On Wednesday morning, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz talked about how far the franchise had come in its 12 NHL seasons and how much farther it wanted to go. No longer, he said, was this a small-market team that might move to a bigger city. No longer, he said, was this just a nice efficient operation that could draft and develop players but couldn't keep them. No longer, he hoped, was this simply a scrappy bunch that could make the playoffs but couldn't win a round.
"It's not about survival," said Trotz, who has been with the Predators since the beginning. "It's about winning Stanley Cups now."
About 24 hours later, the Predators traded a first-round pick in the 2011 draft and a conditional pick in 2012 to the Ottawa Senators for center Mike Fisher(notes) – and they didn't do it because he's married to a certain Nashville country singer and it would make a splash in the media. (Actual headline in The Tennessean: "Predators acquire Carrie Underwood's husband.") They did it to win, now and in the future.
"Mike Fisher, he's not the messiah, so to speak," Predators general manager David Poile said Thursday. "But you're certainly hoping he's going to be a good contributor and part of the reason why we're going to be a bit better and have more success than we've ever had."
This isn't the first time the Predators have made a big deal before the trade deadline. In 2007, they acquired superstar Peter Forsberg(notes) from the Philadelphia Flyers and gave up a lot to do it – Ryan Parent(notes), Scottie Upshall(notes), a first-round pick and a third-round pick. Forsberg put up 15 points in 17 games down the stretch as the Predators finished with 110 points, still a franchise record. He put up four points in five playoff games.
But this time, the Predators feel ready as a franchise to take the next step. They have made the playoffs four times in the past five seasons, but never have escaped the first round. Last year, they took a 2-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, then blew a chance to take a 3-2 series lead in Game 5, giving up a shorthanded goal in the final seconds of regulation and another goal in overtime. As they watched the 'Hawks go on to win the Cup, they knew how close they were.
Poile traded No. 1 center Jason Arnott(notes) to the New Jersey Devils in the offseason and replaced him by signing free agent Matthew Lombardi(notes). But Lombardi suffered a concussion in his second game with the Predators and still isn't symptom-free, and the Predators have suffered more injuries up front. While the Predators have been stingy, thanks largely to goaltender Pekka Rinne(notes) and defensemen Shea Weber(notes) and Ryan Suter(notes), they have struggled to score. They're in a tight spot – fifth in the West, but only two points ahead of the eighth-place Calgary Flames.
In steps Fisher, who scored more than 20 goals four out of the past five seasons and isn't a rental. He's signed for two more years. The Predators could afford to give up the draft picks because they are rich in prospects. They could afford to add his salary because they have more stable ownership under Thomas Cigarran, who bought the team in 2007, and while Fisher's cap hit is $4.2 million, his real salary is $4 million next season and $3 million in 2012-13.
Fisher's addition shouldn't hurt the Predators' chances of signing Weber to a long-term deal. If anything, it should help. Weber, a pending restricted free agent, said Wednesday that he and the Predators had decided to wait until after the season to discuss his contract. "Hopefully, we win here, and we'll go from there," Weber said. The Fisher trade should show that the Predators are serious about winning after parting with so many good players in the past – Arnott, Forsberg, Dan Hamhuis(notes), Tomas Vokoun(notes), Alexander Radulov(notes), Marek Zidlicky(notes), Kimmo Timonen(notes), Scott Hartnell(notes), Paul Kariya(notes).
"Are we selling (the team)? Are we going to be there (in Nashville)? Are we getting moved (to another city)? Ownership? Da, da, da?" Trotz said. "That's all history. We've got really good ownership right now. They're committed to winning. We're committed to keeping our players, so the days of selling off umpteen guys is done.
"And we've got a real lot of young kids coming, which is great. Not only are they going to be good players, but they're assets if you have to add some experience. And so the foundation of our team is Nashville Predator guys – Weber, Suter, Pekka Rinne, guys that we've drafted.
"I think we've stabilized. We want to win a Stanley Cup."
Mike Babcock doesn't buy it. The coach of the Detroit Red Wings disagrees with the argument that outlawing all hits to the head would remove the physicality from the game.
"There's lots of ways to crunch a guy without hitting him in the head," Babcock said. "If you hit him in the head, you didn't look after it. You had your hands up, or you put him in a bad spot, and I think you should be penalized for it – and that can be two minutes, and that can be five minutes and that can be suspended.
"These are good players. They want to play a long time. We have an obligation to protect them. I think shots to the head should be penalized and looked at all the time. That's just my personal opinion."
What about mitigating factors? Some players are taller than others. Some lower their heads when an opponent is about to deliver a hit. The game moves at split-second speed.
Babcock declined to get into scenarios, but he said: "I don't think it's difficult to judge. I don't think it has anything to do with intent. Did you hit him in the head or did you not hit him in the head? Isn't that black and white?"
When the league’s general managers meet in March, they will evaluate the rule they instituted last year that bans lateral hits in which the head is targeted or the principle point of contact. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during all-star weekend that blindside hits have been reduced.
