Friday, January 18, 2013

The Hippodrome: There's A Fever In The Puck House Now

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 7:44 AM

This Week In The 'Drome: Hockey's back, thank the Lord; Vandy lives, dies by the sword; owners should watch their word, and more

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Opening Face-off

Chaos vs. Calm : Stuffing 48 games into 99 days has pre-emptively made a mess of the NHL season.

The prognosticators who so diligently crafted their season previews back in September had to re-visit them in this, the mad single week of training camp, carefully tracking long-forgotten roster moves and coaching changes.

What's emerged is illustrative of what we can expect in the next three months. Some analysts have the Predators fourth best in the division — no amount of chaos or roster turnover can make the Predators worse than the Blue Jackets. Some have them winning the division. And even more have them somewhere in the middle. Some, as they do even in normal years, concede they see no way the Predators are better than the ninth or 10th best team in the Western Conference, but nonetheless slot the Saber-Tooth Sweaters in fifth — because, well, they always finish fifth. (In fact, they rarely finish fifth; they just always seem to finish fifth.)

Anyway, the small sample size of 2013 may prove to be as seemingly random as the Trotzite Permanent Revolution Line Combination system. But like Barry Trotz's line-up, it'll all make sense at some point.

Certainly, there's reason to think a shortened season benefits a young roster like Nashville's, with its relatively unchanged line-up. New additions came in the form of goaltender Chris Mason, who apparently has played for other teams in his career, and defenseman Scott Hannan, an old hand who will wear 22 and is thus now and forever known as "Roadhouse" Scott Hannan. And by slicing off the early part of the season, the NHL did the Predators a favor by eliminating that pesky period when David Legwand disappears. Old Leggy will probably score 45 goals this year.

Of course, there's reason for concern, too. An argument can be made that the roster they roll out Saturday will be worse at every position (except goaltender) than the one that ended the season last year. At forward, gone (again) is Alex Radulov, and with him his running buddy Andrei Kostitsyn. To be fair, the Predators weren't offensively inept before those two arrived in the spring, but certainly they added pop.

The bigger loss is Jordin Tootoo (even I'm not sarcastic enough to make that case) Ryan Suter on the blueline. Will Shea Weber regress without his long-time partner? Will Swissman Roman Josi step in like clockwork and neutralize any concerns? It Weber's Mick has to sing without Suter's Keith, let's just hope Josi ain't Bowie. And any team whose back end is anchored by the golden ball and chain of Weber and Rinne has to feel good.

These are big questions which would have been easier to answer in a normal-sized season. But in this case, it's a roll of the dice. It'll be fun to watch.

The Week Behind

John The Revelator at least accurately described Vandys basketball strategy
  • John The Revelator at least accurately described Vandy's basketball strategy

Five And Three Quarters Feet : It's 15 feet to the free-throw line at Memorial (and, as Coach Norman Dale would tell you, everywhere else) and 20 feet, 9 inches to the three-point line.

In those 69 inches, the Vanderbilt Commodores somehow get lost.

In Tuesday's 89-79 loss to Ole Miss, the latest installment of Kevin Stallings' gang's 2012-13 roadshow "Uglying Our Way To Entertainment," the 'Dores hit 17 three-pointers (a school record) at a clip of 42.5 percent. They also hit 10 free throws, at 43 percent, a new nadir for a team that was already third-worst in the NCAA from the stripe.

Any old basketball coach will tell you a team should strive for 100 percent from the line, 50 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range. Needless to say, Vandy's got that old saw all twisted.

There have been a lot of Vanderbilt teams since 1986 which tied their fortunes to the live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword whimsy of the three-pointer, but rarely has that disparity been so wide. Witness Saturday's game at Arkansas, when Vandy was totally incapable of shooting the long ball and got trounced by the Razorbacks.

Titanic Errors : Writing about the Titans' tailspin became tiresome as 2012 waned. Unfortunately, the team doesn't seem to want to give anyone a reprieve, lest we forget and start thinking they are a model franchise.

Friday, the team fired special-teams coach Alan Lowry, continuing their off-season practice of canning coaches who led successful units. The well-respected Lowry got no credit, apparently, for crafting the play which has buttered the Titans bread for 13 years. Somehow, Lowry is out of work and Jerry Gray continues to be the defensive coordinator, despite there being no evidence A) the Titans had a defense and B) that any defense they had was coordinated.

The team made all the coaching changes official Thursday; nice promotion for Dave Raggone, in a move that makes sense. Also: Sly Croom!

