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Sizzle or Steak? Or can we have both?

As we ponder the many ways that the Nashville Predators can fill out their top two forward lines, the usual discussions revolve around veterans on the back end of their career (Mark Parrish, Glen Murray) or rookies who yet to prove themselves at the NHL level (Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Jones). This is, of course, framed by the presumption that Nashville either can't or won't go after a bigger-name player in their prime years, such as Marian Hossa or Olli Jokinen, to cite two stars which changed teams this summer. The common wisdom is that a superstar like that is either outside the Predators budget constraints or that such a deal would violate GM David Poile's patient, long-term franchise building process.

So, when it comes to the NHL, what is best? Gaining a dynamic superstar who can excite a fan base, or a slowly assembling a deeper roster of less dramatic players that forsake individual glory for team achievement?

On the one hand, we have Brandon Felder, who in a recent post, wondered whether the Predators should pursue such a star, after noticing that no Predators were included in the Hockey News' "Top 50 Players" heading into the new season (never mind that Jason Arnott's exclusion was pretty poor). In Nashville, more so than many other NHL markets, marketing to the broader sports fan base is essential, and when the team acquired Peter Forsberg in the spring of 2007, it generated substantial buzz around the city. So yes, such a move might sell a few more Nashville Predators tickets.

On the other side of this question we have Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, who provided his insight into this question while blogging today about Tom Brady's injury woes. From his view atop a franchise which actually has a dynamic performer in Alex Ovechkin and is trying to assemble a championship-caliber group around him, he has a firsthand perspective to add. As he discussed his group's research into what makes elite teams work he ticked off several key traits, among which were the following (paraphrased):

1. Having great players who are willing to sublimate individual goals to team-based objectives.
2. Getting players to sign for less-than-market value (especially key in salary cap leagues like the NHL)
3. Having the whole organization fit the playing talent, with a consistent philosophy from the front office on down.
4. Consistency over the course of time with the system of play, instead of switching things around from year to year.
5. Staying healthy.
6. Being lucky.
7. Getting respect from the refs.

Now, when I look at this list, it jumps right out that the Detroit Red Wings fit this pretty darn perfectly. But, not to be denied, however, the Nashville Predators score highly as well:

1. They are blissfully free of "me first" types (especially now with Alexander Radulov back in the Old Country)
2. They've signed their core players to long term contracts for, in many cases, less money than they might have earned elsewhere (particularly J.P. Dumont)
3. There is definitely a consistent theme to the Predators, in terms of favoring mobile young defensemen, and generally emphasizing speed over size.
4. With only one GM and head coach throughout the team's history, the team enjoys a very consistent philosophy in how the game is approached.
5. Health has been an issue, mostly due to Steve Sullivan's severe back troubles. Every team faces injury issues from one year to the next, but in light of the other players lost in the 2007 Salary Purge, Sully's back was an added blow. Only now is the team basically resolved to moving forward on the assumption that he won't return.
6. Luck? It's hard to see luck being on the Preds side recently, but that can always change.
7. It would appear that the Predators are definitely getting respect from the officials; in total last year Nashville got 358 power plays and was shorthanded only 335 times, a difference of 23 special teams chances that was 9th-best in the NHL.

Overall, there's a lot there to like; and I tend to think that playoff success will do more to sell Preds tickets in the short- and long-term than signing a superstar would do. Now, the question is still open as to whether this really is an either-or proposition; but unless a blockbuster trade comes out of nowhere involving some of the key Predators assets, I highly doubt we'll see one of those "Top 50" players in a Nashville uniform this season. Next year, we'll see if Ryan Suter or Shea Weber make the cut, but until then, I'll make do with a well-rounded, workmanlike squad that the hockey world is writing off yet again.

UPDATE: Paul Nicholson tosses his $0.02 into the discussion, and looks at the possibility of a poor 2008-9 season leading to better times ahead.

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