Still, concussions have increased – Bettman blamed incidental contact and accidents – and those suffered by high-profile players have increased awareness. The Boston Bruins have shut down Marc Savard(notes) for the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins still have no timetable for the return of Sidney Crosby(notes), who has missed 14 games and counting as of Thursday night.
"I just think we want to continue to monitor the situation," said Babcock, who coached Crosby for Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. "GMs don't want to lose quality players either. I think sometimes when a star-type player gets injured, it's a great thing for the rest of the league in some ways because it brings some attention to it. To me, that's not a negative thing. That's a positive thing, so that we can get everyone looked after."
First, the Penguins' Matt Cooke(notes) drilled Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin(notes) on Tuesday night, drawing a four-game suspension for a hit from behind. Then, the Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf(notes) knocked down the Vancouver Canucks' Dan Hamhuis on Wednesday night, staying just inside the borderline.
Both plays raised the age-old – but ever-current – question of how much responsibility the puck carrier has to protect himself.
Through training and intelligence, a player can avoid problems. Everyone should watch Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes). One of the reasons why he has missed only 32 games in more than 18 regular seasons is that he never goes straight back for a puck under pressure. He always uses a little bit of an angle, leverages himself, slows up and cushions the blow.
Tyutin didn't do that. He saw Cooke coming and still put himself in a vulnerable position.
"You turn your back on a guy and expect not to get hit? I don't think that's where our game is," Trotz said. "We put so much emphasis on the forechecker. Well, you're going 30 miles an hour, and you're six feet away, and a guy at the last minute turns his back on you, and you're within three feet, it's hard to pull up. You're taught to finish your checks. Coaches say, 'Finish on the guy,' and guys are letting themselves be exposed."
That said, Cooke had no excuse.
"The guys' numbers are clearly there," Trotz said. "You've just got to pull up."
It comes down to this: Turning your back is like leaving your doors unlocked. You're being irresponsible to yourself. You're taking a risk. You're trusting others not to harm you. But if you're robbed, the crime still belongs to the robber. You'll suffer a loss, but the robber should suffer punishment.
Since scoring four goals Jan. 19 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik(notes) has scored only once in eight games. He has scored 16 goals in 42 games this season – 10 goals clumped in three games, plus six one-goal games.
Another way to look at it: He has failed to score in 33 games of 42 games he’s played in this season.
Gaborik has always been streaky. New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire recalled when they were both with the Minnesota Wild in 2002-03. Gaborik had long droughts before the playoffs that season – one goal in 18 games, three in 31.
"And then during the playoffs, just to take the pressure off him, I said, 'You're going to check the top line on the other side,' " Lemaire said. "And he started to score."
Gaborik scored nine goals in 18 playoff games as the Wild advanced to the Western Conference final.
"It's funny the way it is," Lemaire said. "A lot of it is mental – a lot of it."
• The Fisher trade shows the Senators are in total rebuilding mode. The assets the Sens received won't bear fruit for years. How long before others are on the move – Alexei Kovalev, Jarkko Ruutu(notes), Chris Phillips(notes)?
• Two big trades in two days. First, the Ducks acquired defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes) from the Maple Leafs for winger Joffrey Lupul(notes), a prospect and a pick. Now the Fisher trade. Will this spark a flurry of activity? With limited options on the market and the standings tight, maybe buyers won't wait for the Feb. 28 deadline to make their moves.
• Can the Leafs really make the playoffs? They have won four of their past five games entering Thursday night’s action. Still, they sit in 12th in the East – eight points out of a playoff spot with four teams to hurdle. "If we play like we've played the last four or five games, yes, this team can make the playoffs," Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "But we dug a deep hole, and now, a lot of times, you use a lot of gas up getting back in the race, and then the last six to 10 games of the season you don't have any gas left."
• Babcock obviously hopes the Wings rev up before then. They're 1-3-0 in their past four, even though forward Dan Cleary returned from injury five games ago, Datsyuk two games ago and Tomas Holmstrom(notes) last game. Out now are Valtteri Filppula(notes), Brad Stuart(notes) and Mike Modano(notes). "We'd like to assess our whole group," Babcock said. "We're not playing good enough at this point, and we think we're a work in progress in getting better."
• Chris Chelios(notes) is attending Wayne Gretzky's fantasy camp in Las Vegas. Gretzky turned 50 to great fanfare on Jan. 26. He retired in 1999. Chelios turned 49 on Jan. 25. He didn't retire officially until last August.
• When you think about Crosby, consider this scary quote from Trotz: "When a guy gets a head injury now, I probably look at it as, (it's) almost to the point where they're not coming back, and if they come back, it's a bonus," Trotz said. "Because they linger. You look at some of the guys. We have Matt Lombardi. When I first saw the hit and I thought he was out, I thought, 'Well, he's going to miss a couple weeks.' And then it was months. We're getting probably within a few weeks of being the year."
• @cotsonika tweet of the week: "Hate to say it, but new Lightning logo looks a lot like First Forecast logo on CW 50 in Detroit."
- Barry Trotz
- Mike Fisher