By Allan Muir
September 11, 2009

I don't want to make assumptions, but I think the quote from Nashville coach Barry Trotz was meant to be flattering.

"He's really got Predator written all over him because he's got a lot of try in his game."

Slow down, Turbo. A lot of try? You can almost hear the Honkeytown faithful yawning with anticipation for the coming season.

Doesn't much matter who Trotz was buffing up with that faint praise, though, for the record, it was winger Patric Hornqvist. The young Swede is merely the latest in a long line of marginally talented forwards trotted out by the Preds whose hopes for NHL employment rely almost exclusively on effort rather than any defining natural ability.

Not that there's anything wrong with some hustle -- like Van Buren sang in Damn Yankees, you gotta have heart -- but that's really what it's come to for the Predators, a club that's become defined, and confined, by its low-budget approach. Try hard. Catch a few breaks, maybe eke out a low playoff seed. Lose in the first round, go home satisfied. Try hard again next year.

It's a testament to Trotz and GM David Poile, the two most talented guys in the organization outside of the brilliant defender Shea Weber, that the franchise has experienced even modest success operating under a self-imposed cap that this year hovers around $43 million. And buoyed by the return of Steve Sullivan and the continued growth of the young blueline, they might even make it back to the postseason after sitting on the sidelines last spring.

One and done will probably be enough for Poile's bosses, a group of local businessmen who are developing their passion for the game on the go after stepping up to keep the club in Nashville in 2007. Matching the spending of divisional rivals Detroit and Chicago may not be in the plans, but here's hoping he's knocking on their doors and selling them on the value of a little sizzle.

It's time to bust the budget for Phil Kessel.

The mere mention of Boston's RFA winger has, for some fans, become a groan inducer on the scale of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (and is it just me, or is there a Separated at Birth thing going on here?). His will-he/won't-he/where- will-he-sign saga has become the league's longest running soap opera -- at least east of the Sonoran Desert.

But the impasse declared this week by Kessel's agent Wade Arnott suggests an opportunity is at hand to address the massive hole created when Alexander Radulov rocketed back to Russia. A chance to cash in at the box office as well as in the standings.

No one's saying that Kessel is all that separates the Preds from a lengthy playoff run. Far from it. At 21, he remains a work in progress, both on and off the ice. He's far too predictable when carrying the puck, and far too soft away from it. He requires the kid glove treatment from his coach and a centerman capable of creating his play for him. Bottom line: he's still got a lot to learn.

But like the preacher man says, you can't teach hands. And Kessel certainly has himself a rare set of mitts. Since the lockout, just five players age 21 or under have scored as many as the 36 goals he potted last season. Their names: Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Kessel might seem like the sore thumb in that group, but the caliber of the company speaks to the quality of his results.

No doubt the Bruins, for all their feigned indifference, would like to keep Kessel. If not for that pesky salary cap, they'd likely have him locked up already. But with less than $2 million to spend, and rumors swirling that the Maple Leafs are planning on signing Kessel to an offer sheet at the start of the season -- when the Bruins are most vulnerable -- it's believed that Peter Chiarelli is looking for a deal now to keep him out of the clutches of a divisional foe.

Enter the Preds.

Nashville won't play the offer sheet game. Poile is no more likely to give up the compensatory first-, second- and third-round picks in a single draft than Spencer is to shave off that creepy flesh-colored beard.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a deal to be made.

The Bruins would love to acquire center Colin Wilson, the seventh overall pick from 2008 who spent the last few seasons playing under their noses at Boston University. They'd also love to have a 25-year-old Ray Bourque back on their blueline. Neither is going to happen. Goaltender Chet Pickard might be Nashville's next most valuable asset, but Boston has Tuukka Rask penciled in to succeed Tim Thomas.

The Preds could catch Chiarelli's attention by building a package around Jonathan Blum, the 2009 CHL Defenseman of the Year. Most teams couldn't afford to part with a blue-chip talent like the high-scoring, smooth-skating Blum, but Nashville's organizational strength is Boston's weakness. Add another intriguing prospect (perhaps Charles-Olivier Roussel or Zach Budish) and a first-rounder and you might see a handshake.

Say what you want about the size of the hockey market in Nashville, but there may not be a more passionate fan base in the league. And they deserve better than this endless cycle of mediocrity.

A bold move for Kessel shows the Preds are willing to do more than just try.

"You can't pick up a franchise and move it anywhere you want. It opens up a can of worms. ... I'm pro-NHL and I don't think that somebody should be able to move into someone's backyard and play. I don't agree with that."

That was former Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean taking what sure seemed like a pretty clear stand against Jim Balsillie's attempt to rustle up the bankruptcy-bound Phoenix Coyotes and re-settle them in Hamilton.

Of course, that was back on May 27. Now that MacLean has been hired as an advisor by the guy who is still looking to hop the fence and swim in the Toronto Maple Leafs' pool, his opinion of Balsillie's efforts is a little more conciliatory.

"Yeah, I was critical," he testily admitted on Toronto's Fan 590 on Thursday. "I'm not saying I wasn't. But I never said Balsillie shouldn't be an owner.

"I've spent the last three weeks discussing the situation with him and I think it can work. I can be a great bridge to bring this thing together."

Forget the convenient contortions of John Kerry or Sarah Palin. This was a feat of flip-floppery audacious enough to dazzle Diamond Joe Quimby.

It's easy for this corner to be flippant about this stunning about-face, but this is more than just simple repositioning for MacLean. He may see himself as a bridge, but after throwing his hat in the ring with a man unanimously rejected as an owner by the league, it's fair to say that his career hangs in the balance.

There have been rumors circulating for some time that Balsillie was trying to buff up the legitimacy of his bid by bringing an established NHL presence on board. Problem was, everyone understands that long memories are the order of the day around the NHL and no one was willing to commit what could amount to career suicide.

That is, until Balsillie found the right amount of money to throw at a suitably desperate man.

MacLean is being pilloried for abandoning his principles, and well he should be. A radio and TV commentator in Canada since being sacked by the Jackets in 2007, MacLean routinely used his bully pulpit to excoriate Balsillie's back door approach. To ally himself with the man now reveals plenty about his character.

Still, his decision isn't that hard to understand. Though he's employed strictly as an advisor now, MacLean makes no secret of his aspirations. He wants another chance to run a team....and he was smart enough to recognize that his phone wasn't ringing.

Fact is, there are just 30 of these jobs in the NHL and MacLean could read volumes into the silence. Eleven positions have been filled since his dismissal and though he was said to be close to winning the GM job in Florida this summer -- a position that remains vacant -- there weren't a lot of doors open for the man whose front office resume didn't extend past the first week of April in any given season.

And it doesn't take a doctorate in statistics to read the trends. Look at the career paths of recent hires: ex-players like Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Tambellini; former agents like Mike Gillis and Brian Lawton; young up 'n' comers like Ray Shero, Chuck Fletcher and Stan Bowman.

There is as much demand for re-treads with no playoff success like MacLean as there is for that upcoming remake of Slap Shot. So perhaps his opportunism can be forgiven. Like Thursday's signing of Mike Comrie by the Oilers -- he's the player no one wanted going to the team that no one wants to sign with -- this deal has last resort written all over it.

Now the Balsillie group has an inside man who knows something about hitting the ground running and starting from scratch. And MacLean has the inside track at running a team with a cap-stretching budget in the league's most lucrative market.

Both men were desperate. It remains to be seen whether either of them picked a winner.

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