Some weeks ago, during a lengthy conversation about all things relating to the Nashville Predators, head coach Barry Trotz spent a little bit of time discussing the play of the Kostitsyn brothers, Sergei and Andrei – known far and wide in the hockey world for how little they accomplished with their first NHL team, the Montreal Canadiens.
Trotz came to their collective defence, noting how players often get saddled with a reputation that is sometimes undeserved. However it went in Montreal, Nashville provided both with an opportunity to start fresh.
Sergei Kostitsyn certainly made the most of his second chance with the Predators; and things were tracking reasonably well for Andrei, too, or at least until this past weekend, when he and winger Alexander Radulov reportedly broke curfew before the second game of their playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes, followed by hopelessly underperforming efforts on the ice.
On Tuesday, Predators general manager David Poile took the virtually unprecedented step of suspending Andrei Kostitsyn and Radulov for Wednesday's make-or-break third game of their Western Conference semi-final series, which Phoenix leads 2-0.
Chemistry is a fragile commodity in professional sports and, sometimes, no matter how much talent you add, if you lose the qualities that made a team successful in the first place, the attempt to move one step forward can move you two back.
Suspending Radulov and Kostitsyn for one game represents a calculated risk, but one Poile was prepared to make, noting: “The Nashville Predators have a few simple rules centred around doing the right things. We have always operated with a team-first mentality and philosophy. Violating team rules is not fair to our team and their teammates.”
Suddenly, a series that wasn't exactly high on the flavour scale becomes an intriguing morality play, a chance to discuss how old-fashioned ideals – such as integrity and honour – can be integrated with the mercenary world of professional sport.
Trotz presumably feels a bit betrayed by Kostitsyn and maybe Radulov too. “The one thing you’ll find with Eastern European players is, there’s just not a lot of trust,” said Trotz, who in speaking specifically about the Kostitsyns, noted that it was part of his job to earn their trust.
“All we’re trying to do is see a player for what they are and try to help them become what they can be,” said Trotz. That’s it.”
Sadly, trust needs to be a two-way street and some players selfishly don’t understand that it’s not about them. Radulov, in particular, doesn’t get that the Predators did him a massive favor by letting him play the final nine NHL regular-season games, thus burning off the full, final year of his modest entry-level contract and putting him in line for significant financial gains next season, when he becomes a restricted free agent.
All the Predators asked in return was that he keep his nose clean, stay focused and buy into a team concept, which – considering he spent two years previously in the Nashville organization – shouldn’t have been a big, giant mystery to him.
In the meantime, the Predators have more important priorities now, namely trying to salvage a promising season, in a year when the Western Conference is completely up for grabs.
The good news is they actually have some decent options to replace the suspended players. If Trotz wants to go with skill, he can add Colin Wilson, who played 68 games for Nashville this season and had 35 points. If he wants to add energy, he can bring in one or both of Matt Halischuk and Jordin Tootoo, players who’ve seen their regular-season roles greatly diminished in the aftermath of their sweeping trading-deadline changes.
“This could be a good turning point for us,” centre Mike Fisher told reporters in Nashville Tuesday. “We’ve always been about team and team first all year long, and that’s how we win. That’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
However, it eventually turns out – Nashville surging back into the series, or meekly exiting the playoffs – there’s no denying that it took courage for Poile and Trotz to do what they did Tuesday.
In discussing Trotz’s approach to coaching and life in general, Poile said: “Barry’s got a saying and I use it all the time too. He says, ‘always do the right thing.’ That’s what Barry’s always about. He always does the right thing. Whenever we have a decision, he does the right thing – whether it’s handling a player, handling the team, anything.”
Doing the right thing. What a quaint idea. How old-fashioned. Just once, it’d be nice to see people doing the right thing rewarded with the right result.