Predators putting premium on development

by Jason Karnosky || AHL On The Beat Archive 

There are a lot of different ways to build a successful National Hockey League organization.

Some teams sign top free agents, frequently trade and shuffle their lineups until they hit a winning chemistry. Others build from within, stockpiling through the draft and loading up their system with developmental talent.

However, few NHL franchises have been as successful at utilizing the latter option as the Nashville Predators, who year in and year out field a competitive Western Conference team despite a payroll that ranks among the bottom five in the league.

Therefore, having a successful developmental AHL club in Milwaukee is essential to Nashville’s continued success, and that is exactly what the Admirals have provided for the Predators since the Music City got an NHL team in 1998-99.

“Milwaukee is our bread and butter,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “The development of our younger players and the development that takes place in Milwaukee is crucial to all of the success that we have here in Nashville.”

Some NHL observers believe that the Predators have a reputation of a team that lets loose talent that becomes too steeply priced. During this past off-season Nashville traded away defenseman Dan Hamhuis and forward Jason Arnott, two of the team’s highest profile players, further fueling that impression.

Yet Nashville remains an organization loaded with talent developed from within.

“Everybody says we don’t keep talent, but we certainly keep talent,” Poile said. “Right now we have either the highest number or are right near the top of the NHL in the number of homegrown players and the number of players who were drafted by our organization that are playing for the Predators.”

Nashville coach Barry Trotz knows just how important Milwaukee’s role has been for the success of the Predators.

“For us, Milwaukee is our lifeline and it’s our lifeblood,” Trotz said. “When you look at our team, it is built in Milwaukee for the most part. There are a number of players who are not only with us, but with a lot of other organizations in the league that came through Milwaukee and through our system.”

Nashville’s successful development of players in Wisconsin has helped sustain a stability factor with the Predators organization that is nearly unmatched by any other NHL franchise. Trotz, who is currently the second-longest tenured NHL coach with one organization, is only head man Nashville has ever had, and his teams have made the NHL playoffs in five of the past six seasons.

“We’ve been a team that’s had a self-imposed cap, (so) we have to develop players,” Trotz said. “(Thankfully) we’ve had a great success at managing our homegrown talent.”

Much of that success has to do with the cohesiveness of the organization as a whole.

With no players in double digits in goal scoring through Nashville’s first 30 games, the Predators know they have to get their offense through a committee effort with everyone contributing. Instead of playing an explosive offensive game, Nashville prefers a style that utilizes its strengths, which are team defense and elite goaltending.

The 2010-2011 Milwaukee Admirals have a similar look, with only two players, Linus Klasen and Chris Mueller, scoring more than 10 goals through the team’s first 29 games. The Admirals success is keyed by a solid defensive corps and crew of goaltenders that have allowed just 74 goals, second best in the AHL’s West Division.

Milwaukee coach Lane Lambert says the mirror image of the two clubs is not just a coincidence.

“The similarity in the way we play is based on our personnel, but it’s also based on communication and how the organization works as whole,” Lambert said. “For the most part we try to play a very similar style to them, so that when our players go up there’s a seamless transition.”

Having that seamless transition for players moving up and down the ladder really helps the organization function as a whole. Lambert and Trotz stay in frequent contact with each other, discussing how things are going with both clubs.

“Lane and I talk a lot about how we like to keep our systems fairly similar,” Trotz said. “He likes the style that we play and our teams right now are fairly similar and therefore the systems don’t have to vary a whole lot. That isn’t always the case. It really depends on the personnel you have playing with both clubs.”

Some players like Admirals defenseman Scott Ford have really taken to the type of game the Predators organization prefers.

“(Nashville) is a blue-collar organization and it filters down here to the organization as a whole,” Ford said. “We also score by committee, so it’s a similar identity here in Milwaukee. It’s given me a good opportunity to play, be a leader and to develop my game. It’s been that way for a lot of guys.”

Ford’s hardly alone, as several of Nashville’s top players honed their games in Milwaukee, from star defensemen like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, to scoring forwards like Patric Hornqvist, Cal O’Reilly and Colin Wilson. Even goaltender Pekka Rinne polished up his trade with the Admirals for three seasons prior to catching on full time with the Predators.

“There are a lot of players who were here that are now flourishing in the NHL, like Cal O’Reilly, Colin Wilson, and (defenseman) Cody Franson,” Ford said. “Shea Weber played games here and he’s one of the best defenseman in the world. That goes to show that the organization likes to develop their players and likes to keep people around and produce from within.”

Other Admirals alums like forwards Rich Peverley and Mike Santorelli are now finding success with other clubs. Having a strong base gives Nashville plenty of assets that can be utilized when Predators need to make a transaction or two to bolster the strength of the club.

“The other way to improve your team can be through a trade,” Trotz said. “That’s where the strength of your organization and how quickly you develop players becomes really important because those are your assets when you have to make a deal.”

With as much turnover as Nashville faces each off-season and the fact that the organization prefers to develop talent from within, the Predators tend to be one of the youngest teams in the NHL. This year’s Admirals again mirror the big club in that way as one of the youngest clubs in the AHL.

However, being a more youthful organization as a whole allows plenty of opportunities for players to move up the ranks and up each team’s depth chart. The coaching staffs of Nashville and Milwaukee always see extremely competitive battles for jobs, which breeds a type of tenacity in the team’s style of play that the organization is known for.

Poile hopes that competitive nature will eventually result in the Predators winning hockey’s ultimate prize.

“We’ve always been one of the younger teams in the league, but we like the direction of what we are doing and where we are going,” Poile said. “Hopefully some of this home grown talent will grow up and get better every year so that we can challenge and eventually win the Stanley Cup.”