Just to make sure we didn't spend too much time contemplating the near-total battiness of the team's personnel strategy, Kenny Britt helpfully went and got himself involved in a stabbing — which at first appeared to involve his brother, but now seems to have just been a friend. But who knows these days?

Kenny avoided arrest this time, though he sure did tick off the New Jersey cops by not immediately talking to them about the guy — his friend — he dropped off at a hospital.

So, again, another wrong-place-wrong-time off-season moment for the receiver, again compounded by his dumbassery. Kenny, if Bob Dylan taught me anything, it's that it's best not to tick off Jersey police.

Garbage Time : Great Nashvillian Brian Baker was injured in his second-round match at the Australian Open. Good news, though: he doesn't have to play in an upcoming tournament in Memphis. ... MTSU will join Conference USA this fall, a year earlier than expected. ... Belmont rallied to beat Eastern Kentucky Thursday just as TSU was taking care of business against Jacksonville State. Earlier, TSU found motivation to beat SEMO via a phone call from ... Charles Barkley? TSU and Belmont square off OVC undefeateds at Curb at 7 PM Saturday, an excellent option for folks who aren't going to the Preds game.

Halftime Entertainment

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Look At That Subtle Off-White Coloring. The Tasteful Thickness Of It. Oh My God, It Even Has A Watermark! : James Franklin's newest James Franklin-y thing is this business card.

Having never been a highly recruited athlete — my time as the No. 5 on Hendersonville's tennis team did not have coaches beating a path to my door — I don't know if a unique business card makes one coach more intriguing than another. I also am not sure why a football coach at an SEC school needs a business card.

"Now, James Franklin? We met him. What is it that he does?"

"Oh, jeez, I forgot, but I think I've got his business card around here somewhere."

"Ah, yes, it's the one that looks like...fencing? And it has a throwing star on it for some reason."

If That Wasn't Nasty, Then I Don't Know What Nasty Is : If you ever needed an excuse to watch Hillsboro High School games beyond the fact the Burros have some pretty top-notch players, there's this.

The Burros play-by-play guy gets more excited than Eddie Money when his manager comes up with a totally exploitative and embarrassing sponsorship opportunity.

There are so many good lines, it's hard to pick just one.

The Week Ahead

Gobble gobble. One of us.
  • Gobble gobble. One of us.

Cirque Du So-long : Ah, the waiting is finally over. The hockey season is finally here. It is finally team to get down to the rink and watch a few good weeks of hockey.

And everyone will certainly have the opportunity to do that — for two games, before the circus sends the Predators on the road for a monstrous 15-day trip.

But first: those hapless and now Nash-less Blue Jackets make a visit Saturday with all the pomp and glory of pleasure delayed. There are players on the Blue Jackets, I assume, but I'll be damned if I can name one. R.J. Umberger? Is he there? Brandon Dubinsky? I think? Sure sounds good. Regardless, there've been some changes to the way the Preds handle tickets, so do yourselves a favor, get there a little early and be patient.

Monday, Ken Hitchcock — formerly of the Jackets, where he was taken to calling the Predators "Darth Vader" — brings his St. Louis Blues to town for a Martin Luther King Day Special Start Time (5 p.m.) game, because nothing expresses the ongoing struggle to make Dr. King's dream a reality like a late afternoon hockey game in Nashville against a team from St. Louis.

But then, after bringing in The Clune, the arena sends in the clowns and the circus displaces the team for a couple of inexplicable weeks, even though the circus itself is only three days with a few days on either side for load-in, load-out. [Ed. note (1 PM): The ice has to be melted for the circus and then remade afterward, which does add a few more days to the time the arena is out of commission - J]

The first two games on the long road trip are in Minnesota — and our old buddy Ryan Suter — and then to St. Louis.

Worthless Prediction : In hockey, as in life, there are few guarantees, but one of them is that the Predators will beat the Jackets in Bridgestone Arena, so write that one in ink. As for the rest? Who knows? The Preds would love to start off with two wins before the massive road trip and there's little reason to think they can't. A five-point week would be a win. Six or more and it's smooth sailing indeed.

How Will They Screw Up Next ? : Vandy catches South Carolina and Auburn this week, two teams that are not only worse than the 'Dores but also don't have the decency to play bad basketball in an interesting fashion.

