Nashville's sour tune

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! SportsOctober 25, 2007

With an Oct. 31 deadline approaching for a possible ownership change that could keep the Nashville Predators in Music City, coach Barry Trotz and his players are doing their best to go about business.

Unfortunately for the Preds, that means losing, and losing more than expected.

With the same general manager – David Poile – and the same coach since Day 1, the 10-year-old franchise with model front-office stability had its foundation shaken with news last spring that owner Craig Leipold intended to sell the team due to rising operating costs and low fan attendance.

It was not sweet music to anyone's ears.

"It's been difficult," Poile said. "We finished last year with 110 points, built an expansion franchise into being competitive and the threat of selling the team really threw us a curve for the offseason.

“We had to move into a different direction.”

Gone are all-star goalie Tomas Vokoun, ex-captain Kimmo Timonen and forwards Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Scott Hartnell. Poile did what he could to lasso less-expensive veteran talent including forwards Radek Bonk, Martin Gelinas, Jed Ortmeyer, defenseman Greg de Vries and goalie Dan Ellis.

And gone, too, is the momentum of a franchise that set new standards for wins (51), road wins (32), points (110) and goals scored (272) while reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs for a third straight year.

"We've had to take a little step back because of the uncertainty, but I don't think we've taken a big step," Trotz said. "Maybe we have to take a little step back to take a step forward."

Recent results might suggest otherwise.

Nashville followed two wins to open the season with six straight losses heading into a pair of home games, the last scheduled in town before Wednesday's deadline. Nashville competed but lost in Anaheim and San Jose, managing only one goal combined, then checked out early during a 6-0 loss in Los Angeles to close the disheartening three-game trip.

After two at home against Atlanta and Florida, Nashville heads back out for a challenging set of five on the road – three in Western Canada along with stops at division rivals Chicago and Detroit to cap the trek. Without a quick turnaround, the Predators could be looking at a big deficit in the early-season standings.

"You have to go into every season thinking you're going to compete," team captain Jason Arnott said. "It was tough because we lost a lot of goal-scoring and point-getters for us. We have a great group of young players who are going to be stars in this league. They're going through some learning right now, but they've come so far from the end of last year."

Trotz is the coach Poile hired with no previous NHL experience, but who guided the team through the different levels of development until they were looked upon as a legitimate contender last spring despite the fact they've never been past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now possibly being asked to start all over again, Trotz patiently views the landscape and offers what he sees as a positive.

"With all the changes we had to make in the summer people think we've taken a step back," he said. "Obviously in the offensive, pure skill parts of our game, yes. But in other areas there's been good growth. It might not show right now, but I think we're a harder team to play against."

The hardest part right now is the waiting. Players and management have tried to keep the off-ice distraction and uncertainty of a pending sale away from the locker room, but it's not easy.

"We keep track of it and we want to know what's going on, obviously, but we love it in Nashville, we want to stay in Nashville," Arnott said. "We are interested, but it's out of our control, it's out of our hands whether we stay or move. It looks like we're staying, which is great, but we have to stick with hockey.”

Nashville joined the league by paying an $80-million expansion fee, 31.5-percent of which was paid by the city, which also absorbs operating losses from the arena. Still, Leipold is unhappy with low corporate support and wants out. It didn't help that the Houston Oilers of the NFL transplanted just blocks away from the Predators' home two years after hockey arrived in Tennessee.

In May, Canadian business executive Jim Balsillie had a tentative agreement to purchase the team with intentions to relocate the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario. But by late June the deal fell through, as much as anything because Balsillie ruffled feathers by accepting season-tickets requests in Hamilton when he was otherwise supposed to be showing a good-faith effort to keep the team in Nashville.

"No one would have guessed in a million years that was going to happen," Trotz said. "That probably more than anything hurt us corporate-wise."

Leipold turned to a local investing group headed by William "Boots” Del Biaggio III, who has ownership experience on his resume as a minority investor with the San Jose Sharks. Del Biaggio in fact met with the team on the Predators' recent trip to the Bay Area, where they were treated to a dinner out by the prospective new owner.

Del Biaggio & Co. is trying to rework the team's lease with the 11-year-old Sommet Center arena and gain approval for the sale from the league all by Wednesday. It could be a tight deadline.

If missed, Del Biaggio's group no longer has exclusive negotiating rights, but Leipold hasn't tipped his hand if he would then entertain other offers. Balsillie has made it known he might be interested in taking another run at it.

But in the meantime, the team remains optimistic for an outcome that will allow the Predators to stay in Nashville.

"It sounds like it's getting fairly close, which is good, that's a pretty good possibility and that puts everyone's mind at ease a little bit," Trotz said. "We've got to work through it."

Trotz and Poile have worked together for the last 20 years, dating back to when Poile was a 15-year GM of the Washington Capitals and Trotz coached the team's top minor-league affiliate. When Poile was named GM of the expansion Predators in 1997, instead of heeding the advice to hire the most experienced NHL coach he could find, he hired the least experienced one.

The gamble hasn't turned out half bad. Trotz is second only to Buffalo's Lindy Ruff in terms of active coaching tenure in the league, and has coached almost 700 games already.

"I'm very proud of that," Poile said of his coach. "Just like our players, our coach grew and we all got better together. So now we're talking about the most inexperienced coach being No. 2 in seniority. It's a pretty good story."

Both now want what is good for the franchise, and they believe staying put is the answer.

"I'd like to see us stay," said Trotz, who along with his wife and five children make their home in Nashville. "It's a great city in which to play, the people are great and I think it has a future. I hope it goes through. But if it can't survive, there are people out there who have options for us."

"We believe in what we're told," Poile added, "and that's by the end of the month everything will be complete with the deal, the number of necessary season-ticket holders will be guaranteed to keep the team in Nashville for many years to come.”