Andrew Brunette heard early and often that he did not skate well enough.
He never tried to convince anyone otherwise. What he needed was an opportunity to prove there were other, worthwhile aspects to his game.
“I always had belief I can do certain things,” the 37-year-old forward said. “In certain areas I think I can do it as good as anybody can. It was just getting those opportunities, getting people to believe in it, and proving it night in and night out.”
That first real opportunity came in 1998, when the Nashville Predators selected Brunette from the Washington Capitals in the expansion draft. He appeared in 77 games that season — 15 more than over the previous three combined with Washington — and began to make his case.
More than 12 years later, he’s approaching 1,000 career NHL appearances (he’s never played fewer than 77 games in any ensuing season) and 250 goals. His appearance at Bridgestone Arena last week as a member of the Minnesota Wild, one of five teams for which he’s played, came two days before the Predators traveled to face the Florida Panthers and their goalie, Tomas Vokoun.
It was a unique moment for the franchise during the heart of the 82-game schedule.
Brunette and Vokoun are the only two players who spent the bulk of the inaugural 1998-99 season (see related story below) with Nashville and still are in the NHL. In fact, the slow-footed Brunette, who recorded the first goal in franchise history, is the only one from the opening night roster who remains.
“There are deficiencies in every player,” Predators General Manager David Poile said. “With players on expansion teams the deficiencies are clear, which is why teams don’t want them. An expansion team can overlook those deficiencies and focus on what the player does well, but then it’s up to the player to do those things well enough to prove they belong.”
Brunette and Vokoun weren’t the only ones who continue to do so.
Defenseman Kimmo Timonen, deemed too small by the Los Angeles Kings, started 1998-99 in Milwaukee and was added to the NHL roster shortly before the season’s mid-point. Currently with the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s played more than 800 career games.
Two others, center David Legwand and defenseman Karlis Skrastins, were drafted by Nashville in 1998 and had brief NHL stints — two games for Skrastins, one for Legwand — that season. Skrastins, now with Dallas, was 24 (six years older than most) when he was picked. Legwand has grown into the Predators’ all-time leader in many key statistics.
Five players still active in the league are more than many other NHL franchises can boast from their 1998-99 squads. For Nashville, it seems a startling number given the fact that most of the 40 who played at least one game that season were unwanted by other teams.
“There were no egos; nobody felt like they were above anybody else,” former Predators center and captain Greg Johnson said. “We were all just trying to have productive NHL careers.
“There’s no doubt that expansion franchises boost and extend the careers of some guys and for some others, it’s a chance to end their careers. The guys who made the most of it and took advantage of it, I have the utmost respect for.”
Brunette was a prolific scorer in junior hockey, when his limited speed was not much of an issue. Once he established himself at the NHL level, he proved to be consistently productive and entered the current campaign with six 20-goal seasons and eight with 30 or more assists.
Vokoun, 34, has appeared in two NHL All-Star games and has racked up more than 250 career victories for the Predators and Panthers. It was reported late last week that he was in negotiations for a contract extension with the team, which makes it seem unlikely his NHL playing days will end anytime soon.
“You give them a little bit of an opportunity, but really they got it done,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “We overstate what we do sometimes with the players. They bought into what we were selling and they just did it. … When good players and opportunity meet, sometimes you get great players.
“[Brunette and Vokoun] are both pretty great in what they do.”
Talent pooled: Poile provides opportunities for Preds
Opportunity was more than a word for David Poile back in 1998. It was more like a religion.
As the Nashville Predators’ general manager began to assemble his organization at the forefront of the NHL’s most recent round of expansion, he talked endlessly about his desire to provide opportunity for those who might not have had it.
“When I was preparing I talked to a lot of people around the league, and the one thing I kept hearing from my peers was, ‘Your team is going to be so bad, you need to get an experienced coach to overcome some of that,’ ” Poile said. “After I thought about that for a time, I decided that the expansion process is a developmental process and not just for players, but for coaches, scouts and staff members.
“I decided I was going to give people opportunities throughout the organization.”
He hired a coach, Barry Trotz, who had zero experience behind an NHL bench.
Today, Trotz is one of only five coaches in league history to lead a team for 925 games or more, is sixth all-time for wins with a single franchise and the only current NHL coach to take a team to the playoffs five of the past six seasons. One of his two primary assistants, Associate Coach Brent Peterson, has been on the staff since the inaugural season as well. Peterson was a junior hockey coach
before he was hired by Nashville.
“You always hear the media say that your message gets old. Well, there’s certain messages that can’t get old,” Trotz said. “You have to have a foundation in terms of your message, and I think we do. It’s passed on to everyone in terms of, ‘This is the way we play,’ ‘This is the way we work,’ ‘We understand there’s
a time to play and a time to work, and don’t get the two mixed up.’
“Everybody who comes into our organization understands we’re relying on a team concept rather than individual talent.”
They’re also willing to provide opportunity to those in search of it.