By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
DETROIT – Ryan Suter stood in the Nashville Predators' dressing room Friday morning, dreaming about the future – not about July 1st, when he can become an unrestricted free agent, but about Feb. 27, the NHL trade deadline.
"We're a couple pieces away from having a legitimate chance of winning the Stanley Cup, so why don't we focus on that?" Suter said. "And if we win, pretty much the rest is taken care of."
A couple of hours later, the Predators were one piece closer. General manager David Poile acquired Hal Gill in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, adding the big, experienced, penalty-killing defenseman he needed.
Now Poile needs at least one more piece: an experienced, scoring forward. He has to keep going for it. He has worked too long and too hard to get to this point – oh, so close to true Cup contention – and he can't stop now. He has no choice.
No one knows what will happen after this season. Suter could leave this summer, perhaps even for a Central Division rival like the Detroit Red Wings. Captain Shea Weber could walk next summer as an unrestricted free agent.
But look at what the Predators have at the present moment: After years of drafting and developing and building, they have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Pekka Rinne. They have maybe the NHL’s best defense pairing in Suter and Weber. They have the second-ranked power play in the league and the 11th-ranked offense, even though they don't have anyone among the top 50 scorers. They're fifth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. And they have assets to trade.
They have a shot.
Do they have a shot to be the favorites? No. Not even if they snag Rick Nash somehow. Too many teams are too good.
But can anyone else say they're the favorites? Not really. Not in this age of parity. If Poile waits until the Predators are better positioned, he might be waiting for a long time. As he put it himself: "If you make the playoffs, you've got a really good chance of winning the Stanley Cup this year."
And so the Predators have to focus on this year.
Suter has said repeatedly that he likes Nashville. He has not said that he will definitely test the market. Maybe a strong effort by ownership and management will convince Suter and Weber that they can contend year in and year out, whether they win a championship or not.
Then again, maybe it won't.
Either way, they've got to seize the opportunity while it's there to seize.
"Enough," said Suter of the Predators making the first round or the second round of the playoffs. "We're not satisfied with mediocrity."
By now you know the Predators' history. By now you know it has often read like the country song playing in their dressing room Friday morning. "Down on your luck, just lost your truck …"
Even their splashiest moment – acquiring Peter Forsberg before the 2007 trade deadline, finishing with 110 points, third-most in the NHL – was followed by a first-round playoff loss, the sale of the team, the cutting of payroll, the dumping of players and turmoil.
There is no need to rehash it all again.
Cut to the lobby of a Calgary hotel in late January of 2011. Suter, Weber and a couple of their teammates were sitting around, talking about trade rumors. They had heard the Ottawa Senators might trade Mike Fisher.
Perfect fit, they thought. They needed a center. He was a hard-working guy, a good guy. To top it off, he was married to Nashville country star Carrie Underwood.
"Sell some tickets, maybe," Suter said, smiling.
A couple of weeks later, the Predators were in Detroit to play the Red Wings. Coach Barry Trotz talked about how things had changed. Ownership had stabilized. Relocation fears had subsided. This was no longer an efficient operation that could draft and develop players but couldn't keep them. This was no longer a scrappy bunch that could make the playoffs but couldn't win a round. He said it wasn't about survival anymore. He said it was about winning the Stanley Cup. He seemed excited.
No wonder. The next day, the Predators acquired Fisher.
And Poile gave up a first-round pick to do it.
"That was a big statement for us," Suter said. "Whenever your GM goes out and does that stuff, it's a huge boost for you. In the past, he's never done that. So last year, when he did it, it was like, 'Wow, OK, this is good.' "
Fisher helped the Predators win a playoff round for the first time. Without him, Poile said, they might not have made it at all.
But they lost to the Vancouver Canucks in the second round, and then they lost a bunch of veterans again – some by choice, some not. Steve Sullivan.J.P. Dumont.Marcel Goc.Joel Ward.Shane O'Brien.Cody Franson.Matthew Lombardi.
One step forward, another …
"We actually took a step backwards," Poile said, "and put a lot of new younger players on our team."
The Predators have used 10 rookies this season – 10. They have the youngest team in the NHL, according to Poile. They have one of the lowest payrolls in the league. If you were Suter or Weber, wouldn't you be a little wary? Wouldn't you want to see what would happen next?
But then the Predators signed Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension and promised that they would keep spending big. Then they improved as the season progressed, as Poile expected they would. Then things played out much like they did last year.
Suter and his teammates took note when the Philadelphia Flyers acquired defenseman Nicklas Grossman from the Dallas Stars on Thursday. It wasn't so much about Grossman. It was the fact a contender had gone out and filled a need.
"You don't sit there and say, 'Oh, we should go get this guy and this guy and this guy,' " Suter said. "It's just more, 'Oh, did you see what they did?' It sucks for guys that are traded, because they have families and it's so hard on them. But it's exciting for teams. It brings a whole other level of excitement."
On Friday morning, the Predators were in Detroit to play the Red Wings again. Trotz talked about how they wanted to win the Cup and had all the elements in place. They had the cap room. They had the resources. They had the assets and the willingness to part with them.
"We'll see what happens," Trotz said. "We can add some experience. Anybody who's got some size, who won the Cup. We want to add a little bit on our penalty killing, especially on a defensive side."
Just like that, the Predators got Gill – a 36-year-old vet listed at 6-foot-7, 241 pounds, who won the 2009 Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins and can shore up the 16th-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league.
And Poile gave up two prospects and a second-round pick to do it.
He gave up Blake Geoffrion, who is a great feel-good story because he grew up in Tennessee, but who might be worth more to the Canadiens than anyone else because he is the great-grandson of Howie Morenz and the grandson of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion. He also gave up undrafted Robert Slaney, and he will get a fifth-round pick if Geoffrion plays 40 games for the Habs next season.
"We've put ourselves in position to be in the playoffs," Poile said. "I think the management, the hockey operations, owes the team the chance to not only make the playoffs but to go further. And this was a missing ingredient for our hockey club."
A missing ingredient. Not the missing ingredient.
Trotz said the Predators could use a top-nine forward. Poile said ideally he would like to add a veteran forward, too. He said he hasn't come across the right player yet, but he noted he still has his first-round pick to use for something that would "substantially improve" the team.
Suter would agree that Poile can't be stupid. "You don't just go make a deal to make a deal," he said. "You've got to make the right deal." And Suter is well aware that it would be easier for Poile to part with assets if he were signed to a long-term deal. "I'm sure it would be," he said. But the bottom line is, Poile has more work to do, and he has to do it with Suter’s future in limbo.
"Players want to win now," said Suter before the Gill trade. "GMs always think of the future of their team – certain GMs, like our GM. He's always thinking about the future, and he has to, because he doesn't have that huge payroll. Now I think they're starting to change their mindset, where, 'OK, let's start to think about now.' And they're saying they've got the payroll now."
They've got to go for it. They've got to think about the present. Otherwise, they might end up thinking about the past.