By Dirk Hoag, On The Forecheck
David Legwand has lived up to his nickname, "the Original Nashville Predator."
As the team's first-ever pick in the Entry Draft, his personal progress has mirrored the team's to a large extent. Chosen immediately after Vincent Lecavalier, he'll always be dogged by offensive comparisons to the Tampa Bay star, but has nonetheless emerged as the most important forward on a highly competitive team over the last several years.
His style of play also matches up nicely with the perception of the Preds as a whole. A strong skater with a solid reputation for defensive play, 'Leggy' chips in at a decent clip offensively, but will never be confused with a Brad Richards or Henrik Sedin.
Even if his methods sometimes veer into the bizarre, he manages to get the job done and since he no longer commands one of most expensive contracts on the team, even some of his longtime detractors are beginning to appreciate the value he brings to the lineup.
The 2006-2007 campaign marked a dramatic close to the Craig Leipold era in Nashville. David Poile had patiently built up his team over time and had a real contender on his hands, with names like Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, and Tomas Vokoun leading the way. They finished just three points shy of the Presidents Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres, but since they couldn't catch Detroit for the Central Division crown, they finished 4th in the West and drew San Jose as a first-round opponent.
In that series (the first time the Preds had reason to be favored), a combination of injuries and poor discipline cost them against a more composed Sharks squad, and left a critical question lingering in the air: did Barry Trotz & Company have what it takes to win in the postseason?
The Detroit Red Wings have (until this spring's playoff run) always provided the measuring stick for Nashville, and back in the 2008-2009 season, with memories of the Great Fire Sale still lingering over the team, the gap between the two division rivals seemed larger than it had been in years.
On a Saturday night in February, however, in front of a sold-out crowd (including former blogging star turned Maple Leafs beat writer James Mirtle) the Predators gave the Wings a good old-fashioned curb-stomping. Jason Arnott recorded a hat trick, Shea Weber completed a Gordie Howe hat trick, and Pekka Rinne pitched the shutout as the home team romped to an 8-0 triumph that fans are still talking about as a high-water mark.
Part of the criticism that some folks level at David Legwand is that his offensive output is overstated due to the number of empty-net goals he scores, but nobody's chirping about the one he tallied on April 24, 2011, which clinched Nashville's first-ever playoff series win. He put the icing on a 4-2 victory in Game 6 against the Anaheim Ducks, and as the call on CBC described at the time, tears were flowing in the stands as the puck crossed the line.
The Peter Forsberg trade still serves as a cautionary tale for those who like to see their favorite team send away a package picks and prospects to acquire a veteran ringer for a playoff run.
In 2007, the Predators had their best team to date, a genuine contender with aspirations to play long into the spring. When the normally staid David Poile came out with the announcement that he had acquired one of the game's all-time great centers, Nashville perked up and took notice that this team was serious about making a run. As noted earlier, even though Forsberg played well, the Preds' playoff run came up woefully short, leaving many fans questioning whether the short-term buzz had been worth it.
At the time, the cost seemed dear: young forward Scottie Upshall, defenseman Ryan Parent, along with 1st- and 3rd-round draft picks. As it turned out, however, Upshall has struggled to live up to his potential, Parent has pretty much flamed out as an NHL player, and the Preds were able to get that 1st-round draft pick back during the ensuing Fire Sale trade of Timonen and Scott Hartnell to Philadelphia. That pick turned into defenseman Jonathon Blum, how is currently trying to earn a spot on the Nashville blueline this fall.
Of course you've heard about the key figures who have been around this team since the beginning. David Poile, Barry Trotz, David Legwand, etc. Perhaps the real heartbeat of the franchise, however, is found in an amiable, mentally disabled locker room attendant named Craig Baugh, known to everyone as "Partner".
Even though his job involves the most menial of tasks, doing the grunt work to make sure everything is ready for teams coming to play at Bridgestone Arena, you can't help but smile when Partner walks in the room.
In 2010, Jessica Bliss of the Tennessean ran a profile piece (as found at USA Today) which showed not just how much the Predators appreciate Parter's attitude, but the impact it makes on visiting players as well:
When a visiting team is preparing to leave Nashville, Baugh usually stands nearby, waving goodbye to the players as the bus engine grumbles and the vehicle pulls away. The moment is often bittersweet.
"It's sad, though, because I don't want them to leave," he said. "It's going to happen, though."
There was a time when the departing bus unexpectedly stopped.
Signaling to the driver to hold on, Joe Thornton descended the stairs and walked toward Baugh. One of the NHL's premier centers, the 6-foot-4 Thornton wrapped his arms around Baugh, saying, "We love you, big guy. We love you."
In a sports world where the notion of keeping a positive attitude becomes at times a tired cliche, Partner's infectious outlook provides genuine inspiration.
