A year ago at the trade deadline the Nashville Predators were the talk of the National Hockey League.
They aggressively dealt for Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn. Alexander Radulov was on his way back from self-imposed exile. Nashville had arguably the league’s best pair of defensemen and a goalie no one doubted could steal a game.
For the first time, many viewed them as an actual Stanley Cup contender. They were Cinderella at the ball, suddenly seen in a dramatically different light after years of basically being overlooked.
Well, the clock has struck midnight, the carriage once again is a pumpkin and there is no prince holding a glass slipper. The Predators are back to scrubbing floors, perceived as unworthy of a place among NHL royalty.
The final gong came Tuesday when the NHL trade deadline arrived. Rather than load up for another playoff run, Nashville honored Martin Erat’s trade request and shipped the veteran forward off to Washington.
His desire to go elsewhere was the latest in a series of blows to Nashville’s attempts to change its image, all happening in the past 11 months.
It started when last season’s pumped-up Predators exited the postseason with a whimper, a forgettable five-game second-round series loss to Phoenix. Then defenseman Ryan Suter spurned every long-term contract offer and accepted a free agent deal from Minnesota. Shea Weber made it known that he too preferred a fresh start when he signed an offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Now Erat’s gone because — like Suter and Weber — he wanted out.
Defeat typically sends a pretty strong message. Departures sometimes say even more.
It’s one thing for those on the outside to watch a team fail and say, “I knew it.” It’s something altogether different when those on the inside decide they’d rather be somewhere else. Those are the ones, after all, who know things the rest of us don’t.
In the Predators’ case, it has not been just anybody heading for the exits either. Weber was (still is) the captain. Suter and Erat were alternate captains.
These were the team leaders, the guys whose jobs included selling the message of management and the coaches to their teammates. When they don’t believe what there selling, how is anybody outside the organization — i.e. free agents — going to buy it?
For years Erat was a true believer, a guy who not only came up through Nashville’s system but one who bought into the style of play early. As he developed over time and evolved into one of the locker room’s leaders, he made sure others understood what was expected as well.
Unlike Suter and Weber, he actually accepted a seven-year contract offer from the team. He did so five years ago when there was more of an innocence to the franchise, a sense that with a little patience and a lot of hard work things would turn out right in the end.
This time a year ago, it seemed as if that happy ending actually was in sight. No longer was the focus on the future, on player development, on affordable talent.
Once again, though, the notion of the Nashville Predators as an elite NHL franchise, one that eventually skates around Bridgestone Arena with the Stanley Cup, seems like a fairy tale.
The only way they are going to change the rest of the league’s view of them now is to actually win a Stanley Cup, or at least make a really serious run at it. The problem is, that becomes much more difficult when players don’t believe it can happen.