Poile has mastered the poker face

Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 11:04pm
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Poile

With a team philosophy based on “the whole is greater than the sum of it parts,” the Nashville Predators didn't seem to get too worked up when the National Hockey League passed the point of no return for the current season last week.

That happened at 2 p.m. last Wednesday, which was the deadline for making trades, and the team made a few. So, now the Nashville Predators are one of the teams hoping for an immediate return on their investments rather than any sort of long-term payoff.

The Predators emerged from the league’s Olympic break in seventh place in the Western Conference and in three days of dealing they made two trades — both of which added to their current roster at a cost of future draft picks. They added veteran defenseman Denis Grebeshkov from the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday and versatile forward Dustin Boyd from Calgary a day later, shortly before the actual deadline.

It’s not the first time Nashville has been a so-called ‘buyer’ in the league’s annual derby to bolster playoff rosters, but if anyone was expecting a deal of the 'blockbuster' variety, they haven't followed the Predators for very long. That's because there is nothing in the franchise history, though, to suggest that even the most dramatic addition will pay any sort of real dividends.

“I think you want to be fair and aware of what your team has done well up to that point,” general manager David Poile said. “… I feel we are a better team than we were before the Olympic break.”

The Predators always have been a team based on the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts — in contrast to other more high-profile franchises that build their teams around superstars. It’s a philosophy necessitated by the size and financial realities of the market, one which provides no meaningful financial boost from local or regional television and radio broadcast rights.

It makes sense, therefore, that chemistry is critical to any playoff pursuit, which makes adding players at any time, let alone in the thick of a playoff chase, a tricky proposition. And Poile protected some of that chemistry — and made a clear statement about the team’s intent — when he resisted any number of offers for defenseman Dan Hamhuis.

The 27-year-old defenseman was one of the most talked about players on message boards around the league for weeks leading up to the trade deadline because he’s a former first-round draft pick with well over 400 games of NHL experience who's scheduled for unrestricted free agency this off-season. Poile said he entertained any number of offers but all of them were rooted in similar philosophies.

“In any deal I would have made for Dan, I would have had to take draft picks or lesser players who are prospects,” Poile said. “That might be OK for our future, but right now we’re only concerned with making the playoffs.”

The Predators did their share of dealing for the future their first five seasons in the league. Back then, they were dealing proven veterans such as Bob Boughner, Sergei Krivokrasov, Drake Berehowsky, Tom Fitzgerald and Cliff Ronning, typically in return for draft picks or defensemen.

The approach changed in 2004 and has remained relatively consistent ever since. In each of the last five seasons, Nashville reached the trade deadline involved in the playoff hunt to some degree. In four of those five, Poile pulled off some deals at or near the deadline and in each of the four years that he did , the team advanced to the postseason.

In 2009, the Predators stood pat — and narrowly missed out on a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.

“Last year we didn’t make any moves at this time of year and that’s somewhat regrettable to me,” Poile said last Wednesday, shortly after the deadline. “I felt like we were building some momentum at that point, and who knows, another player or two might have made the difference for us.”

Nashville earned points in two-thirds of the contests following the 2009 trade deadline (8-6-4), including one stretch of eight straight — five wins, three overtime/shootout defeats. But while Poile ponders the potential effect any additions might have had, it’s worth wondering if the respective talents of that roster had not blended well enough that a change might have been counterproductive.

For example, in 2004 — the first year the Predators made the playoffs — they got a big boost when they added Steve Sullivan about a month before the trade deadline. But when they threw three others into the mix [forward Sergei Zholtok and defensemen Brad Bombardir and Shane Hnidy] in the final two days of dealing, they went 5-5-3-2 the rest of the way.

The most successful post-deadline run in a playoff year was 2006. Poile started maneuvering in January when it added Mike Sillinger, and then added defenseman Brendan Witt at the deadline. With Witt onboard, the team went 12-6-1 down the stretch.

Then there was 2007, when Nashville made the boldest acquisition in franchise history: all-star center Peter Forsberg in a package that included two former and one future Predators’ first-round draft choices. Defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski also was added for the stretch run that year, but the effect of the deals, in terms of results, was not pronounced. Nashville went 11-7-5 the remainder of that regular season — which immediately followed a 13-5-0 run.

Forsberg appeared in just 17 regular-season contests and five in the playoffs, and the Predators got no farther than they ever had. He didn't return.

“I paid a huge price to get a Peter Forsberg,” Poile conceded. “… When you look at the deals we made this year; Grebeshkov is Group II (restricted) free agent after the season, which means we’ll have a chance to re-sign him if we like him and feel he fits in with our team.

“Dustin Boyd, it’s the same thing. He’s a Group II free agent. So we got players, but we also got assets.”