The Nashville Predators have played a total of 12 home playoff games in the past four post-seasons and 11 of them have been legitimate sellouts. Come playoff time the fans in Nashville have been just as rabid and raucous as any others in the league and once the calendar hits mid-April, Music City gets a serious case of playoff fever.
It has been the same thing for the past four years, sadly, with the same result: A first round ouster.
Which is exactly why there’s little reason to believe this year’s playoff run will have any more of a long-term impact on this franchise than any other. Come next October, you’ll probably see the same sparse crowds, the same general ambivalence toward the on-ice product and the same stunning lack of enthusiasm from the corporate community.
Which is sad, really, because aside from the fact they haven’t been able to shake off their tag as first-round losers, the Predators have done almost everything right from a hockey operations standpoint.
Under GM David Poile, the Predators’ record for drafting and developing talent has been among the best in the league, for the most part their free agent signings and trades have been prudent and their front-office stability has been the envy of every other coach and GM.
And now it’s time for the new owners of the Predators to step up and prove they truly want NHL hockey to work in Nashville. They owe it to the diehards who support the team, they owe it to the fellow owners who supply the teat upon which the Predators rely for revenue sharing and they owe it to a league that shut its doors for a year, primarily to help teams such as the Preds survive.
So far, the Predators have gotten everything they’ve wanted. They got the CBA they so desperately needed and the City of Nashville is taking potential tax dollars out of things such as schools and social programs in an effort to keep the Predators from leaving town.
And like another CBA poster child – the Buffalo Sabres – the Predators have rewarded their fans by essentially stiffing them. Former owner Craig Leipold sold the team before getting a sweetheart deal to own the far more lucrative Minnesota Wild, but before doing that, forced Poile to strip the organization of some of its top veteran players in a desperate cost-cutting move.
This is where it must end. And it must end with the Predators doing everything they possibly can to sign goaltender Dan Ellis to a long-term contract extension. If they do, it will require a complete about face by team management, which, before the playoffs, seemed intent on allowing Ellis to depart as an unrestricted free agent and next season go with the tandem of Chris Mason and prospect Pekka Rinne.
But the way Ellis, who turns 28 in June, played down the stretch and in the playoffs should change everything. He recorded the best save percentage in the league during the regular season and was spectacular in defeat for the Predators, even though he was victimized by a one-bouncer that got past him in Game 6.
Ellis will command a long-term contract worth at least $3 million a season, one would think, and it will require the Predators to swallow hard before making that offer. This is a team, after all, which rewarded Chris Mason with a $3 million deal for his play last season, which was so good that when the Predators were forced to strip-mine their organization last summer, they traded Tomas Vokoun to the Florida Panthers.
Mason didn’t exactly prove to be the No. 1 goalie the Predators were seeking and signing Ellis to a similar, if not more lucrative, deal would require a leap of faith by Poile & Co. Not to mention the fact if Nashville was to pay Ellis on the same level as Mason, it’d be spending a total of $6 million on goaltenders. (Would they be overpaid in that case? Of course they would, because all goalies in the NHL are overpaid if you apply the laws of supply and demand. But hey, it’s the going rate.)
That move would hardly put the Predators in a class by themselves, though. At least 10 teams will be using up $6 million or more in cap space on goalies next season and, after all, this is a team that is willing to give up $4.5 million in cap room to David Legwand, who is essentially a third-line center.
What the Predators have in Ellis is a very good goalie who is about to enter his prime. And while – with the exception of guys such as Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur – fans generally don’t pay good money to watch goalies stop pucks, they do pay to watch teams win. And with Ellis in their net, the Preds give themselves the best chance to do that.
Should Ellis hit the UFA market July 1, there will be no shortage of suitors. It will be a shock if the Ottawa Senators don’t think long and hard about Ellis, and the Red Wings – who will be looking for goaltending next season – just had a front-row seat for Ellis’s playoff show. The Atlanta Thrashers and possibly the Los Angeles Kings will likely be looking at him, as will the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche if their No. 1 goalies bolt for other teams.
Signing Ellis long-term won’t guarantee the Predators any sustained playoff success or the future of the franchise in Nashville, but what it will do is show its fans and the rest of the NHL it will not allow other teams to pick its carcass the way they did last summer.
And in the absence of any tangible success in the post-season, doing that is just as important as winning in the playoffs for the Predators these days. If they are willing to let quality players go as soon as they put themselves in a position to get a good contract, why should anyone in Nashville stick with them?
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