David Poile must be feeling like Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid this morning.
The Nashville Predators general manager went all in late in the NHL season on behalf of his owners in hopes of finally establishing his team in the hearts of Music City's sports fans, only to come up short on the final hand against the Phoenix Coyotes. Even though Monday's elimination from the playoffs came at the hands of a team that is even more desperate to establish itself in the local market, this is of no comfort to Poile and the Predators owners.
There may have been encouraging signs the Nashville fans were getting aboard in sufficient numbers to finally stabilize the franchise but once again Poile is left picking up the pieces after an early exit from the playoffs. While many fans would be happy with a second consecutive appearance in the second round after years of first-round eliminations and understand that teams which run up 104 points in the regular season can still fall victim to a hot goaltender in the playoffs, there is no guarantee the Nashville folks will understand.
The even bigger question is whether the Predators owners are willing to pony up for another try next season. When Poile signed goaltender Pekka Rinne to a rich long-term contract last winter he said he expected to sign defence stars Shea Weber and Ryan Suter as well. But then came the playoff upset at the hands of Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith.
Now, Poile has to deal with 15 restricted or unrestricted free agents. He is hopeful he can work things out with the help of the owners.
"I don't regret anything," he told Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com. "First of all, it was fun. To a man, we all felt we had a legitimate chance to compete with anyone. It was an exciting time, from the trading deadline on, with the additions that we made. It's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to try and compete.
"In previous years, we weren't able to do that either because our club wasn't good enough or our ownership wasn't in a position to allow us to do that. Like I said, I don't regret anything. It's a real good sign of where our ownership is and where our franchise is an the ability that we'll have going forward to continue to do things."
Even though he brought in players like Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov for the playoff run, Poile managed to keep the payroll to an almost manageable $52-million (all currency U.S.). That will not be possible if Suter and Weber are both to be signed along with several others.
Gaustad, for example, proved to be a valuable addition. The veteran centre was the Predators' best faceoff man and played well in head coach Barry Trotz's defensive style. But he is an unrestricted free agent like Suter come July 1 and since Poile gave up a first-round draft pick to get him he will be loath to let him go for nothing.
Poile should be able to get that first-round pick back with his backup goaltender. Anders Lindback, 24, who is set to be a restricted free agent, is expected to be hotly pursued by a lot of teams.
The most likely departure among the free agents is Kostitsyn, who will be an unrestricted free agent. He and Radulov were suspended for missing curfew on the eve of a playoff game, something that always causes upheaval in the dressing room at that time of year despite the usual denials.
Radulov is a trickier matter. He is a restricted free agent, so Poile will get something for him if the GM decides to ship him out. The 25-year-old is undeniably talented and due a big raise on the pro-rated $918,000 he earned after coming back from Russia late in the season. However, he did not do his market value any good with his nocturnal gambol combined with a disappearing act on the ice against Phoenix.
Trotz will have a lot of say in Radulov's future. The Predators are in dire need of offence so if the coach thinks he can turn Radulov around he will stay, or at least Poile will make the attempt to keep him.
Weber is less of a concern because he is a restricted free agent but only relatively. To get him to agree to a one-year deal like he did a year ago, and once again postpone the big financial commitment, Poile will have to convince Weber the team is not going to take a big step backward.
Despite perennially dealing from a weak position financially, Poile managed to make the Predators a playoff team more often than not. But this time the right cards may be too hard to find.