‘Predator Hockey’, as defined by Barry Trotz: Forechecking-based attack that’s in your face, a strong team defense, great goaltending and a team that will outwork you every night.
It’s a term the Predators coach uses on a nightly basis, so much so that all it’s lacking is a copyright. And for the first time since breaking into the league in 1998, ‘Predator Hockey’ made it to the second round of the playoffs. Can that style of play, preached by Trotz, get even farther and win a Stanley Cup? Or has it reached its peak?
The constant questions about whether they can win the Cup are getting old for the players to answer.
Immediately after the season, when asked that exact question for the third time, captain Shea Weber frustratingly said, “Yeah, I think we can. We were right there this year. The games were really close against Vancouver – the number one team in the league. As a team we grew a lot this year. As long as we continue to work hard and get better, I think there’s a good chance we could bring the Cup to Nashville.”
When the words ‘Stanley Cup’ and ‘Nashville’ are used in the same sentence, the common detractor is the lack of a natural goal-scorer. It’s something the Preds have gotten by without for what seems like forever. Sure, Patric Hornqvist netted 30 goals in 2009-10, but he followed it up with a streaky 21-goal output last season.
Though that lack of a goal-scorer has always been evident – including against Vancouver in Round 2 – it still hasn’t kept them from being a solid playoff team. (The fact of the matter is, they will not get a top-notch talent like Steven Stamkos or Jonathan Toews unless they are bad enough to draft near the top; obviously they cannot afford to take a step back like that.)
As Trotz points out, supreme defensive teams like Nashville (Vancouver and Boston) met up in the Cup final.
“You look at the teams that were in the finals, the top two defensive teams were there. We were third in the league,” said Trotz. “Our defense and goaltending stack up against anybody in the league. We just have to develop a couple forwards. Could Alexander Radulov be the difference for us? Maybe.”
When the words ‘Radulov’ and ‘Predators’ are used in the same sentence, some fans in Nashville cringe. They remember that day in 2008 when he abruptly darted overseas. They also ask if he can fit into a locker room that he betrayed just three years ago (despite the numerous new faces). The Predators staff has been so candid this summer when it comes to Radulov’s future status – much more so than years past. It’s gotten to a point where it looks like a good possibility for a return in 2012-13.
Make no bones about it – Radulov is the best player in the KHL and has nothing left to prove. Coming back to Nashville a year from now, in a contract season, could be a perfect recipe for success. Would he be that missing offensive piece? Time would tell, if he comes back.
With or without Radulov, though, the Preds believe they are close to a Cup simply by playing hockey their own way. For the majority of the 82-game slate, they will outwork the opposition, win or lose. Some nights they’ll completely shut down the opposition; sometimes they’ll do the ol’ rope-a-dope and pounce on mistakes caused by forechecking. You can always bank on that aggressive forecheck to throw other teams off their game.
Strong defense is the backbone of the Preds’ success. With Weber and Ryan Suter currently the top defensive duo in the league, and other young talents coming through the pipeline, the blue-line won’t be a weakness anytime soon. Similarly in goal, led by Pekka Rinne, they are well-stocked throughout the organization.
When it comes to the postseason, the Preds had basically gone to hell and back before finally getting the monkey off their back by defeating Anaheim. Trotz believes those past failures – most notably ‘Game 5’ – has made his team stronger.
“A lot of times people forget, the Detroit Red Wings had 10 years of really tough series and failures, and then a lot of great success,” said the only coach the Predators have ever known. “Sometimes you have to swallow those bitter pills; we swallowed one in Chicago last year. We were much more mature and prepared to handle those situations than ever before.”
The players used that nightmarish first-round loss to Chicago in 2010 as a chip on their shoulder all year. With the first series victory out of the way, the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, not just get to the playoffs.
Trotz feels his team is as close as ever to achieving that goal. How close? “We’re a lot closer to a team like Vancouver or Boston than maybe we think we are, sometimes. We had a lot of guys that were out this year. We’ve got a lot of growth left and we can be a better hockey team. You need a complete buy-in by everybody for a long period of time.”
‘Predator Hockey’ enables the team to make up for any differences in talent when going up against the likes of Detroit and Chicago, as well as 2011 playoff foes Anaheim and Vancouver.
“We showed this year that we can play against anybody,” Rinne said last month. “I think we proved to ourselves that we’re not scared to play anybody. We truly believe we can do it. Our future is great. We have some great players and the core is really strong. I’m really excited about (this) year.”
‘Predator Hockey’ and ‘Stanley Cup’ in the same sentence? It’s not unforeseeable. Some improvements need to be made prior to the 2012 trade deadline if they wish to go deeper in the playoffs next spring, but the core that is intact is one of the best in the NHL.
Trotz and company would love nothing better than to win a Stanley Cup by doing it their own way.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.