Trading up

How acquiring Forsberg lifted Nashville to the top

04.03.2015
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Three-time World Junior medallist Filip Forsberg is one of the reasons behind the Nashville Predators’ successful season. He leads all NHL rookies in scoring. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Hockey trades tend to fall into two, distinct categories. For starters, there are the trades that fill a short-term void affecting a club.

On the other hand, there are swaps that create lasting impact for years to come.

The latter scenario is playing out in the non-traditional hockey hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee, where the Predators are, despite the recent losing streak, the best team in the National Hockey League.

The Preds have done it quietly. Done it with offence. Done it with youthful exuberance and veteran leadership. But, mostly, they’ve done it, well... easily.

The boys in gold were the first to 40 wins. The first to have 80 points. And, up until very recently, they hadn’t lost back-to-back games in regulation all season long, and by the way, it’s March.

Now back to the trade talk.

It’s always hard to point to just one element that makes a recipe perfect, but for the Predators, a deal made in 2013 might just prove the secret ingredient that Nashville (a city known for its Southern cuisine) has craved for years.

News of the deal came over the wire on 3rd April – the adjusted trade deadline day after the labour conflict that wiped of big parts of that season.

It wasn’t the headliner that day – but in many hockey circles it’s known as the most lopsided trade in recent NHL history. Not just a little lopsided – a lot.

The Nashville Predators sent one of their franchise’s all-time offensive leaders Martin Erat (along with prospect Michael Latta) to the Washington Capitals for their 2012 first round pick, Filip Forsberg, who was still playing in the Swedish Elite League.

Both clubs sat in tenth in their respective conferences that day, floundering, so they set out to change their fortunes.

For Washington, it was about acquiring a top-end forward to make a serious push with the playoffs looming.

As then general manager, George McPhee, told the Monumental Network, “We wanted a top-six forward.”

“We just thought it was a real good fit for our club; it’s hard to get top-six forwards, he’s an established player, he’s got a lot of miles in him. This is not a rental.”

Unfortunately for Washington, the Czech winger was a lemon – accumulating a paltry three points in nine regular season games that season.

And although the Caps made the playoffs, they were ousted by the Rangers in a seven-game opening round thriller.

Erat saw action in just one of those games and was held off the scoresheet entirely.

Meanwhile, Nashville missed the playoffs entirely, having just traded away a player that accumulated nearly 500 points during his time in the Music City – a place where offence was always a luxury.

Yes, there was hope in Forsberg, but no guarantee he’d pan out.

“Obviously I was really surprised [to be traded]. I was sitting back home in Sweden with friends watching a movie and a buddy called me with rumors about getting traded,” Forsberg remembered.

“I was like, ‘yeah sure’, whatever. Then it was all real and very overwhelming.”

The Predators decided to bring the Swedish centre to Nashville that season for a quick North American indoctrination lasting just five games.

“Obviously we told him that he’d be a big part of our future and that we wanted to get him over to North America as fast as possible to see the city of Nashville, meet our people and get acclimated and that’s exactly what we did,” said David Poile, general manager for the Predators.

But, like anything else good in life, the miracle didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it would take another year for Nashville to reap the real benefits.

Actually, 2013/14 was one of the franchise’s worst seasons. They finished almost dead last in the central division and would have if it wasn’t for the waffling Winnipeg Jets.

It was dark days for Nashville, but the hope of Forsberg and franchise change provided much needed relief.

Forsberg, meanwhile, spent much of the season playing for Nashville’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, after playing in 12 games with the Predators to begin the season.

“You always want your scouts to be up to date on who’s playing well on different clubs in case you fall into a situation like this and can make a trade,” Poile opined.

“Obviously we knew a lot about Filip and coveted him very much.”

Yet, one might ask: why such hope in a 19-year-old foreign player with only 18 NHL games and a measly six points under his belt?

It’s because Forsberg initially served as the symbol, and then the embodiment, of a franchise overhaul.

At the end of the 2013/14 season, the Predators parted ways with Barry Trotz, the man behind the bench for 1,196 games in Nashville – i.e. every single game the club played since joining the NHL in 1998.

Although Trotz delivered seven playoff appearances, his staunch defensive style wore out its welcome in Nashville.

A team long dominated by defensive-minded veterans and goaltending was forced to try a new approach.

Long-time NHL coach and former Team USA coach Peter Laviolette was hired to take over down south and bring his attack-minded brand of hockey.

