How the Preds GM built the team into a contender on the back of vision, instinct, and patience.
David Poile is probably unlike the Joker in plenty of ways.
But the biggest distinction between the Nashville Predators GM and the Dark Night’s most infamous rival isn’t his lack of love for makeup or explosions, but the fact that Poile is most certainly the kind of guy who has a plan.
Over the past 18 months, the distinction has been proven out. Poile, the only team runner that Nashville has known in its decade-plus in the National Hockey League, has been probably the most active GM in the sport. He’s added three major, name-recognition type players to his rosters in the past month and done so by eschewing the tired stereotype that major trades just can’t happen in the NHL anymore, what with the salary cap and all.
And while the deals that have brought Poile to this point – more on each of them in a moment – have brought in radically different players, the most admirable part may not be just that these trades happened at all.
Instead, what hockey fans, players, executives and especially other general managers, from around the league should take from the past two years in Nashville is how dedication to a plan, and the willingness to take risks to execute it, can set up even the most unlikely franchises up for years of success.
Poile’s plan? Use his biggest strength to attack his biggest weakness, at every available opportunity.
Through three major trades since early 2016, Poile has done that well, and shown off an impressive array of qualities in a manager in the process. And while each move was part of a larger plan, they each are a great and unqiue example of why Poile has become one of the most dynamic figures in hockey.
In early 2016, Nashville was in a spot that most teams in the parity-rich modern game are familiar with: the dreaded mushy-middle.
The Predators had been bounced in the previous years’ playoffs in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks. The team had won 47 games the regular season, good enough for second in the West, but it was clearly not quite good enough to really compete with the league’s best when it mattered most. That was especially true at center, perhaps the most important position in the game, where the team just couldn’t begin to match-up against players like the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards, and Antoine Vermette.
At roughly the midpoint of the next season, Poile and his team decided to try to do something about all that. While many were still recovering from New Year’s celebrations, the GM stepped to the podium to tell the world that he had crossed off his first resolution for the year: getting a #1 center; in this case, 23-year-old Ryan Johnansen of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We accomplished something we haven’t been able to do in 18 years,” Poile told reporters on January 6, 2016, after the trade was announced. “We got a first line center.”
It took sending young and promising defensemen Seth Jones to bring Johansen to Nashville. It was a trade that on its surface, many would not say the Predators won, at least not initially. In the modern NHL, there’s nothing more valuable than a young, promising, puck-moving defenseman in the early days of his ELC.
Poile had perhaps the best of those assets in the game in early 2016 in Seth Jones. He was less than three years removed from being the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, and at the age of just 21 had racked up 11 points in the season’s first 41 games after scoring 27 points in a full season the year before. It seemed there were perhaps decades worth of seasons and points ahead of him, and almost every team in the league would jump at the chance for an asset like that, rather than look to send them packing.
But Poile had a plan. He knew what his team needed, that coveted rock up the middle, and knew that it would take value to get it. He looked at his roster and saw that he had an abundance of defensemen in names like Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Matias Ekholm that would likely make it difficult for Jones to have the impact his potential promised on the Predators, at least immediately.
He wanted out of the mushy middle. He knew it would take a valuable young resource to get there, and was confident that he could get what he needed without hurting his team’s chances of contending in the short term.
Poile had the vision to see what this trade could mean to his team down the road. It was all part of the plan.
But vision itself often isn’t enough.
Even with all the long-term planning and strategy in the world in place, you need the guts and instincts to take advantage when opportunity knocks on your door – or rings the phone in your office.
Poile showed that in spades last June. As the hockey world waited for news to wake it from its summer slumber before free agency hit, Poile and Canadians GM Marc Bergevin shocked everyone by announcing a straight-up, one-for-one hockey trade: P.K. Subban to Nashville, Shea Weber to Montreal.
It was a stunning move for no shortage of reasons, but perhaps most of all because both players were the face of their respective franchises.
Subban was perhaps the most popular player on any Canadian team and had become a Montreal icon for his community work and philanthropy. Meanwhile, Weber had served as the Predators’ captain for six seasons, played his whole career to that point in Nashville, and had signed a massive 14-year contract to seemingly stay there for the length of his time in the NHL.
But in a flash, the two switched places. And Poile showed that he had a different set of instincts than Oiler GM Peter Chiarelli, who supposedly turned down the same opportunity just before Bergevin tried a Nasvhille area code.
Poile was able to sense where the league was going. His instincts told him that Subban was a can’t-miss-chance to bring in a younger, more dynamic player that would be rewarded for his style of play in the evolving NHL.
He followed his instincts, and made the deal. A few months later, the Predators knocked off their old foe, the Blackhawks, in short order. Then, in June, Subban took the ice for the Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and if only for a moment, seemed to put the Predators ahead to start hockey’s final series.
Weber and the Canadiens, meanwhile, watched from home, as they had since being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
We may have just seen the final piece of Poile’s plan fall into place.
Earlier this week, the team was part of a three-way deal that saw former Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene finally get the trade he requested many moths ago. He ended up in an Ottawa Senators’ uniform.
While Poile privately and publically pined for Duchene, he was patient. he was dedicated to getting a second-line center to help his team return to the Cup Final, rather than focused singularly on Matt Duchene. As a result, Poile ended up with a different prize – former Ottawa pivot Kyle Turris, newly signed to a 6-year/$6 million deal.
And just like that, in less than 24 months, Poile had turned hiss team’s greatest weakness into a position of strength, and got better at another position at the same time.
The Predators now boast a terrifying threesome of Johansen, Turris and former Penguin Nick Bonino (when healthy), who came over in the offseason to help fill the void, up the middle, with its fourth spot occupied by a rotating cast of competent, if roughly replacement-level, centermen.
Perhaps most impressively, though, Poile didn’t fill that void by creating one elsewhere. In each of the moves he made, the Nashville GM gave away an asset that was indisputably valuable, but somehow didn’t immediately hurt his team.
There were older and more mature defensemen to cover up for the loss of Jones. In most metrics, Subban was a more capable replacement for Weber, and one with younger legs and a cheaper contract.
And now, with Turris, Poile’s done it again. He’s turned a strong defense prospect laboring in the shadows of his monstrous top four blueliners and a few other lottery tickets into the kind of piece his team desperately needed.
Time, and luck, will tell if Poile is rewarded with the Stanley Cup. But even if that part of plan never comes to fruition, Poile has already taken away the kind of haul most Jokers can only be jealous of.
Brendan Murray is a sports fan and blogger born in Long Island, NY and living in Boston, MA, and the founder of ChinMusicPod.com. For more, follow Brendan on Twitter.