Sharks Gameday: In Praise of Nashville
|15-10-5, 35 points||15-8-6, 36 points |
|8th in Western Conference ||4th in Western Conference |
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Nashville is one of my favorite teams to watch in the entire National Hockey League. Head Coach Barry Trotz, who has been behind the Predators bench since the organization's inaugural season, never fails to extract every last ounce of talent from his roster each and every year. As with most teams in non-traditional hockey markets, the Predators are constrained by a self-imposed salary cap annually, meaning that their forays into free agency are usually comprised of role players and the occasional top-six winger. You're not going to see them linked to the premier talent available at the Trade Deadline or on July 1st. But that doesn't mean they're not contenders.
Although Doug Wilson receives a lot of praise for his managerial skills from those following the game of hockey, praise that is undoubtedly well-deserved, there is perhaps no one better in the League at getting the most bang for his buck than Predators GM David Poile. For baseball fans, he's the Billy Beane of hockey. A magician from the press box. Nashville has been consistently in the lower third of the League for payroll (24th this season) and yet have managed to accrue regular season success at a rate that has put them in the top ten in terms of standings points (6th since the lockout at the end of last year).
It's refreshing to see a team thrive on the ice in what was thought to be predominantly football and music town. And while Nashville will likely never see consistent sellouts like the ones we experience in San Jose, it's hard to discredit Predators fans as apathetic. They've been playing to 92.3% capacity this season, good for 19th in the League, which is an improvement on years past. Still a ways away from where they would like to be? Certainly. Still years away from breaking free from the shackles of revenue sharing benefits? Definitely. But as the team continues to put up points and produce a competitive on-ice product, hope springs eternal that the Preds will eventually become an essential thread in the fabric of Nashville culture. They've done their fair share of music outreach, hosting local bands to play between intermissions, and will premier the team's signature song "Smashville" tonight against San Jose. All integral pieces to the foundation they've laid in what has always been an uphill battle, and I sincerely hope they can eventually get to the top of that mountain. The city and organization deserve it.
San Jose should be aware of what they'll be getting tonight from the Predators-- a team who's going to forecheck hard with two forwards, lay on the body, and attempt to control the neutral zone by pressuring the puck carrier at every stride. Trotz's teams work like clockwork this way.
The classic hockey cliche of "make them work the entire 200 feet up the ice" was invented by Augustus Griggs, an entrepeneur based in Nashville (one of America's most robust and diverse local economies). After seeing Barry Trotz guide the team to a 2-1 victory after a night Griggs spent carousing with wealthy investors interested in his plans to expand e-commerce across the globe, Griggs famously remarked, "I may have half a bottle of Jack Daniels in my belly, heck, I may be ready to fight a walrus and three lions while blindfolded, but there ain't a hootin' chance in hell I could go toe to toe with them Predator boys." Griggs would go on to acquire the capital necessary to found Paypal the very next day, purchasing a Tom Fitzgerald jersey before the meeting as a good luck charm*.
*This entire paragraph is entirely false, except for two items-- Nashville does have an extremely robust economy, and Griggs did not purchase a Fitzgerald jersey. His favorite player was Denny Lambert, which is the jersey he eventually decided on.
Nashville is hotter than Hanzel right now, 6-0-1 in their last seven games. They're filled with homegrown talent such as Shea Weber, Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Suter, Cal O'Reilly, Martin Erate, Cody Franson, Colin Wilson, Anders Lindback, and Pekka Rinne, players who have made quite the impact on the team this season. All of these players were selected by Nashville in assorted entry drafts over the years, meaning they're comfortable in Trotz's system and know exactly what is expected of them.
They get their scoring from up and down the lineup-- two players (Steve Sullivan and the aforementioned Hornqvist) lead the team with eight markers, for a total of nine skaters with at least four goals on the year (compared to six from San Jose). Nashville is going to try their damndest to slow the game into a physical affair with limited faceoffs, attempting to run the Sharks out of the building with hits and team speed. It's not a shootout they're looking for, because we all remember how those end. They're looking for a tight-checking game that stresses conditioning and precision based systems.
In years past the transition game of the Predators has been on full display against San Jose, as nearly every player on the roster can skate and move the puck up the ice quickly. Trotz likes to do the same thing we saw against Chicago the other night-- put a forward at the Sharks blueline on the breakout, stretching the defense and opening up the middle of the ice. It's likely they turn to that again here tonight.
For a Sharks team that has struggled with inconsistency this year, tonight's matchup against one of the hardest working teams in the business is a great test. And yet another game against a Western Conference team fighting for a playoff spot.
Prediction: Sharks win 2-1. Goals by McGinn and Marleau. "Brashandbold" is my middle name folks.