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VOL. 46 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 15, 2022

Signing Forsberg sets Preds on course to catch Avs

By Tom Wood

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Nashville’s Filip Forsberg congratulates Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog after Game 4 of the Avalanche’s sweep of the Predators in the first round of the playoffs in May. Signing Forsberg to an eight-year deal is one step the Preds have taken this offseason in their quest to catch the Stanley Cup champs.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap

Christmas in July? You betcha. It is for Nashville Predators star forward Filip Forsberg, who has a new contract worth $68 million, as well as for the Stanley Cup-starved Smashville fan base, which gets to keep him in Nashville with the eight-year deal.

The high-profile transaction – which includes no-move and no-trade clauses – means the team avoided the 27-year-old Swede in free agency, which began July 13. Forsberg will remain in a Nashville uniform through 2030 and perhaps for the rest of his professional career.

“It’s about winning … and the only thing we’re missing is just the Stanley Cup, and that’s the main driver for all of us. I mean, that’s the motivation in the summer. That’s what you try to get better for,” says Forsberg, who is getting married next week to his fiancé, country music singer Erin Alvey. “At the end of the day, I want to sit back on the couch and look at a Stanley Cup ring. That’s my ultimate motivation.”

The Predators have been in the Stanley Cup Finals only once in their 25-year history, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to cap the 2016-17 season.

Nashville lost in the first round of the playoffs this past season, being swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. As much as that series loss stung, Predators general manager David Poile says it serves as motivation for the coming season and beyond.

“So (the Avs) are the best team, and we have a long way to go to catch them. But we know how good they are and we know what we need to get.” Poile says.

Forsberg’s return may be the last in a series of key moves toward achieving that goal. If you haven’t kept a score card:

• In late June, the team announced former Gov. Bill Haslam will join the ownership group this fall and become majority owner in three years, replacing Herb Fritch.

• July 3, the Predators acquired high-profile defenseman Ryan McDonagh, 33, from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Grant Mismash and defenseman Philippe Myers.

• Nashville selected Finnish forward Joakim Kemmel in the first round of the NHL Draft, a projected top 10 pick who dropped to No. 17. The Preds’ newest crop of draft picks was graded a B- by YahooSports.com but a B+ by BleacherReport.com.

Re-signing Forsberg was the final piece of the puzzle to take the team “to that next level where you’re a serious (title contender),” as former Preds goalie Chris Mason, now the team’s TV color analyst, notes in a 102.5 The Game interview. “It’s a good deal for both parties.”

Here’s a closer look at key moves and developments.

Fans cheer upgrades

If re-signing Forsberg was a top priority for management, it was even more so for Smashville fans. Despite the fact that the deal got done well in advance of the start of free agency, some frustrated fans voiced displeasure that it took so long.

“These next eight years, Filip, who was already a huge part of our team, will become an even more important part of our team – from leadership to mentoring to winning hockey – we should expect that Filip will be part of all of that and contribute at an even higher level,” Poile said this week. “These negotiations took longer than either side anticipated or expected. But having said that … I would like to thank Fil and his family for their patience and I also would like to thank all our fans for their patience, too.”

Most fans in Music City sang a hopeful tune after the deal was announced:

“Glad Prince Filip is staying in town for a while,” J.J. Merrick writes on Facebook.

“8 more years of the mustachioed magician,” adds Jeff Labbe in another post.

“Hang the banner,” writes Robin Cross.

In a dissenting Facebook post, Drake Elmore notes: “Long contracts never work out. Can’t believe any GM is still signing these.”

John Koch, senior lecturer and director of debate in Vanderbilt’s Communication Studies Dept., whose areas of interest include public memory and the intersection of political culture, rhetoric and sports, says Smashville fans would’ve blamed Poile if Forsberg departed.

“Forsberg is the best forward in the history of the organization, and the top scorer in the history of the organization, as well,” he says.

“I think for the team and fans, the signing of Forsberg indicates that the team is committed to building a winning team. If they had failed to do so, rightly or wrongly, fans would have begun to wonder if the Predators were not soon going to be in complete rebuild mode. With this out of the way and a solid draft, they can begin to move forward toward another expected playoff season.”

If Forsberg’s return is the offensive answer, look to recently acquired McDonagh as the spark that boosts the defense.

“I hope my experience can help this group and keep everybody motivated and hopefully do something special,” says McDonagh, who will likely be paired with Roman Josi and Mattias Eckholm.

