’t exactly an out-of-the-box success. Trotz, by his own admission has evolved as a coach every bit as much as his team has. Like its progenitor, what detractors first bemoaned as a ‘system,’ or more specifically,  a ‘modified trap,’ has been refined into a way of life for a franchise that has truly found its identity.

Long gone are the days of expansion draft leftover defensemen and stat-conscious-yet-underachieving forwards. Even in the ‘golden years’ just following the lockout, when the Predators iced the greatest array of offensive talent in their history, the team still had yet to bear the true stamp of what is now the Barry Trotz legacy: WILL

Finding the will. Finding the way.
During Nashville’s first five seasons, the franchise had a lot of grit, and not a lot else. Apart from smurf-like scoring machine, forward Cliff Ronning, who led the team in each of his four seasons with the club (‘98-’99 through ’01-’02), and perhaps Sergei Krivokrasov (who it’s been said enjoyed slapping more than just pucks around) for the Preds’ first one-and-a-half seasons, Nashville never had what you would consider an true offensive star.

They received and traded for serviceable players in the NHL expansion Draft, but even 1998’s NHL Entry Draft second-overall pick, forward David Legwand, whose long career since has hardly been a bust in terms of overall play, just wasn’t the goal producer that many touted him to be coming out of juniors.

Poile wasn’t getting any breaks in the early going. For whatever reason, most of the Preds’ early offensive prospects either never panned out, or developed more slowly than the team had the time to endure. Of Nashville’s first five number one draft picks, three were forwards: Legwand in 1998, Scotty Hartnell in 2000, and Scotty Upshall in 2002. Each of the three were top six selections overall, but to date only one has scored 20 goals more than twice in his career, that being Hartnell, now with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Upshall, while a fast, aggressive skater, has never come close to the promise he showed in juniors, where he averaged 33g/75pts over three seasons for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League. Now skating for the Columbus Blue Jackets, his fourth team in five years, Upshall eclipsed the 20-goal mark with a 24g/34pts effort for the first time this season, and finally seems to be the high-energy sniper everyone thought he would be. If only it hadn’t taken him eight years to figure it out.

But that’s the funny thing about talent. Some have it in spades; others in handfuls. In some it comes out gushing; in others, it takes time — even years — to coax.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the big reasons the Nashville Predators aren’t the Pittsburgh Penguins, or the Washington Capitals, or the Chicago Blackhawks, is that they’ve pretty much always been too good. They’ve never finished so poorly on a consistent basis that they’ve been afforded  a run of top-three or top-five picks, the sweet spot in the draft where ‘can’t miss’ scorers live; where the three aforementioned franchises each have had a lengthy go at the trough of blue-chip prospects in the last 10 years, from which their respective franchises have built their current winning foundations.

Nashville couldn’t afford to spend 3-5 years as one of the NHL’s bottom-feeders, in a market with no traditional fanbase, and with an ownership whose financial resources were apparently as limited as his vision.

Instead, the Preds did it the hard way; remaining competitive while investing their resources in areas that would assure they’ll remain that way for a long time to come. The personnel investment was David Poile’s job; keeping the team competitive was Trotz’s.

Next: On fifth down, punt.

Subscribe to Predators AJenda

Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Vancouver Plays the Part | Pull My (Fang)Finger - May 4, 2011

    [...] It’s a long grind to the Stanley Cup; there are no shortcuts. This is a hard lesson for the Preds, but one they must learn from if they hope to make it beyond this most daunting of hurdles.  It’s still a matter of will. [...]

Leave a Reply