Many would choose former owner Craig Leipold for this spot, citing the 2007 Fire Sale which precluded his departure from Nashville, and his recent hiring away of Ryan Suter to patrol the Minnesota blueline. But I'll give him a pass, given the way he went the extra mile to make sure the team landed in local hands back in 2007 when Nashville's true hockey villain showed his colors: Jim Balsillie.
When the news first broke that Leipold was planning to sell the Predators to Balsillie, there was hope that a wealthy, hockey-crazed owner might pour resources into this developing team and line them up for a real Stanley Cup run. But over the next few days and weeks, warning signs started flashing.
Rather than addressing Nashville fans personally on sports radio, he had his lackey Richard Rodier deliver a tepid, disingenuous interview, in which he couldn't even interrupt his schedule for a few minutes - he huffed and puffed his way through the segment, explaining that he was on a treadmill at the time while spouting platitudes about how great the team was on the ice.
Then, just a few days later, Balsillie opened up a website taking season ticket deposits for NHL hockey in Hamilton, as clear an indication as one could ask for that he had no intention of keeping the Predators in Nashville. That triggered a reaction by Leipold to scuttle the deal and sell to a local consortium instead, even though he ended up taking a $10 million bath on a loan he extended to "Boots" Del Biaggio to facilitate the deal.
Later, during the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy fiasco, we heard even more juicy stuff, when Leipold alleged that Balsillie & Rodier had been working behind the scenes to undermine the Preds' relationship with the City of Nashville as early as 2005, two years before attempting his purchase of the team.
Yeah, even though his recent downfall at Research In Motion makes him just a shadow of the figure he was in recent years, Jim Balsillie stands alone atop the Preds' list of villains.
The Preds have, for quite a while now, had a pretty decent secondary rivalry going on with the Calgary Flames, and while this usually means tight-checking, low-scoring games between the two teams, sometimes it boils over into some genuine nastiness, and it all began back in January of 2003 when Jarome Iginla took a run at Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun immediately answered back, triggering a full-on fracas which included Jamie McLennan coming down the ice for some goalie-on-goalie action.
This became a recurring theme between the Flames and Preds, as Iginla had another run-in with Vokoun in November of 2003, and March of 2004 when Miikka Kiprusoff took his turn dropping the gloves with the Nashville netminder.
Hmm... So tough to choose here. In a tight race, I'll have to go with Barry Trotz, winning by a neck.
Pete Weber and Terry Crisp - just as Nashville has enjoyed unprecedented stability in the front office and behind the bench, TV broadcasts are simply the Pete & Terry show, much to Preds fans' delight. Not only do these two enjoy on-air chemistry (which, admittedly, gets in the way of the play-by-play sometimes), but they serve a critical off-ice role as ambassadors of the team and the sport at large.
Chants: One of the unique aspects of Nashville Predators games has always been the college-like atmosphere driven from Cellblock 303, where razzing opponents (goalies in particular) is an essential part of the action. As someone who attended games at the University of Michigan in the mid-90's when Yost Arena became a madhouse, I couldn't believe my eyes & ears when I went to my first Preds game and saw that same kind of spirit translated to the NHL level.
Whether it's thanking PA announcer Paul McCann for letting us know that there is one minute left in the period, or singing along with Tim McGraw after the Preds score, when you go to a game at Bridgestone Arena there's no chance that you'll be left sitting on your hands all night long.
Perhaps the signature food item associated with the Predators isn't even found in the arena - in recent years, an in-game promotion rewards fans with a free Wendy's Frosty if the home team scores four goals that night.
Of course, as a parent of young children, if often ends up that I have to swing by and pick some up even if it's not free that night, but it's a fun part of the Nashville tradition.
This led to an infamous blooper, however, when the Pittsburgh Penguins mounted a late-game comeback in October 2010, in which they beat the Preds 4-3. Once the Preds hit three goals early in the third period, the crowd started cheering "we want Frosties...", but one local sportswriter thought they were taunting Pittsburgh, saying "we want Crosby." Since Sid the Kid scored the tying goal and assisted on the overtime winner, the recap in the paper the next day spun the narrative of a superstar answering the challenge of the crowd.
That only validated many fans' feelings that the newspaper was simply out of touch with the team and its fans.Swag
The Mustard Jersey.
Described as a horror by fans around the league, but beloved in Nashville, the Mustard 3rd jerseys became a rallying point for Preds fans and can now serve as a distinction between the old-timers and the relatively new fans at the rink.
Those threads also carried with them an air of invincibility; Nashville put up a 38-19-12 record during the five seasons in which they used them, including a 21-3-2 record over the final two seasons (2005-6 nd 2006-7). At times I think it would be cool for them to surprise the faithful and bring these jerseys out of mothballs for a special occasion.
Hmm... Winter Classic 2014, anyone?
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