Philadelphia, PA – Over the course of the franchise's existence, the Nashville Predators have probably garnered more headlines for the club's financial woes than anything else.
This year, however, the Predators seem determined to change that narrative by gearing up for a deep playoff run with a trio of savvy moves before the trade deadline Monday. Combine Nashville's aggressive strategy with the fact that the rest of the league stayed fairly quiet at the deadline and, all of a sudden, the Predators are looking like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
While the Predators seemingly put the relocation rumors of a few years ago behind them, it's still shocking to see the team take a serious run at a championship. In fact, just a few months ago many GMs were wondering if they'd be able to pry away either one of Nashville's prized defensive possessions in a trade.
In the end, the Predators not only held on to impending free agents Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, they managed to strengthen the team with new additions. Nashville GM David Poile began by adding veteran defenseman Hal Gill a few weeks back and then dominated the headlines at Monday's deadline by acquiring offensive help in the form of Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad.
The key for Nashville is that Poile managed to land those players without losing a single player from his NHL roster. That's important for a team that plays a very tight system under Barry Trotz, who along with Poile has formed the only GM/head coach combination the franchise has ever known.
Gill has already settled in nicely with his new team, posting a plus-four rating in five games with the Preds after logging a minus-seven in 53 games with Montreal. His 6-foot-7 frame and experience playing for Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup championship team also should come in handy down the stretch and, they hope, well into the postseason.
But, the move for Gill was to add defensive depth to a team that already excels in its own end thanks to the duo of Weber and Suter and the steady play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. Trading for Gaustad and Kostitsyn, however, were moves that could pay off even bigger in the playoffs.
Monday, Trotz talked about last year's postseason demise and how his team had no answer for Vancouver center Ryan Kesler, who burned Nashville for five goals and 11 points in six games during the Canucks' second-round series win last spring. With Vancouver -- last year's conference champion -- still projected as the team to beat in the West, the Preds added a possible answer to the Kesler question in Gaustad.
"Size is a little bit of an issue for us," Poile said after pulling off Monday's deals. "I think with Gill and with Gaustad and even (Andrei) Kostitsyn, he's a big thick body and a hard player, we addressed that area so you learn from experiences. You look at your strengths, you look at your weaknesses. I think we've plugged in some of the things we were probably missing when we went up against Vancouver and I'd like to get the opportunity this year."
Poile acknowledged that the price to land Gaustad -- a first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft -- was steep, but that just hammers home how important Nashville thought it was to acquire the former Buffalo centerman. At 6-foot-5, 220-pounds, Gaustad is unlikely to be pushed around by Kesler, or any other physical forward that he comes across over the next few months.
While Gaustad adds a decent amount of offensive ability to his coveted defensive attributes, the Predators are hoping Kostitsyn can reclaim the touch that made him a three-time, 20-goal scorer with Montreal.
After all, Andrei's brother, Sergei, made the move from Montreal to Music City a few years ago and saw his career take a turn for the better. Sergei had just 68 points in 155 games with Montreal from 2007-2010, but has compiled 86 points in 134 games over the last two seasons with Nashville.
The fact Andrei was the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft compared to Sergei's seventh-round selection in 2005 is a clear indication the former is blessed with the stronger skill set of the two. It seems possible the change of scenery also can do wonders for Andrei, who has regressed since posting career-highs of 26 goals and 27 assists with the Canadiens in 2007-08.
Poile and Trotz have been running the show in Nashville since the franchise entered the NHL as an expansion team prior to the 1998-99 season. That consistency has given the Predators a clear idea of what they are, and what they are not.
This season, however, it's obvious that something has changed in Music City. The Predators have steadily built a loyal fan base by making the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, but the franchise is smart to realize that simply qualifying for the postseason won't always be enough. Nashville lost in the opening round in the club's first five trips to the playoffs before finally making it to Round 2 last spring against the Canucks, and the moves made over the last few weeks can get them even further this time around.
Poile also is thinking a few steps ahead and is optimistic that a deeper postseason run could give Nashville a fighting chance to keep both Weber and Suter in the fold for years to come.
"I think we've done a good job here in Nashville of building our team and the franchise and you can see the building's getting more full on a regular basis, but, unfortunately, from a budgetary situation we've had to let some of our better players go from time to time," Poile said.
"Hopefully, we can stop that. Obviously, signing Ryan Suter would be a huge sign for our whole franchise and our fans -- that those days are over and, hopefully, a good playoff run will get Ryan signed up."
Budget constraints have often forced Poile and the Predators to think about the long term over the present. After a rough start to its NHL history, Nashville is finally in the position to declare that its future is now.