Thank goodness I live in a small market.
After four seasons of middling results in hockey’s biggest market, Brian Burke was fired today as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke didn’t build a big-market winner, but he’s not exactly unique in that regard. His replacement, Dave Nonis, becomes the fourth GM in Toronto since 1999. In hockey-mad Montreal, current GM Marc Bergevin is the fourth man to hold that position since 2000.
Nonis’ and Bergevin’s predecessors committed the ultimate sin in an Original Six market: they didn’t win. Then again, frequent turnover in management isn’t exactly the most fertile ground for producing a winner. Neither is an overabundance of hockey talk combined with huge expectations. The combination makes it easy to gin up a mob calling for someone in management to burn anytime the local team loses three games in a row, much less when the GM makes a gamble that doesn’t pay off. Or bad trades. Or…well, let’s not pile on.
Burke’s dismissal makes me think of just how different the situation is here in small-market Nashville. The Predators are an anomaly in all sorts of ways. They’re one of just a handful of teams operating in the American South, and they’ve turned winning into an expectation among the fanbase despite having started from scratch in 1998. But perhaps most anomalous of all is that the front office and coaching staff are essentially the same today as they were in the franchise’s infancy.
David Poile and Barry Trotz still have their jobs a decade and a half into the Nashville Predators’ existence mostly because they know what it takes to put a winner on the ice year after year. But there have also been low moments where they have benefited from working in a small market. There simply isn’t the same kind of pressure in Nashville that a coach or manager faces in more traditional hockey locales. Poile has pulled the trigger on several trades that didn’t push the team deep into the playoffs the way fans had hoped, but he never lost his job over it. Similarly, Trotz has avoided having every lineup decision examined under a microscope the way it would be if here in a media hotspot. In these ways, the small market has been a blessing.
Though there are drawbacks to being in a small market, being out of the spotlight has allowed the Preds to achieve such consistency. With the exception of the Craig Leipold-ordered fire sale in 2007, there’s been a unity of purpose to all of the decisions the Predators front office has made over the years. Whether it’s drafting, trades, or free agency, Nashville Predators fans know that each move, whether it works out or not, fits into a long-range plan that’s being constantly updated by the same people who crafted it in the first place. That’s a luxury that not every team’s fans have.