NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some professional sports organizations buy players. Some organizations nurture players.
The Nashville Predators are the latter. Since the franchise entered the NHL in 1998, it has had the same general manager and the same coach and the organization’s philosophy has been one of drafting or signing young players, developing them through their minor-league and coaching system and allowing them to flourish at the pro level.
It’s almost like a farmer who carefully prepares his soil, plants the seed, waters it, weeds it and harvests it. It’s a painstaking process but one that ultimately bears fruit if one is patient and diligent enough.
All of this is what made defenseman Ryan Suter’s departure from the Nashville Predators so painful. Suter left as a free agent – a right he had earned under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement – and signed with the Minnesota Wild on July 4 of last year. The deal is 13 years long and worth $98 million.
On Saturday, he returned to Nashville for the first time. Although the Wild and Preds have met two times this season, it’s the first time Suter’s played at Bridgestone Arena wearing a different jersey. In June, it will be 10 years since the Predators drafted Suter, a proud moment in the organization’s history. Suter was the seventh overall pick in that 2003 NHL Draft, which was held in Nashville.
A high-profile American, he ended up playing his college hockey at Wisconsin, something nascent Predators fans could relate to in their nontraditional market better than they might the idea of major junior hockey, where all of the Predators’ prior first-round picks had come from. In addition, Suter’s father Bob was a member of the 1980 US Olympic ‘Miracle on Ice’ hockey team, which achieved mythic status by beating the Soviets and eventually winning gold.
Goalie Chris Mason played his first season for the Predators in their inaugural season. He played six more years for the team and has rejoined them this year for his seventh. He understands how a player like Suter could be so linked to the organization’s identity and culture, along with being such an important piece on the ice as a counterpart to captain Shea Weber as a defensive partner.
“I think when you draft a player, you build that relationship, put all that time in,” Mason said. “Ideally, I know they wanted him back and that was the plan. They wanted him and Shea to start (their careers) as Predators, finish as Predators. But, I mean, he made a decision and one that he made the right to make, but I definitely think there were probably a lot of unhappy people around here after he made that decision, fans included, because you get attached to players and it would’ve been nice to see that happen.”
Last season the Predators finished the regular season with the fifth most points in the NHL and had a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. The fact that Suter and Weber were both All-Star defensemen and could play almost half the game in front of one of the best goalies in the league in Pekka Rinne seemed like a formula that could make Nashville a contender for the foreseeable future. That was part of why general manager David Poile had such a hard time understanding Suter’s decision, which Suter said was made for family reasons, as his wife hails from Minnesota and his parents in Wisconsin would be closer to their grandchildren.
On Saturday, Suter was not of much of a mind to talk about why the Predators might have had difficulty accepting his decision.
“I put a lot of thought into it and it was the right decision for me and my family and I’m happy to be where I am,” he said.
Suter’s departure created a hole in the Predators’ lineup. Losing a player of his caliber would create a hole in any lineup, but in Nashville’s case he was there for seven years and the organization had built and planned around him.
In trying to make the best of the situation in its aftermath, Poile said that the Predators already might have the next Ryan Suter in the organization. This season, Roman Josi has taken over Suter’s spot with Weber. Josi, 22, is in his second season and is a skilled player with plenty of potential.
“There are some things Ryan does extremely well,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said on Saturday. “Watching Minnesota’s power play, he’s one of the best at coming off the wall and into the middle and using deception and stuff like that. That really opened up some different lanes for the guys.
“That’s something we’re trying to teach Roman. He’s always a threat in the middle and needs to use a little more deception. It doesn’t come as easy. It’s not like, ‘Hey, do this.’ It’s going to take some practice and a lot of reps on the point.”
To Trotz’s point, certain things did not come easily for Suter right away either. Trotz said at first Suter’s shot “couldn’t break a pane of glass.”
“He worked on it and Ryan got mad at me and he worked on it all summer,” Trotz said. “Next year his shot was better. Now he shoots the puck better and he’s dangerous that way. Just like any young player, there’s elements of his game that keep growing.
“His shot, his ability to do different things and that’s the same with Roman. Roman has a real hard shot at his age.”
That is what is frustrating for the Predators. Suter is the finished product and Josi is the work in progress. Trotz noted that Weber and Suter, who were both drafted the same year, came up together in the minors. He guessed they might have had seven or eight years together to develop their chemistry and evolve into the league’s top defense pair, which many agreed they were the last few seasons.
How long might it take for Josi to grow into having a similar chemistry with Weber?
“Can I put on a time frame?” Trotz said. “No, I really can’t.”
Weber said even in their final season together, he and Suter had glitches at times, that the chemistry was something they worked on every day. But he also testified as to how strong it was.
“You play with somebody for that long, you look at the (Sedin twins on Vancouver), I think they’ll obviously tell you the same thing,” Weber said. “They know exactly where each other are and I think it was just one of those things where you play with somebody for a certain amount of time and you just kind of learn a lot about them.”
Now that process has begun, to an extent, anew. For a variety of reasons, the Predators are struggling. They won on Friday for only the second time in their last seven games.
Even with the six-goal outburst on Friday, Nashville remains the lowest-scoring team in the league. Suter was not an offensive juggernaut, but his smooth skating and passing were like lubricants in the gears of the offensive machine.
“For the life of me, I don’t know the exact reason,” Poile said of the offensive struggles. “Ryan’s a fabulous player and helped us in a lot of ways, offensively for sure. But, to me, our players are just not playing like they did last year in the specific area of what it takes to be successful.”
Entering the first game at Nashville with Suter as a foe, the Predators stood one point outside of playoff position at the season’s midpoint. They could be a playoff team again for the eighth time in nine seasons and might do very well.
But it’s impossible not to wonder how they might have been if Suter had chosen to stay.
“But it’s done with now,” Mason said. “It’s the just the way it is. Definitely, when you put that much time into kind of grooming a guy and he’s on your team and you just kind of hope and expect that you can continue it.