This year, the Predators came out firing under Laviolette – scoring goals at a clip never seen before at the Bridgestone Arena and making waves in the central – arguably the best division in hockey for the past three-to-four years.

And, the focal point of the surge? You guessed it, Filip Forsberg.

As it stands now, Forsberg is the shoo-in to win the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s best rookie. And, it’s not even close.

Not since the arrival of the highly touted Russian sniper Alexander Radulov (and his eventual, controversial exit) has Nashville possessed this kind of rookie talent.

On 6th January Forsberg notched his 38th point of the season in just 39 games – beating the franchise rookie record held by Radulov (it took him 67 games).

A little more than a month later, he buried his 19th goal of the season, again setting a new franchise rookie record (also previously held by Radulov).

“What’s not to like about him?” Poile asked.

“First of all he’s big and strong for his size. He thinks the game really well and shoots really well. Everyone has something to work on, but there are no holes in Filip’s game.”

And, although Peter Forsberg – the greatest Swede to every lace up a pair of skates – had a brief tenure in Nashville (22 game in 2006-07), the younger Swedish forward is doing all he can to come out from under that famous surname.

In fact, he’s earned the moniker “Scoresberg” – basically the only thing Peter never accomplished in his legendary career.

“I think the timing was perfect for Filip,” Poile said. “He came in at a time when we started a new focus on offence. I’m sure that was music to his ears to know that we’re going forward and not backward.”

While the rest of the hockey community has met the Predators’ success with surprise (or general ignorance), Forsberg and the team aren’t shocked at all.

“Surprise might not be the right word,” Forsberg responded immediately.

“I felt right away at camp that we had something good going on. Every team’s goal is to make the playoffs and that looks good right now.”

Poile goes a step further.

“To me it’s the consistency of this team,” he said confidently.

“How many times can you bring you’re A-Game? It’s hard in an 82-game season. There are highs and lows, injuries, travel situations. I think our team has been the most consistent team in the league since day one.”

While Forsberg has been great, so have his teammates. Pekka Rinne, arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, is at his best again after an injury-plagued season a year ago. He is squarely in the conversation for both the Vezina (best goalie) and Hart (MVP) trophies.

The lanky Finn is joined on the backend by Shea Weber, who is having yet another Norris-calibre campaign to go along with his two Olympic gold medals with Canada, four All-Star appearances and 108.8 mph (175.1 km/h) slap shot recorded at this year’s skills competition.

Furthermore, the additions of Mike Ribeiro and James Neal in the offseason, a healthy Mike Fisher and blossoming younger players has turned a franchise around 180-degrees in just one season.

Yes, there are talented veterans, but for the first time in a while, the team is built around a young core that simply wasn’t succeeding in Trotz’ system.

The nucleus looks like this: Roman Josi (D – Switzerland), Calle Jarnkrok (C – Sweden), Mattias Ekholm (D – Sweden), Seth Jones (D – USA), Craig Smith (F – USA) and Colin Wilson (F – USA).

The core is multicultural. It’s young. It’s talented. But more importantly for Nashville, it signals the future, while paying dividends in the present.

Said Forsberg, “I’m really happy with the way we’re playing hockey. We play offensively and we’re scoring goals. Obviously we have a lot of European players, with Swedes and Finns, so it’s a worldwide team.”

(Forsberg also notes that it’s nice to play a receive help on-and-off the ice from countrymen Jarnkrok and Ekholm.)

Of course nothing has been decided just yet and the Predators shouldn’t prematurely make space in the trophy case simply because the regular season has been a relative breeze.

But, it’s amazing what young talent and a new perspective on the game of hockey can do for a franchise.

The city of Nashville, though not considered a hockey city, is in love with this team and it’s easy to understand why.

So, whatever happened to the other parties involved in that trade?

Firstly and coincidentally, Barry Trotz is now the head coach of the Washington Capitals and leading the team back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the first time in seven years.

Martin Erat, on the other hand, turned out to be a rental and plays for the Arizona Coyotes now.

Erat played a total of 62 games in the nation’s capital – putting up just 2 goals and 25 assists in parts of two seasons.

That was simply not enough production for a player making $4.5 million a year, so he was traded to Arizona exactly one year ago, three months after a public declaration asking for a trade.

So how did that trade shake out?

Lopsided indeed.

RYAN O’LEARY

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