It's been a long time since the quality of basketball declined so dramatically in 12 months as it has done in the SEC this year — and Vandy is a contributor to that madness, having shipped off three first-round NBA picks. Fortunately, Auburn and South Carolina are, as they have been recently, truly horrifying teams.

That Belmont-TSU game should be good basketball Saturday. Go watch that.

Worthless Prediction: Winning streak!

Overtime

I saw nothing wrong with that statement
  • 'I saw nothing wrong with that statement'

Clanger : In the glow of the head rush after the NHL collective bargaining agreement was really, officially, for sure a done deal, teams spirited out press releases — touting ticket on-sale times and opening night information and the obligatory message from ownership.

From Tom Cigarran, the avuncular Healthways founder who has served as the public face of the ownership group since David Freeman stepped down because of his (still, incredibly) ongoing IRS issue, came this:

“While it has taken much longer than anyone had hoped, we are pleased that a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association has been concluded. This new agreement, while far from what we had hoped to achieve when talks began, gives our franchise the opportunity for long-term financial stability, a situation that did not exist under the old agreement. It also provides the likelihood of labor peace for the next 10 years, something fans, players and owners certainly welcome.

We can’t express strongly enough how much we appreciate the support and loyalty of our fans, sponsors and partners during what has been a long and difficult process.

The new agreement also enables us to get back on the ice this season. All of us, Predators players, coaches and owners believe that this year’s team is possibly the best team in the history of our franchise. It is the best combination of outstanding talent, experience and young player potential we have ever had. We are excited about our chances for success this year and into the future. Our goal remains the same, a Stanley Cup for the Nashville Predators.

We look forward to welcoming back to the Bridgestone Arena our fans, the best fans in the National Hockey League, the Predators “Seventh Man.” Go Preds!

GAME ON!”

Let's first note one word that doesn't appear in this ill-guided missive: "Sorry." Perhaps the organization was content with the near-desperate plaintive plea offered by general manager David Poile last week.

The fact is, that while people like the apologies, they are more or less useless and empty, so the lack of a mea culpa here isn't what's so bad.

It's the implication — no, the outright admission — that ownership wanted more out of the lockout than they got.

The narrative in most NHL cities was that the lockout was driven by big market owners like Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and free spenders like Craig Leipold. Nashville meets neither of those criteria, so, the assumption was the Predators were, at best, apprehensive passengers on this ride.

Turns out, Nashville may have been toeing the hardline all along.

No one wants to believe their team callously scooped hockey away from them. "It was everyone else, but not my owners." Owners are like Congress in that way: the body itself is reviled, but the local representative is beloved.

And what exactly did Cigarran mean when he said the new CBA was "far from what we had hoped to achieve when talks began"?

Did he want to take more than 12 or 13 percent off the players' share of revenue via a tighter salary cap — already a manipulation of players' market value?

Did he want to further restrict a player's ability to sign and play where he chose?

Did he want to extend the collusive practice of restricted free agency?

In fairness, maybe Mr. Cigarran didn't want to squeeze the players for more money after locking them out for four months. Maybe he wanted more in the way of revenue sharing (although if that were the case, he could have come out and said it in the statement, for there is no unifying force for Predators fans like making false enemies of Canadians).

It's understandable Cigarran and his partners would want more money flowing from the top-heavy NHL. No one knows how much the bottom 15 revenue teams (that's Nashville) got from the top under the old CBA, except to say it could be as much as $18 million. The Predators benefited from that largesse every year. And all of that is in addition to millions they get from the city and state every year (which has nothing to do with the lockout, but, sheesh man, show some grace).

Look, hockey's a business and business is about maximizing profits and that means owners are grabbing for whatever they can get, even if it means re-instating the reserve clause. And the salary cap and free agency restrictions and revenue sharing are all ways Nashville stays competitive in a small, new hockey market.

But for ownership's first statement to so prominently declare they wanted more squeeze then they got is a misstep not seen from the team in three or four years, a period that's been marked with goodwill, good feelings and good PR.

From now on though, that media and PR staff — one of the best in the league — should stand up to their boss when he wants to make another grating clanger of a statement like he did last weekend. Since taking over the chairmanship from Freeman, Cigarran did a good job of creating his aw-shucks grandpa persona for the fans of the team he and his buddies own.

But now he looks like the kind of grandpa who'll take a quarter from behind your ear ... and stuff it in his pocket.

Emails and greeting cards to jrlind[at]nashvillescene[dot]com. On the air Tuesday from 6-6:30 PM (Preds pre-game cuts us short) Tuesday on 102.5 The Game.

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