“You look through their lineup, they’ve got all the pieces and great character guys. The (Nashville) guys have a lot of experience mixed in with some young guys, too, and a great coaching staff. It had all the points there that you want to be a part of and you want to always be contending, make the playoffs and in going on deep runs. This team has it all.”

Mason says McDonagh brings experience and postseason success.

“He is one of the most respected players in this league. He’s won, he’s a leader, he is a penalty-killing master. Every single team would want Ryan on their team. So the fact that they got him, that’s just an absolute, instant, huge upgrade … on their (defensive) corps,” Mason notes.

Haslam excited to join Preds

When Fritch approached Haslam about becoming the team’s majority owner, “it was a pretty quick and easy yes,” says Haslam, a longtime fan of the team.

“I’m really bullish on Nashville and its future. I think the trajectory we’ve been on is not going to stop and I think that adds to the whole Predators experience,” he says. “I love the way the Predators have interwoven themselves into the fabric of this community. To me, it’s kind of a model for what a team has done in embracing the community and the community embracing them back.”

Chuck Cavalaris, a longtime Knoxville sports writer and now part of the weekly show Sports Source on WATE-TV, calls Haslam the right guy to lead the team to that “next level” Mason talks about.

“I think it’s awesome,” Cavalaris says. “This is great news for Predators fans and the players and coaches and the entire organization. That’s what it takes in the NHL these days, right?

“It seems like the Predators have been just on the verge of bringing the Stanley Cup to Nashville or advancing in the playoffs. Those one-goal losses or stupid penalties at the absolute wrong time or injury … or, heck, the opponent just played great. But when it’s a razor-thin margin like that, I know I want an owner like Bill Haslam taking notes and seeking input for whatever changes or roster moves will tip the scales in ‘our’ favor.”

Koch says the three-year waiting period for Haslam to become majority owner “makes sense to slowly integrate a new owner into the organization. “From a business and organizational perspective, it’s a good model for changing ownership.”

Haslam’s brother, Jimmy, owns the NFL Cleveland Browns, and the team experienced a lot of turmoil and turnover under his watch.

Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University, says Bill Haslam enters a different situation than his brother did in Cleveland.

“The NFL and NHL are different types of businesses, for sure, but anyone who can invest and eventually will become a principal owner is in a tremendously advantageous position because the ownership of a professional sports franchise … is kind of like owning a Picasso,” Favorito says. “They don’t come along that often, and they’re extremely, extremely valuable pieces of real estate that rarely go down.

“So it’s different, obviously, when you’re dealing with a franchise the size of the Cleveland Browns. But what the Preds have built locally is something that you have to kind of handle in a correct way because you’re part of the fabric of Nashville and you have to figure out how you can make sure that continues to grow.

“Hopefully you’ve learned some lessons and take some best practices from what your brother’s done at the NFL and you’re able to bring that and continue to enhance what’s going on in Nashville with the NHL,” Favorito adds.

Fritch foresees “a pretty smooth transition” for Haslam.

“I wanted to find somebody local, somebody that is a Tennessee and a Nashville person,” Fritch says. “(The Predators) are a tremendous community asset, and I wanted to find somebody that people knew in Tennessee, that was interested in Tennessee and was interested in Nashville. … We got the right guy that we can trust as the steward of the franchise.”

The Predators will celebrate their 25th season of operations during the 2022-23 season. Team president and CEO Sean Henry says Haslam “has been a fan of the team” since Day One.

“He’s watched what’s happened and when he became governor, he really appreciated what the impact could be of a well-run team that’s engaged with the community, a team that competes at the highest level, who’s insatiable and takes it a step further each year,” Henry says.

“He’s done a lot with our foundation, he appreciates what we do, and he’s a sports guy at the end of it all … So, it’s going to be a lot of fun working with him, just as it has been working with Herb and the rest of the group.”

Top draft pick a ‘steal’

The acquisition of Kemmel could be another piece of the puzzle that leads Nashville to a title someday. He was projected as a top 10 pick, but size (he’s 5-foot-9) and injuries hurt his value. The Predators didn’t hesitate to call Kemmel’s name when he was still available at No. 17.

“It was amazing, and I got really excited,” Kemmel says of joining the Preds. “It’s a great city, and I’m happy to be part of the Predators.”

Lofty expectations. If the rookie lives up to them, if Forsberg can build on his already spectacular achievements, this will indeed be remembered as a very merry Christmas in July.

The 2022-23 season begins Oct. 7-8 with the Global Series in Prague, Czech Republic, against the San Jose Sharks. Will it end with a legit shot for a Stanley Cup? Only time – and an 82-game regular season – will tell.

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