Paul Kariya showed NHL free agents there was more to Nashville than country music.
The former University of Maine star and Hobey Baker Award winner made the move from Colorado to Music City after the lockout and turned this Tennessee city into a bit of a hockey town.
“It validated what we were trying to do,” said Barry Trotz, the Predators coach since the team started in 1998. “He recognized we had a team on the rise. He had a big impact in terms of our confidence.”
The Predators made the playoffs for the first time in the season before hockey shut down for a year. With the addition of Kariya, they jumped out to an 8-0 start last season and went back to the postseason.
“I knew they had an excellent hockey club that was only getting better,” Kariya said. “I looked at it first and foremost as a hockey decision.”
Nashville hasn’t seen the second round yet, but NHL teams have shown recently that fortunes can change in a heartbeat. That was enough to draw in free agents Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont, who signed with Nashville this summer.
“People think there is no culture in Nashville,” Trotz said. “It’s a very, very cool city, from the singers and the artists in town to the movie stars. And it’s just a little town compared to New York and Chicago.
“Now I think it’s a lot easier sell when talking to free agents.”
It certainly surprised Arnott, a Stanley Cup winner with New Jersey in 2000.
“It’s so beautiful there to live, the fans are unbelievable, and it’s just a great city to play in,” he said.
In the past three seasons, the Western Conference champion has been one of the lower-seeded teams.
Kariya and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks made the finals as the No. 7 seed in 2003, and Calgary was the sixth-seeded team the following year. This spring, the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers reached the Stanley Cup finals against champion Carolina – which missed the postseason in 2004.
“It’s like winning the lottery. Making the playoffs is the key. You have to give yourself a chance to win,” Kariya said. “The additions we made this summer made us that much better. I think it’s an organization going in the right direction.”
The Predators got off to a rough start this season, dropping their first three before beating Phoenix at home. Nashville hit the road for a three-game trip through the New York metropolitan area and returned home with a rare sweep of the Islanders, Rangers and Devils.
Tomas Vokoun rebounded from a rocky stretch to provide strong goaltending. Vokoun allowed 13 goals in his first two games before stopping 91 of 93 shots in his next three outings.
“Paul being here and Vokie re-signing was a big factor in me coming here because I knew I’d get a chance to play with Paul, and everyone knows you need a top goalie to win,” Arnott said. “I want a chance to win again and I thought that this team would be the best way.”
Schedule changes might be coming.
After receiving complaints that only one out-of-conference division visits each city each season, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would explore possibly changing the format instituted last year following the lockout.
“When we implemented the emphasis on divisional play last year, we figured we’d look at it for a couple of years,” Bettman said. “Interestingly, all the research we have shows much more support for keeping what we have than changing it. But we know that particularly out west, there’s a sensitivity to the issue.
“We’re going to look at it again after the season and see what changes make sense.”
This season, the Atlantic Division is the only one from the East that will make appearances in Pacific Division arenas. That means reigning rookie of the year Alexander Ovechkin of Washington won’t be coming to those towns, nor will the high-flying Buffalo Sabres, who started 6-0.
Instead of having every team travel to every city, the NHL offers up eight games between division rivals.
“If we played a 100-game schedule, which we’re not advocating, then we’d get everybody in,” Bettman said. “For everything you do, there’s a tradeoff.”
Wearing the ‘C’ in Big D
The captain switch down in Dallas has done nothing to hurt the Stars at the start of the season.
Shortly after he signed a longterm extension, Brenden Morrow was named Stars captain while Mike Modano turned in the ‘C’ on his sweater for an alternate ‘A.’ Modano held the top spot for two seasons before being replaced by Morrow, a forward who has been with Dallas since 1999, when he was only 20.
The Stars took the move in stride and jumped out to a 5-0 start this season.
“There really wasn’t any awkwardness,” goalie Marty Turco said of Modano, the face of the franchise since 1988. “I think that’s a tribute to him and his actual leadership that seems to come in question from the outside, but not ever has from within. He’s our player, he’s our guy and he has been for a long time. And we need him to be, to keep pushing forward in this division and this year to be successful.
“I think just having both those guys be great leaders, great friends, made everything go smooth and the best part about it is it hasn’t stopped us one bit. It’s made us stronger and it’s about our team identity and really as simple as that and we didn’t misconstrue how that all went down.”
With Modano still in town, newcomers Eric Lindros and Jeff Halpern adding a larger veteran presence and Jere Lehtinen and Turco already in place, Dallas emerged as an early contender for the Western Conference title.
The Stars dropped a 2-0 decision at San Jose on Tuesday for their first loss of the season.
Taking a dive
Ted Nolan waited nine long years to get back in the NHL. Now that he’s found a place behind the New York Islanders’ bench, the outspoken coach is making sure his voice is heard.
After a back-and-forth overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nolan wasted no time in taking a shot at Penguins poster boy Sidney Crosby.
The 19-year-old star forward drew a hooking penalty on Islanders captain Alexei Yashin during overtime that led to Sergei Gonchar’s winning goal. It was Pittsburgh’s third power-play goal in eight chances and had Nolan seething.
“I think for a world-class player, for a guy of his caliber, he’s diving every time someone touches him,” Nolan said of Crosby, who had 102 points last season – his first in the NHL.
What made things worse for Nolan is he felt Crosby should have been called for slashing just before Yashin committed his foul. Crosby’s whack was so strong that Yashin was forced to ice his thumb – that was bleeding – while he sat in the penalty box.