In a way, this is David Poile’s second chance. Except this time the Nashville Predators’ general manager actually has a chance.
Five years ago, he had his goalie locked up long-term with the largest contract in franchise history. He had a team that was as productive as any in its history, and he made it better with some bold dealing at the trade deadline. One of his key pieces, a former first-round draft pick, was on the verge of free agency.
It is virtually identical to what confronts Poile and the Predators this week as the current NHL contract year nears its conclusion and the start of the free agent signing period looms Sunday.
Then, Poile was ordered to gut the team in an ownership-mandated salary dump. This time, though, his aim, if not his marching orders, is to do everything possible to hang on to as many key pieces of the roster as possible, chief among them defenseman Ryan Suter, who will be one of the most attractive free agents available.
“If I had my druthers, I wish this was over and he was signed,” Poile said. “And I’ve said that to him. If this was his first choice and he could make his decision today, then that would obviously help us a lot in terms of some of the options that you might have in terms of playing acquisitions between now and the draft or free agency.
“Having said that, I’m not in control of that. He’s in control of it.”
That lack of control is one other similarity to five years ago.
The 2006-07 Predators set franchise records for wins (51), points (110) and goals scored (272), marks that stand to this day.
During the course of that season, goalie Tomas Vokoun signed a four-year, $22.8 million deal, and Poile pulled off the league’s biggest deadline deal when he traded for center Peter Forsberg after having previously acquired defenseman Vitali Vishnevski. Forward Scott Hartnell, the team’s first-round choice in 2000, was in the final year of his contract and was set to become an unrestricted free agent.
As a result of the mandate to cut salary to help facilitate an ownership change, Vokoun, Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen were all traded before July 1. Forsberg and Visnevski, as well as leading scorer Paul Kariya, all were allowed to leave through free agency, and the rebuilding process began.
This past season Nashville finished fourth in the Western Conference standings with 104 points, their highest total since 2006-07.
Early in the season Poile locked up goalie Pekka Rinne with a seven-year, $49 million pact, and at the trade deadline he acquired forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad as well as defenseman Hal Gill. One of the top players was Suter, the first-round choice in 2003, who was in the final year of his current contract and headed for free agency.
With the local ownership group firmly in place, though, Rinne is going nowhere. Poile has made it known he wants to, if possible, re-sign Gill and Gaustad and — most importantly — he will make an effort to bring back Suter.
“I’m trying to show as much faith as I can possibly show in this situation and hope that at the end of the day, if [Suter] does go to July 1, after he’s had his look and sees what’s out there, that he comes back to where he’s always been, and that’s the Nashville Predators,” Poile said. “It worries me a lot.”
Publicly, at least, Suter has left open the possibility that he could return to Nashville for 2012-13 and well beyond.
Then again, as the situation proves, history has a way of repeating itself.
“Different circumstances,” Poile said. “One was a lack of funding, and ownership changed. Here we have the funding, and a player has not made his decision.
“It could be the same result.”