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A Test of Leadership

After Tuesday night's 6-0 drubbing by the Los Angeles Kings, the Predators held a closed door meeting to address their lackluster play of the last two weeks.  Will that private session result in shaking the team back into order?  The early proof will be seen in tonight's contest with the visiting Atlanta Thrashers (side note:  in a symptom of how badly the NHL schedule is screwed up, this is only the fourth time in 10 years that the Predators have hosted the team which is closest to Nashville).
 
While the message boards are abuzz with the "Fire Trotz!" mantra, the reality is that every NHL team faces a difficult stretch at some point during the season, and the true measure of a team's leadership (coach, captain, assistant captains) lies in how they react to such challenges.  GM David Poile's made some comments Thursday morning basically saying that everyone could perform better, it's up to the leaders to provide a working example of how this team can consistently compete and win.
 
Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators head coach
Come on Barry, show us some fire!
 
That starts with Barry Trotz, who by all appearances lately, takes victories and losses in stride, understanding the marathon nature of the 82-game regular season.  What I, and many others currently see, however, is a lack of in-game passion that trickles right down to the level of play on the ice (I have no doubt that he's motivated and works hard in preparation for games, but I'm talking about attitude on game night here).  At key points in recent games, it seems like when a potentially game-changing call (or non-call) is being made, Trotz simply shakes his head on the bench, rather than confronting the officials and making himself heard.  This isn't something an NHL coach can do very often (this isn't baseball, after all) but especially early in the season, it's important to establish a fierce competitive attitude within the team, and let all parties know that the coach is ready to battle on behalf of his players.  A few recent cases highlight this concern.  First, of course, was during the Phoenix game when Jordin Tootoo got clotheslined in retaliation for a potentially dangerous hit on another Coyotes player.  Then, in Anaheim, Martin Gelinas got clipped by a Ducks player's blade in the face while going for a loose puck in front of a wide-open net.  And most recently, Tuesday night in L.A. defenseman Brad Stuart took multiple whacks at Gelinas' left hand while he was carrying the puck along the boards, exactly the kind of slash that results in broken bones and weeks out of the lineup.  In each instance, Trotz could well have gone off on the officials in an effort to both address a situation that could change the course of the current game, and let his players know that he'll stand up for them just like he expects them to stand up for each other.
 
When it comes to on-ice leadership, the burden falls primarily on new captain Jason Arnott's shoulders.  Currently leading the team in points (7) and tied for the team lead in goals (3), Arnott needs to inspire a more consistent effort by the rest of the team.  Most prominently, this can manifest itself in a more energetic forechecking effort.  Outside of the first periods in San Jose and Anaheim, the Predators have generally had difficulty keeping the play in the offensive end for the last two weeks.  In order to maintain that kind of pressure, each successive line needs to hustle and perform the dirty work.  Instead, what we've seen is a pair like Radek Bonk and Jed Ortmeyer put in a good 30 seconds of work, but then the next line comes out and the momentum is lost.
 
It's especially important that the Predators get into the habit of strong, 60-minute games tonight against Atlanta and again Saturday night when Florida comes to town.  After that, the team goes on a five-game road trip through Western Canada, Chicago and Detroit, during which team cohesion will be tested severely.  Afterwards, blue line anchor Shea Weber should return, and Steve Sullivan will hopefully be ready a few weeks after that.  The bottom line is that the team needs to focus first on getting back to .500, and leave the rest of the team goals (playoff spot, Central Division lead, etc.) aside for now.  It's still very early in the season, so despite the awful six-game losing streak we've seen, it's most certainly not time to panic...  yet.

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