Lucky 13? (Part 2/2)

Erstwhile Predators power forward Scott Hartnell was traded under duress during the team’s change of ownership in 2007. During his subsequent four seasons in Philadelphia Hartnell has matured into the star that Nashville Coach Barry Trotz knew he could be. As General Manager David Poile now seeks out possible offensive player moves via cap-strapped teams like the Flyers, could the time be right for a Hairy Prodigal Son’s return to Music City? (Photo: Getty Images)

Sometimes you’ve gotta make your own luck
Remember that Terminator quote I mentioned earlier, “The future is not yet written?” I left out the second part: “No fate but what we make.”

While the Preds will certainly need things to break in their favor to be able to fight through a season strewn with obstacles, the bulk of their fortune will need to be homemade. The rewards for their patience in developing prospects will be a huge part of the potential pay-off they could see in 2011-12. Other rewards may well be found in another kind of patience: the abstinence to overreaction and the shrewdness of General Manager David Poile’s adherence to a plan that was set in motion long before the summer from hell started boiling over.

Last season the young crop of Nashville blueliners weren’t considered ready to step onto NHL ice from the season’s outset, so Poile went out and picked up Shane O’Brien from Vancouver on the last year of his existing contract. SOB did a remarkable job all season long, becoming one of last season’s truly unsung heroes; his performance becoming even more important with the season-ending concussion to Frankie Bouillon in January. However, this season, with the emergence of Jon Blum late last year and at least one or two defensive prospects now being ready for the bigtime, Poile chose not to effectively post another roadblock to his bevy of emerging blueliners. He did not offer the still-youthful O’Brien a contract. It was a calculated risk, as Bouillon was at the time still in the throes of concussion symptoms and had more than once been forced to curtail training efforts because of it. As recently as  July, Frankie was still having setbacks and making statements that he might have to consider retirement if his condition placed his long-term health in jeopardy.

The Cube’s difficulty in getting squared away made Poile’s decision to allow O’Brien to leave via free agency seem a little suspect to team observers, but patience and a plan usually find a way to pay dividends.

This week it was announced that there’s genuine reason for optimism regarding Bouillon. The veteran defenseman is skating again and shooting the puck in training camp. He’s had a period of extended, symptom-free hockey training activity for the first time since his injury. And while it’s still too early to know for sure, one can only hope that Frankie is indeed on the road back. That may not play quite so well for rookie blueliners, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis — all of whom are trying to be among those who crack the NHL lineup this season — but it’s got to be reassuring for Barry Trotz to know that his most veteran rear guard could soon be ready to return to action.

Hopin’ To Prophet from Other Team’s Cap Woes
With all the moaning over Poile’s lack of activity in and around the July 1st free agency period, recent developments may end up in some well-deserved vindication for the Preds’ GM.

The fact of the matter is, due to the uncertainty of the Weber contract situation, Poile’s hands were virtually tied all offseason with regard to adding salary. Until the cap number for retaining the Captain’s services was known, there was no gambling with signing a big name free agent for likely an equally-hefty dollar figure.

And as we know only too well, by the time Weber’s arbitration hearing was over, all of the significant free agents were already secured by other teams. Nonetheless, Poile addressed his detractors, reminding us that, the Weber hamstring-o-rama notwithstanding, homey don’t play the July 1 crazy cash game any old way.

Poile reiterated on numerous occasions that the team would evaluate their contracted players and prospects first, and then determine whether “we need to do a better job” and seek trade possibilities — or better still, wait for the players to come to them, via cap-casualty waivers and/or deals necessitated by teams with salary cap overages that would be required to get their financial house in order prior to the start of the regular season.

There were a few big spenders in free agency that stood out as obvious deal-mates, and now the pundits have begun spinning the possibilities of which teams may be in line to benefit from this year’s salary cap drama.

In what I thought was the most exciting conjecture of the summer, last Thursday, September 22, John Manasso of Fox Sports Tennessee threw out the names of a few potential salary cap casualties from which Nashville might have an opportunity to benefit.

Among the obvious suspects, teams like Washington (-$890K), Philadelphia (+175K), and Buffalo (+$930K) are currently the only three teams less than $1 million under the cap (and in the case of the Capitals, nearly $1 million OVER it). Look for this trio to make a few salary-shedding moves sometime within the next ten days.

However my interest was really piqued by whom I consider to be the most intriguing player mentioned in the article; one that Predators fans are extremely familiar with…sort of.

Scott Hartnell was possibly Nashville’s most damaging loss suffered among the players jettisoned as part of former team owner Craig Leipold’s Great Preds Firesale of 2007. He was Nashville’s first round pick, #6 overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. It is significant to note that Hartnell is the only drafted Predators prospect to never play a day in Milwaukee, having joined the NHL club from the get-go, partially due to his tremendous potential straight out of the Western Hockey League, but mostly due to the desperate need his team had for offensive talent in the franchise’s early years. And that too is significant, much less from the standpoint of merely being an oddity in the way the team has traditionally developed its own prospects, but more in how it likely effected Hartnell himself.

The reason I facetiously referred to Hartz as a player Preds are ‘sort of’ familiar with is because he is no longer that ‘Baby Bull’ that Preds TeeVee color man, Terry Crisp use to lovingly refer to. Hartnell is now a man; a bona fide NHL power forward, traded at the very eve of his career coming-out party in the 2008-09 season. He’s now the player Barry Trotz knew he could be after struggling as many young players have in Trotz’s system, finding their true center as responsible players on both ends of the ice.

