The Nashville Predators are playing a hurtin' tune and it's one that could haunt them in the off-season.
When the team's owners stepped up and told general manager David Poile he could load up the payroll in an effort to finally break through in the NHL playoffs and get a permanent hold on the affections of the fans in Music City it wasn't supposed to go this way. So far, everybody has held up their end of the bargain except the players, who are down 2-0 in their second-round playoff series with the Phoenix Coyotes because they failed to show up Sunday night in Glendale, Ariz.
"We didn't have as many guys bring their A game tonight and you can't have that this time of year," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said Sunday night after the Predators lost 5-3. "Too many turnovers, big-time momentum goals, that type of thing. A couple of odd-man rushes where we went offside. That's just back-checking for the other team."
The funny thing about this series is the off-ice consequences could be severe for either team if it loses.
Everyone knows about the Coyotes' troubles. Glendale city council recently made it clear by a slim majority it is willing to pay prospective owner Greg Jamison $17-million (all currency U.S.) a year as a "management fee" for Jobing.com Arena in order to subsidize the Coyotes' annual losses.
For a city of 250,000 that is already facing a 2013 budget deficit of more than $30-million, this undoubtedly means more cuts to city services, possibly more layoffs of city employees and higher taxes. But this still may not be enough to keep a team that routinely loses more than $30-million a year. Then there is the certain opposition to the $17-million payment that lies ahead from the Goldwater Institute, the conservative watchdog group that has sunk previous ownership bids.
The Predators' troubles moved below the radar in the last year thanks to the team's showing in the 2011 playoffs when it advanced past the first round for the first time in franchise history. Then another strong regular-season in 2011-12 plus Poile's announcement after signing star goaltender Pekka Rinne to a long-term contract that he hopes to do the same with pending free agents Shea Weber and Ryan Suter put a further rosy hue to the team's future.
However, even though the Predators get healthy subsidies from the city of Nashville and are regular beneficiaries of the NHL's revenue-sharing plan, their performance in this year's playoffs is crucial to their future.
They may rank 24th this season in spending among the NHL's 30 teams but their $52-million payroll is a big jump from the $44.2-million they spent in 2009-10 and it reflects the gamble Poile made on a strong playoff run this spring. He added defenceman Hal Gill and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn at the trade deadline and then lucked out when prodigal son Alexander Radulov came over from Russia late in the season still carrying his entry-level salary of $919,000 thanks to a quirk in the NHL rules.
On the marketing side of things, Predators CEO Jeff Cogen used the team's on-ice success to goose attendance to 97.5 per cent of Bridgestone Arena's capacity with an average crowd of 16,690. But since Bridgestone is one of the smaller rinks in the NHL with a capacity of 17,113, the Predators were 20th in average attendance in the regular season.
Additionally, Cogen is a believer in using giveaways to get people in the building in the hope they have a good enough time to come back and pay the full freight the next time. This means the Predators' revenue still has a long way to go.
It also means the players have to hold up their end of the deal by going farther than the second round this year. If not, good luck to Poile in getting the money to sign Weber and Suter, not to mention Radulov, who will be a restricted free agent, plus a bunch of other players like Gaustad, Gill and the Kostitsyn brothers. Poile has only three defencemen under contract for next season at this point.
After losing in overtime to the Coyotes in the first game of the series, the Predators consoled themselves with the knowledge they outplayed them by a big margin only to be thwarted by goaltender Mike Smith. But they should have known sooner or later the rest of the Coyotes players would take up the slack and that's what happened Sunday night.
Now, unless the Predators rediscover the smothering defensive game that is their trademark, another playoff stall will have unpleasant echoes throughout the summer.