The prototypical Nashville Predators player is one who works hard, has discipline, knows how to fit into a team-first mentality, and has endured some sort of struggle along the road to the NHL. Back in the expansion era that struggle was simply being part of the Nashville Predators. As the team grew into a perennial playoff contender, though, it continued to be made up of late-round draft picks, college free agents, and castoffs from other teams.
It’s easy to understand what it is that coach Barry Trotz likes about those traits: they end up building people who can deal with adversity and are willing to put forth maximum effort on a regular basis. Aside from being on the Trotz checklist, all those traits have something else in common: they’re intangible. Not one of Nashville’s preferred traits is physical. If hockey were played as a test of character, the Nashville Predators would probably have lifted the Stanley Cup at least a few times by now. But the game is undeniably played in the physical realm, not in some Platonic otherworld where just trying hard enough will take you places.
Yet in putting together a roster of players expected not only to compete at the NHL level but to actively challenge for the Stanley Cup, the Nashville Predators’ front office and coaches appear to have considered size a secondary factor at best in determining whether a player is fit to wear Predators gold. The result of that focus is that the average forward on the team is 6’0” and 200 pounds, the average defenseman 6’2” and 209 pounds. Worse, what size the team does have tends to be among its oldest players. At 6’5”, 31-year-old Paul Gaustad stands three inches taller than any of the other forwards. The 38-year-old, 6’7” Hal Gill is Gaustad’s analog on defense. Take those two away, as time certainly will, and the Preds’ average size becomes that much more diminutive.
One of the places this becomes an issue is the intimidation factor. Even if they don’t plan to go out and crush skulls as a matter of strategy, a little intimidation can be enough to ward off nastier physical play against smaller forwards like Gabriel Bourque and Patric Hornqvist. (Consider how much the team suffered when those two missed extended time this season.) There’s also an argument to be made that the team is undersized for the physical demands of Barry Trotz’s system as the average NHL player continues to get bigger and stronger.
There are a few young players in the system who will help to address the issue. At 6’2” and 203 pounds Taylor Beck, who looks like he’s never heading back to Milwaukee, is bigger than all but two of the team’s forwards. New Milwaukee Admiral Zach Budish is a beefy 6’3” and 223 pounds. Austin Watson, who’s been part of the Milwaukee Admirals’ Nashville injury-relief crew lately, is a lanky 6’4” and 193 pounds. And at 6’4” and 204 pounds, Mattias Ekholm will add some size and strength to the blue line to complement Shea Weber.
Beyond that, though, there are more average-to-small scrappers in the pipeline. Sheer numbers mean the team is more likely to remain small. If so they’re going to lose the battles in the corner required by their dump-and-chase strategy. They’re also going to get pushed around the way they have this year.
David Poile could address this need by leaning more toward 6’2”, 205-pound forward Alexander Barkov or 6’5”, 185-pound defenseman Darnell Nurse in this summer’s NHL Draft. Or he could try to do something about it in free agency, though that can get expensive. (It’s hard not to think that overpaying Paul Gaustad last summer was partly a result of Poile’s desire to add some size to Nashville’s roster.) The potential for a trade is always there, too, though that seems the least likely route.
Then there’s the alternative: stick to the old formula of putting intangibles above physical traits. Having already seen where that’s left the team this season, Nashville Predators fans should hope management opts for a shift in strategy this summer.