To wit: in his first five years or so in the league, Hartz had to learn The Predators Way on the fly, and accordingly, spent more than his share of time in Trotz’s doghouse; nearly to the extent that at one time it appeared the Predators’ bench boss was ready to give up on his prized pupil of crash-the-net offense.

Then the light bulb came on. Averaging 23.5 goals and 20 assists his final two seasons in Nashville, everyone knew that Hartnell would be turning the corner to possible superstardom soon. Unfortunately Preds fans wouldn’t be there to see him hit his stride.

After the trade his first season in Philadelphia saw numbers consistent to his last few seasons in Nashville, but in 2008-09, Hartnell broke loose.  His 30 goals and 30 assists for 60 points were career highs. Subsequent possible chemistry issues with Philly teammates and related rumors of marital discord likely affected his output a year later, but Scotty showed up big in the playoffs, with a 8g/9/a/17pts performance in Philly’s march to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.

Last season, Hartnell produced another solid effort with 24g/25a/49pts; totals that would have fallen just short of leading the Predators in scoring.

The bottom line is not that Nashville needs Hartnell to score goals so much as to simply be who he is: another prime offensive catalyst in the Barry Trotz game plan. He was honed to play in this system.

With the evolution of Patric Hornqvist’s net-crashing style, with Hartnell, the Preds could sport two lines-worth of dirty-area attackers; creating nightmares for opposing goaltenders. It could change the dynamic of the entire team, opening up scoring opportunities for other players and other lines like never before.

To me, I make the deal yesterday if I’m David Poile. It’s a no-brainer. Hartz was a longtime a fan favorite, he was raised on Trotz’s system; he’d be the freaking Prodigal Son.

Salary-wise, for the near-term, the remaining two years in Hartnell’s current front-loaded six-year deal at $3.7 million this year and $3.2 million for 2012-13 is an absolute steal.

And given the choice I believe he’d return to Music City in a hearbeat.

Although the Nash-haters would want you to believe that players like Hartnell typify the talent leakage that the Preds have seen throughout their history, I have it on good authority that Scotty wasn’t counting the days until his first veteran contract expired on July 1, 2007, just so that he could hit the free agent market and get the heck outta Music City.

In nearly every case during that dark period of Preds history, when David Poile was instructed by Leipold NOT to make any attempts to re-sign the team’s unrestricted free agent stars: Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, and Peter Forsberg, the players expressed disappointment at knowing their time in Nashville had come to an end.

News Flash, folks: players LIKE Nashville. They like living here and they like playing here.

Hartnell was no different. He had recently built a brand new home in Williamson County just months prior to the trade being announced. That’s not something one does when they’re planning to leave town.

Not that it really matters now, but the reason I can make this assertion is because the same realtor who sold my wife and I our current home, which we signed the contract on in June 2007, was the one who’d sold Hartnell and his wife, Lisa, their new home just a few months earlier. The realtor, who is Canadian, and is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable hockey fan to boot, told me how surprised and disappointed Hartnell was when he initially learned of the trade. He fully believed he’d be a Predator his entire career.

In my opinion, he should have been. Nonetheless I understood why Poile did what he did and have always believed that eventually, he would make some kind of effort to bring Scotty back home. Don’t know why that is exactly, but I always have.

Here’s hoping I turn out to be a prophet.

It may not happen now, but don’t be surprised if we haven’t seen the last of Scott Hartnell in a Predators uniform at some point in the future.

With a little luck, it could be soon.


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2 Responses to “Lucky 13? (Part 2/2)”

  1. Chris September 29, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    AJ enjoyed as always. While this has been a odd, strange and at times head scratching summer a summer that somewhat reminds of the 07 I really feel that the team is way better off in every aspect from then. Last August/early September I predicted that the Preds would finish with 116 points and possibly win the Conference and maybe President. While most people was very amused or flat out told me I was stupid or “don’t know anything about hockey do you”. Considering Lombardi went down in game two losing a 20 to 30 more goals which could have led to 4 to 6 more wins would have put them fairly close to that 116 point mark.

    After the Summer, I felt like the team would be lucky to hit the 95 point mark however preseason so far has been very promising. I know it is just “preseason” but I see the team that played Anaheim in the first round with the exception better defense and faster forwards. Last night watching the game I realized that 18 out of the 26 roster players were drafted/developed by the Preds something that I don’t think you will see with any other team in the league. There has to be some pride in all Preds fans how a expansion, small market, non-traditional team has not only built a team but basically had to build it twice. Yet making the playoffs 6 seasons out of its first 12. Is this the season that all of that young talent that we have heard about for so long on their way to making this team an “elite” team? Only time will tell but as a season ticket holder and a huge Preds fan I have really liked what I have seen so far. GO PREDS!!!!!!

    • AJ in Nashville September 30, 2011 at 7:46 am #

      Thanks again for weighing in, Chris! There are so many things that could have drastically altered the Preds eventual level of success last year. Lombardi’s presence was one, but I think the lack of success on the power play was perhaps the biggest. So far, I see that as the most significant change we may see, and if so, look out! I believe if we can stay away from the injury bug that bit so hard last season, this will be a team that doesn’t sneak up on opponents, but instead runs them OVER! :) Take care…

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