Nouveau country music fan Mike Dunham acknowledges that much of
his first two seasons as the goalie of expansion Nashville would
make sufficiently melancholy fodder for a Hank Williams song.
Lyrics to The Ballad of Mike Dunham would disclose that with poor
ol' Mike between the pipes, the Predators have twice finished
last in the Central Division with a defense that has lacked size,
strength and experience, and an offense that last season was the
only one in the Western Conference that couldn't score 200 goals.
True story: Dunham went to dinner at Barbara Mandrell's house and
got a pep talk for dessert. "There have been some games when the
ice seemed tilted down in our direction," Dunham says. "But we
knew this team was going to make progress in baby steps."
When Barry Trotz talks about his team, it is with the telltale
tunnel vision of an expansion coach: He proudly points out that
last season his team played in 42 games decided by one goal or
fewer. (Trotz neglects to mention that it won only 15 of those
nail-biters.) The club has won 28 games in each of its first two
seasons, more than any other expansion team in the '90s, and
Nashville was one of only nine teams in 1999-2000 to improve its
totals of goals scored and goals allowed over those of the
previous season. Trotz expects a breakthrough year from explosive
second-year center David Legwand, the No. 2 pick in the draft in
'98, who had 13 goals and 15 assists in '99-00, and he is hoping
for a cavalry charge of talented prospects such as forwards Denis
Arkhipov, Scott Hartnell and Pavel Skrbek to upgrade the club's
size and speed before season's end. "In two years we've had time
to weed out our roster and build enough depth to create
competition for jobs," Trotz says. "It's time for our guys to
stop asking themselves, 'Do we belong in the NHL?'"
Dunham, 28, is looking to erase his reputation as a streaky
goalie following an off-season during which the avid golfer
drained his first hole in one and married a Nashville news
anchorwoman. "I hope those are positive omens for this season,"
Dunham says. "If our team can make a serious run at the playoffs,
then maybe we can shed that expansion label for good."
Not so fast. These guys aren't playoff Predators yet, just less
Center Cliff Ronning, 35, has increased his production in each of
the last three seasons, from 51 points in 1996-97 to 55 in '97-98
to 60 in '98-99 to 62 last year.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 26 Rookie Classen may be a nice surprise
DEFENSE 27 Unit has difficulty clearing the puck
GOALTENDING 19 No. 1 Dunham is injury-prone but talented
SPECIAL TEAMS 24 Fitzgerald and Johnson shine as penalty
MANAGEMENT 8 Poile and Trotz have franchise pointed