The Predators are not going to compete for a Stanley Cup.
This should come as no great shock — Nashville, struggling as ever to score and doubly crippled by a long-term injury to star goaltender Pekka Rinne that's had the Finn out for most of the season thus far, is bringing up the rear of the Central Division with the NHL on its Olympic break.
That's not to say the Predators won't contend for a playoff spot. The team sits just four back of the final Western Conference berth and Rinne's expected return would bolster the prospects. In the two weeks before the league took its five-ring furlough, the Preds were much improved, and their possession numbers — a crucial indicator of success — crept to the positive side of the ledger.
With five games at home immediately following Sochi, Barry Trotz's team may well have the kind of surge that re-energizes fans and sets the table for the future.
But even if they made the postseason, the Preds would likely face one of the West's juggernauts in the first round, presenting a tough row to hoe.
And such a scenario presents general manager David Poile an interesting set of decisions to make in the run-up to the trade deadline. Be a buyer and load up for a push to the final playoff spot? Or sell to lay the foundation for the future?
Poile has been active on the trade market already, shrewdly trading Matt Hendricks and his seemingly untradeable contract while also swapping stay-at-home stalwart defenseman Kevin Klein for high-risk, high-reward blueliner Michael Del Zotto.
But his biggest move will be his next one, and it may involve moving the first player he drafted in Nashville: forward David Legwand.
Taken with the second pick in 1998, Legwand has been saddled with the weight of high expectations. He didn't develop into the kind of generational scorer so often taken early in the NHL draft, but nonetheless he's been a fixture in Nashville (and leads the Predators in scoring this season). He's headed for free agency in the offseason, and the best send-off the Predators could give him is a chance to win a championship.
Legwand is an exceptional hard-line center who has been cast as a first- or second-line center in Nashville's goal-starved offense, but he's consistent and he's responsible. For a team with more high-end talent — Chicago or Anaheim or San Jose — he'd slide right into his natural role as a defensively adept forward with speed to burn and the ability to score if needed.
He's exactly the kind of player Cup contenders look to acquire at the deadline; in the halcyon days of 2012, Poile gave up a first-round pick for Paul Gaustad, who fills a similar role.
Legwand is frequently maligned in Nashville by fans still hoping he can become a 50-goal scorer — an unfair criticism — and by those who somehow cast him as lazy or uninterested — a wholly false complaint.
He has been a good soldier in Nashville, signing a long-term deal that demonstrated stability after Poile was forced to unload salary when it looked all but certain the team would move to Canada.
He's not Wayne Gretzky, and expecting him to be — or suspecting that he would be if he would only "try harder" — is mendacious. But he is useful, and the team is better with him.
His last gift to Nashville would be consenting to a trade that yields a promising prospect and a draft pick.
And the Predators' last gift to him would be a chance to play for a Stanley Cup. He hoped, and the team hoped, that chance would come here. But it won't, at least not for now. If the pick and player that would come in a trade could set up the Preds for a future run, then Legwand's legacy might just be a Cup in Nashville yet.
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