Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 13, 2023

No, they’re not going to ‘burn it down’

Trotz, Brunette bring in plenty of new faces to help restore struggling franchise

Goaltender Juuse Saros has played in back-to-back All-Star Games since taking over the position from his mentor and Predators legend Pekka Rinne following his 2021 retirement. - Photo by George Walker IV | AP

A quarter of a century ago, Barry Trotz made his NHL coaching debut by leading the Nashville Predators onto the ice for their inaugural season. One of his young stars during that 1998-99 campaign was left winger Andrew Brunette.

Following a 1-0 loss to the visiting Florida Panthers in the opener, the Preds returned to the home ice three nights later. Brunette – who would spend one year in Nashville – scored the team’s very first goal as Nashville defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 that historic mid-October evening on Lower Broadway.

Fast-forward 25 years. After many stops along their divergent careers, Trotz and Brunette have reteamed with the Predators, trying to recreate the Music City magic of that inaugural season.

Trotz rejoined the franchise in February as successor to soon-retiring general manager David Poile. After going 42-32-8 last season and failing to make the playoffs, the Preds fired coach John Hynes. Brunette was quickly named his replacement in late May.

Now, after June’s successful NHL Draft in Nashville and many offseason moves, the Predators have launched another season with new faces, new thinking and new visions of postseason success beyond the first round.

“I can’t tell you what the record is going to be,” Trotz said before the season began. “No one can. But I feel we’re a team that’s in transition, and we’re going to be building and trying to go forward every day. We want to win a Stanley Cup here.

“I feel like I have an extra responsibility to Nashville. It’s my home. I’m very connected with Nashville as a city, the Nashville Predators as an organization and in the community. I’m invested. I’ve always been invested,” added Trotz, who coached the Preds for 15 seasons before moving on to the Washington Capitals where he won a Stanley Cup championship in 2018 and then taking the New York Islanders job.

“So, I don’t want failure. That’s the last thing I want … Mentally, it’s a challenge. Physically, it’s a challenge. I think we have the DNA to do it, and I think we have the organization and the people to do it well.”

Here’s a closer look at some of the people and challenges ahead in the franchise’s silver anniversary season.

‘Between a rebuild and a reset’

That’s how Trotz describes the offseason moves and current roster, going on to explain:

“Some people from the outside say if you’re going to go on a full rebuild, then you can burn it down right to the core. But I looked at a number of other teams that have sort of taken it right down to the studs and it’s taken them 10-plus years to make it back in the playoffs. I don’t think I want to do that. I don’t think our market wants to do that. I think there’s other ways to do it.”

Asked about that assessment during preseason training camp, Brunette says he and Trotz are on the same page.

“Yeah, it’s not a rebuild. I think for me as a coach, you go through camp and I don’t know a lot of these players, even the young kids.

“It’s a little bit of a process for me to, first, get my eyes on them, get to know them and try to put them in the best position for them to succeed,” says Brunette, who was interim head coach with the Florida Panthers before taking the Preds job.

“Barry’s been helpful. I think we see the game very similarly. I think we see players very similarly. I think we believe in a lot of the same concepts of compete and work and skill, I think in a hockey sense. So I think we’re on the same page,” Brunette adds.

“I think organizationally, through our talks, we’ve kind of identified those kinds of things. So I think we have an idea of what we want to do. Every day, again, it’s a little bit of a process for us to get to where we need to be.”

The season-opening roster is a curious mix of core veterans like forward Filip Forsberg, defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan McDonagh, and goaltender Juuse Saros, who form the nucleus of the holdovers from last season, joined by key veteran acquisitions through either trade or free agency, like forwards Gustav Nyquist (Minnesota and Columbus last season), Ryan O’Reilly (St. Louis) and, most recently, Samuel Fagemo (Los Angeles Kings), plus defensemen Luke Schenn (Vancouver) and Tyson Barrie (Edmonton).

Finally, there are a half-dozen young players who spent much of last season at minor league AHL affiliate Milwaukee, including Luke Evangelista, Philip Tomasino and Jusso Parssinen. All are expected to be key contributors going forward.

Players the Ledger spoke with during camp say they love playing for the new regime, learning from Trotz and the new system installed by Brunette (or “Bruno,” as the players call him.

“(Trotz) obviously had a big influence already. He came in last year and kind of was around the team a little bit. This summer, he made some big moves,” says team captain Josi, who had 18 goals and 41 assists last season.

“He obviously knows hockey after coaching for so many years, and then he won a Stanley Cup so he knows what it’s going to take. We brought in a lot of veterans, a lot of leaders on teams, and we have a lot of young kids. So I think it’s kind of tough trying to form that culture to inspire the young kids. Like I said, it’s a new start, a fresh start.”

Nyquist, a free agent who signed a two-year, $6.23 million deal with the Predators in July, says the new leadership is part of the reason he chose to play in Nashville.

“Barry’s obviously one of those guys who’s been successful and been around the league for a long, long time,” Nyquist says. “He’s been a part of winning teams and knows what it takes to go deep in the playoffs and to build a successful team on and off the ice.

