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Summer Fill: Q&A with On the Forecheck

In an attempt to break up the doldrums of summer blogging, the SBN Network decided to mix things up a bit by having selected bloggers from each conference exchange questions with their counterparts.  We were matched up with "On the Forecheck", the blog for the Nashville Predators

Of course Nashville is a similar market to Raleigh in that both are small and both are considered "nontraditional".  The Predators have had a recent change in ownership and the franchise was once a target of mogul, Jim Balsillie.  Fans there have had some nervous times for sure.  While Peter Karmanos could be considered an absentee owner because he does not get very involved in local matters, the Hurricanes franchise has been as stable as any in the league. 

What other similarities or differences do the teams have?

"On the Forecheck" manager, Dirk Hoag, sent me a few questions a couple of days ago.  You can check them out, as well as my answers right here.  (Agree or disagree with my answers?)  My questions and Dirk's answers to them are below.  Do you have any other questions for Dirk about the Nashville market?  Feel free to leave them in the comment section.  A big thank you to Dirk for participating!

1.  Eric Staal and Cam Ward are considered franchise players for the Hurricanes.  Staal is locked up long term and the Canes are expected to sign Ward to a long term deal sometime before next July.  Which two or three players would be considered franchise players for the Preds?

Shea Weber is the primary star, the type of talented, yet brutally physical defenseman that every team craves. Up front, Steve Sullivan is probably the flashiest and most inspiring player, especially given his remarkable comeback last season, and David Legwand ("the Original Predator") is the steady presence, having been the first draft pick in team history, and now locked up with a long-term contract.

2.  In 2007-08 it looked like Dan Ellis might be the answer in goal for your team.  But last season, Pekka Rinne outplayed Ellis.  Was Ellis a one year wonder or will he earn his starting job back next season?

Pekka Rinne will come to camp as the #1 guy, and he's been groomed for that role for several years at the AHL level. While Ellis saved the team's season in 2008, I doubt that he's part of the team's long term plans. David Poile has basically said that if things go well in terms of Rinne handling the starter's job, that perhaps Ellis might become available in trade later in the season.

3.  Having survived a possible crisis regarding team ownership, how strong and committed do you feel current ownership is?  Do you prefer the current ownership over previous owner Craig Leipold?

I wasn't in Nashville for the early days of the Leipold regime, but when I moved here in 2005, it seemed like very little was going in to market the team to the general public, and I get the impression that Leipold just ran out of gas trying to build the corporate portion of the fan base. Many folks around here despise Leipold for the talent dump (Vokoun, Kariya, Timonen, etc.) that took place during the franchise sale, but ultimately, as some further facts have come to light regarding Jim Balsillie, many are beginning to appreciate the fact that he went to some considerable lengths to sell to the (mostly) local group instead.

The vast majority of Preds fans will tell you they enjoy the energy that the new group has brought to the team. They've been frank and honest about managing the team on a budget (which, thanks to revenue sharing, isn't anywhere near the competitive limitation it was prior to the Great Lockout), and I don't think anyone questions their commitment. Once the issue of "Boots" Del Biaggio's bankruptcy is resolved, which affects roughly a 30% share of the team, I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of the minor shareholders looks for a buyout simply due to the overall economic situation, but that's pure speculation on my part.

4.  Barry Trotz has been the only head coach the Preds have ever had.  Since the team failed to make it to the playoffs last year, do you think he could be on a short leash this year if the Preds get off to a slow start?

This is certainly a critical season for the Predators, in that they don't want to take a further step backwards after falling short of the playoffs for the first time since 2003. There are really two factors at play when you talk about the coaching staff being on a short leash. First of all, this organization places a great deal of value on stability, so I think the impetus would have to be very strong before a change would be made. Secondly, the budget factor once again comes into play. This isn't a team that's in a position to pay top dollar for the hot name on the coaching circuit, so an honest question is, "what better option is realistic?" Barry Trotz and his staff are well-respected around the league, and for good reason, and I'm just not sure you could find a better, proven talent for this role for a reasonable amount of money.

So my quick answer would have to be "no", I don't think he'll be on a short leash, but if things don't go well, perhaps next summer a move would be made.

5.  Nashville is similar to Raleigh in that both cities are in small, "nontraditional"  markets.  How has Nashville been able to grow the game and succeed, and what do you think they could do better regarding this? 

The Predators take a steady, long-term approach to building their fan base. For example, they are highly active in the youth hockey community, and even put on free, week-long hockey clinics for kids aged 4-7 that includes equipment, on-ice instruction, the whole works, as a way to try out the game (my 3 kids all participated last summer). They also focus on the features of the local Nashville market, sponsoring promotions like Military Mondays for the families at nearby Fort Campbell, College Nights for the urban university crowd, and they avoid Wednesday night home games, because that's "Church Night" for a huge portion of the population here. They understand that football is king, so they try to skew the home schedule away from football Saturday's, and even moved up one Monday game to a 5:00 start because the Tennessee Titans are on Monday Night Football that evening. That attention to detail will help the Preds take advantage of what is a comparatively fast-growing metropolitan area.

Add it all up, and I expect that they'll continue to build the fanbase incrementally each season (barring a huge performance swing up or down), and that over time Nashville will establish itself somewhere in the 21-25 range of NHL markets. It'll never be a "big market" club, but there's no reason it can't be a solid NHL citizen for decades to come.