The seating chart at semi-annual NHL general managers meetings may look a bit like a kindergarten class – everybody precisely grouped in alphabetical order.
It's why, for years now, whenever the GMs gather to discuss rule changes and other NHL business, the Nashville Predators' David Poile has been flanked on the left by his Montreal Canadiens' counterpart, Marc Bergevin.
Last June, just before the meetings got under way in Buffalo, Poile turned to Bergevin to get a matter clarified.
"P.K. Subban's name had been out there a fair bit in the rumours," Poile explained, "and Bergey was always quoted as saying, 'No, we're not trying to trade him.' So I just asked him, 'Are you not trying to trade him – or are you not trading him?' because, to me, those are two different things. There was really only one player I could trade him for Subban, based on equal ability and dollars [Predators captain Shea Weber], so I just asked him straight out: 'If we were ever to consider this, would you be interested?'"
The rest of the story you probably know by now.
It turned out Subban was available – and so, about a week after that first overture, Poile conjured up another one of the blockbuster deals that has been characteristic of his 35 years as an NHL GM. The trade, Weber for the charismatic Subban, rocked the NHL world.
But a move of this seismic proportion was par for the course for Poile, who has made a career out of bold aggressive deals that other GMs might shrink away from.
The current incarnation of the Predators, who open the Stanley Cup final on Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, is proof of his willingness to roll the dice on high-risk, high-reward exchanges. In addition to Subban, Poile also acquired his two top forwards via trades – Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg – and picked up a third significant piece, James Neal, from Pittsburgh for Patric Hornqvist in June of 2014.
Getting Forsberg from the Washington Capitals for a fading Martin Erat at the 2013 trade deadline was an out-and-out theft. The cost for Johansen was far higher – Seth Jones, a rising star on defence, and only 21 when Poile swapped him to Columbus 17 months ago. Because development can sometimes stall, trading building-block players may be the riskiest sort of transaction, and the results from those deals can haunt a franchise – and the GM who made them – for years if they backfire.
Fortunately for the Predators, Johansen has been a great fit – and given them the No. 1 centre they'd been unable to develop themselves. Unfortunately for the Predators, Johansen won't be available to play against the Penguins because of a freak thigh injury he sustained in the previous round against the Anaheim Ducks.
All that successful wheeling and dealing made Poile a finalist for the NHL's general-manager-of-the-year award, but he insists, in a perfect world, his modus operandi would be far different.
"I say this all the time," Poile said. "Ideally, you don't want to have to make any trades. I love the homegrown players. If you look at our roster since I got here, we are always No. 1, 2 or 3 in the league in terms of having drafted players in our lineup. Even this year, we have 12 or 13 players out of our 25 that we drafted ourselves.
"Making trades is not my first choice. I don't start every day thinking, 'What trades do I want to make today?'"
There were two primary influences in Poile's life: his father, Bud, who won the Stanley Cup 70 years ago as a member of the 1947 Toronto Maple Leafs and managed both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Vancouver Canucks for a time; and (Trader) Cliff Fletcher, who hired him to join the Atlanta Flames in 1972 as an administrative assistant, after he graduated from Northeastern University. In 1977, the Flames promoted Poile to assistant GM, and he was with the organization when it moved to Calgary in 1980. Five years later, he was hired away by Washington, where he took on his first full-time GM's job and stayed for 14 years.
Poile eventually signed on as the Predators' GM in 1997, their expansion year, and has been at the helm for their entire 20-year existence.
The Predators were an early success story and started to make the playoffs consistently in their sixth year, an extraordinarily quick ascension from expansion-draft oblivion. Thinking they were ready for a push in 2005, Poile started making win-now moves, unexpectedly getting coveted free agent Paul Kariya to sign in Nashville coming out of the lockout. In Kariya's two seasons with Nashville, the Predators had excellent regular seasons, gaining 106 and 110 points, respectively.
In spring of 2007, Poile made another go-for-broke decision, acquiring future Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, plus first- and third-round draft choices. Unhappily, Forsberg played only 17 games for the Preds, plus five more in the playoffs, where they were knocked out again in the first round.
That 2007 exit marked the end of owner Craig Leipold's patience with trying to get Nashville established in the marketplace. In May of that year, Leipold signed a letter of intent to sell the club to Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie for $220-million (U.S.) – this less than a year after Balsillie had unsuccessfully tried to buy the Penguins for $175-million.
Leipold cited losses of $70-million over a nine-year period as his primary reason for putting the club on the market and said it generated the lowest revenue in the league. But Balsillie wanted to relocate the team to Hamilton, which put him at odds with Leipold, the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman.
Eventually, Leipold put the brakes on the Balsillie sale and the Preds were sold at a discount to local owners.
But that summer also marked a major hiccup in the team's development. Poile was instructed to lower the payroll. Kariya left to play in St. Louis. Forsberg went back to Sweden. Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen were traded to Philadelphia and Tomas Vokoun went to Florida.
The moves left Nashville so far under the salary cap going into the 2007-08 season that it had to sign free agent Martin Gélinas at the 11th hour to a contract that was so bonus-laden it came in with a $3-million cap charge. That's how the Predators got to the minimum spending limit.
Nashville squeaked into the playoffs with that depleted lineup and finished eighth, but dropped 19 points in the overall standings. But after missing the playoffs the next year, it was on its way up again and has now made the postseason six out of the past eight seasons.
Just as important, the Predators have also made vast strides at the box office. For the past six years, the team has played to no fewer than 97-per-cent capacity at the Bridgestone Arena, a development that has struck them off the NHL's endangered-franchise list.
A who's who of country-music stars have taken turns singing the national anthem in these playoffs. The excitement level in the city is palpable. Johansen's absence further solidifies Nashville's role as an underdog in the series, but Poile has been around long enough to remember when Colorado won a Stanley Cup in 2001, even though it lost Forsberg for two final rounds, after he had his spleen removed.
So history tells him it can be done.
When Poile first started in Nashville, the skeleton office staff worked in cubicles in the arena, an operation that was informal and largely anonymous. Sometimes, you'd be in the line at Jack's, a barbecue place just down the road from Tootsie's and across from the arena, and you might find the GM and his staff behind you in the line, queuing for a sandwich.
"We still do that on occasion," Poile said with a smile. "It's just been great, all the calls and texts, everything that's happened.
"I tell everybody the same thing. If I'd known how much fun this would be, we would have done it sooner."