“It’s an exciting time and with Bruno and the new coaches coming in, it feels like there’s a lot of energy. Everyone’s excited about the new things that we’re going to try to do this year.”

Saros, who posted a 33-23 record last season, says all the changes – from the general manager to the coaching staff to the players – have been refreshing.

“It’s like everybody’s excited to kind of start fresh and I feel like everybody’s just ready to go,” Saros says.

“Barry came in last spring, full of energy and I think that was kind of part of playing really well last year at the end. Everybody kind of wanted to show him as well. And obviously with Bruno coming with some new ideas … so yeah, I think it’s been good.”

From individuals to team

There’s no question the current roster is loaded with individual talent, but to win in the NHL, those players must bond as a team. And that’s what the preseason is for, Brunette says.

“Oh, they’re a team. I think they’ve been really happy to be together and they’ve got a lot of energy. We’ve got some really good leaders,” Brunette says, singling out alternate captain Filip Forsberg, who had 19 goals and 23 assists last season.

 “You know, I think Fil’s taking a big leadership role right now. He’s driving practice, which is fun to see. Roman, same thing. You’ve got some veteran leaders with O’Reilly and Shenn and McDonagh (with their previous teams). I mean, they’re hungry, they’re excited. As a coach, that’s fun to be around. We just tactically have little work to do.

“Again, I think we’re eager. We’re hungry. They’ve been energetic and they’ve been enthusiastic, and I think when you put both those things together and we do our jobs as coaches giving information, we’ll get there.”

Players say they’ve not only bonded on the ice, but off it as well. That’s what makes a team. Josi talked about a party Forsberg threw at his home for the players, coaches and their wives.

“We had a little party at Filip’s house, actually, before training camp started with the whole team and all the wives,” Josi recalls. “We had a little party in his backyard, and there’s a lot of fun just getting everybody together. That’s kind of the big thing for training camp, just getting everybody together before training camp starts.

“I think just being connected is a big thing this year, having so many new guys. It was good. A lot of these guys came in two or three weeks before training camp even started. We had a lot of time to just get together and meet each others families, have the kids hang out.

“That’s obviously always good to get to know guys and get to know their families. I think now in training camp it’s been very busy but we’re going to go on the road soon, too. And I think the road is always good to bond.

“But yeah, we’ve done a lot of stuff together. We try and get to know each other as quick as we can and, obviously, the more connected we are off the ice, the more connected we’ll be on the ice.”

Brunette says he has enjoyed watching the players come together off the ice and thinks it will show during the arduous season ahead.

“I probably didn’t realize how close they are and how much they enjoy each other. I think watching them over the years, and sometimes you don’t see that,” he notes. “I feel all through camp that they really like being around each other.

“And when you see that as a coach, you always feel good because usually when they like being around each other and you like working to get together, good things happen. So it’s encouraging, for sure, on my side.”

Brunette expects that team closeness to show up during games. They’ll be playing in a new system built around speed.

“There’s a lot of fun for me, as a coach, that they were engaged and they competed,” Brunette says after a tough preseason practice session at Ford Ice Center in Bellevue.

“We have a lot of work to do. Again, I think we’re eager. We’re hungry. They’ve been energetic and they’ve been enthusiastic, and I think when you put both those things together and we do our jobs as coaches giving information, we’ll get there.”

Chemistry project

Players say they like the new system, though it’s still a work in progress and likely will be during the first month of the regular season.

“None of us really knew much about the system before training camp and Bruno is definitely all about speed,” Josi says. “The first couple of practices were a lot of skating, a lot of speed and it was awesome.

“We’re obviously all getting used to (the system). It’s a little different. It’s been really good for us to just get those games in. I think that’s kind of the biggest change. There’s a lot of skating, it’s playing with a lot of speed and it’s been a lot of fun. I think it’s going to be fun hockey.”

Brunette says assembling a team is a bit of a science in the NHL’s school of hard knocks.

“I’m kind of looking for chemistry and … trying to see what fits with who and can they develop any or not,” Brunette says.

“And then obviously the little details, the little things of the habits that I think are important in the details and the structure, a little bit of our system. It’s a little loose right now so I think we’re trying to take that up.”

Nyquist says it’s up to the players to learn and execute those plans.

“We’re changing a lot, it seems like. We’ve got a lot of new faces in the room, on the ice and also behind the bench with new coaches trying to implement some new systems,” Nyquist says. “I’m just excited to come here and hopefully bring some energy, some leadership to a young group and kind of start building what we’re trying to do here.”

In that last-century inaugural season, the Predators went 28-47-7 to finish fourth in the Central Division, missing the playoffs. They’ve reached the postseason in 15 of their 24 seasons and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016-17, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

Much like that historic first season, the 2023-24 Predators are a bit of an unknown quantity. The silver anniversary season’s full of expectations — and questions. Beyond wins and losses, what would entail a successful season for Burnette?

“I’m looking for the group to be connected,” he says. “If we can find some connection within the group, then it’s been a success. I think connection and success go hand in hand. If we can get there, we’ll be successful.”