In the weeks until the Feb. 27 trade deadline, Predators general manager David Poile might want to familiarize himself with the masters and strategies of another game — chess.
The classic dilemma in the game of kings is zugzwang. It comes from the German for "compulsion to move" — of course, German has a word for this — and it describes a situation at the chessboard when not making a move is preferable to making one.
Of course, in chess the players must eventually move. And they must in hockey too.
The Predators are winning at a bustling pace, dispatching opponents with the smooth efficiency of an electric knife parting a perfectly rare rib roast. Pekka Rinne looks every part the $7 million goaltender, his trapper a dreamcatcher from which there is no escape. The power play — for years, nothing more than two minutes of inertia — is among the league's best. Goals are coming from everywhere in the lineup, distributed so evenly among players it's as if the shots were being called by Leon Trotsky, not Barry Trotz.
Despite this success, however, the Predators are still lashed in a four-way fight in the Central Division, a race so tight Dan Rather is dusting off his Election Night 2000 metaphors.
And so, the conventional wisdom goes, Poile must do something. He must find a scoring forward and a stubborn and snarling defenseman. To truly compete, he must add. Complicating matters is that Poile's two stars — Ryan Suter and Shea Weber — are both heading for free agency.
He must move.
But a GM can't force a trade with a click of his Xbox controller. Nor can he go to the Top Six Forward store and simply pluck a ready-to-wear 40-goal scorer off the rack.
Securing top assets means sending assets the other direction. Suter is headed for the Wild West of the NHL open market at the end of the season, a lawless place populated by the full pockets and come-hither looks of lusty suitors. The buzz is that Suter will stay in Nashville if he's convinced the team is committed to competing for a championship. If he's not placated, he plies his understated trade elsewhere.
Obviously, the dream scenario is to keep Suter — and Weber, though his restricted free agency is easier to handle — by bringing in the necessary pieces to compete.
But 29 other general managers see Poile delicately toe-walking a tightrope tautly stretched between Scylla and Charybdis. Those GMs looking to off-load the types of players the Predators need — helmsmen of teams far off the playoff pace — rub their palms together expectantly, knowing they are in a perfect position to extract picks and prospects from the Predators, assets the team historically has hoarded the way a parsimonious squirrel does acorns.
Poile has proven a master of the transaction. Here is a man who traded David Gosselin and a draft pick for the rights to Ed Belfour, knowing full well he would not sign the latter. When Belfour went elsewhere, the Predators received a compensatory pick in the 2003 draft. With that pick, Poile selected Weber, turning a winger who'd played but 13 NHL games into the brightest star ever to wear the sabertooth tiger.
The history of the team is sprinkled with such deft maneuvering. If anyone can pirouette his way from zugzwang to checkmate, it is Poile.
It is not hyperbolic to suggest the future of the franchise hinges on how Poile slides his chess pieces. The team's on-ice success is matched by unprecedented success at the box office. Interest is at an all-time high. The latter is due to the former. And for the winning to continue deep into the spring and early summer, Poile must add the needed pieces — promoting pawns into queens, yet protecting what's already on the board.
It's a path littered with potential pitfalls. Be thankful a grandmaster is in control.
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