They have a puny budget under the salary cap, not enough fans and they're stuck in Tennessee, but the Nashville Predators have emerged as one of the strongest contenders in the NHL.

Heading into Thursday night, in fact, only the Anaheim Ducks and the Buffalo Sabres had more points than Nashville.

And the weirdest darned thing about the Preds is that, after you peruse their roster, you can't figure out why the heck they're any good at all.


I mean, aside from Paul Kariya, who's irrefutably in the twilight of his career, you cannot easily identify any of their players. Perhaps defenceman Kimmo Timonen is talented enough to be recognizable, and injured goaltender Tomas Vokoun probably would be known in some households but, seriously, this is a team laden with no-names and has simply defied logic with its performance level this season.

So what's been the key to the Preds' success?

Well, those in the know believe it's largely attributable to the philosophies and strategies of their head coach -- 43-year-old Winnipeg native Barry Trotz.

"He's probably the one NHL head coach people don't really seem to know," says Winnipeg journalist Scott Taylor, who has known Trotz for more than 20 years. "And, really, he's a coach people should get to know because he's a great coach. Just look at what he's doing with a team that honestly doesn't have the greatest players in the world."

And it's not like Trotz is a newcomer or anything. In a profession where folks get hired only to be fired, Trotz holds the NHL record for most games coached by an expansion team's first bench boss (607). Buffalo's Lindy Ruff is the only NHL coach who's been with his team longer.

And, yet, seldom is Trotz's name mentioned with the elite coaches in the NHL.

It's time for that to change.

Trotz has developed an entertaining, offensive system in Nashville that is matched by few coaches in the NHL. There is no boring trap play in the Predators' scheme.

"I can't trap in a city like Nashville," Trotz says, "because we're still trying to sell the game to the fans."

The Preds went into last night with a dominating home record of 9-1-2-1, despite average turnouts of only 13,000 or so.

"We have the best fans in the NHL," Trotz says. "We just don't have enough of them."

It's not only working in Nashville that has Trotz toiling in virtual anonymity. It also has to do with the fact that he never played in the NHL. Never played professional hockey, in fact.

And it also has a little bit to do, honestly, with the way he looks. At 5-foot-6 and 245 pounds, Trotz resembles a fire hydrant. His neck is fused because of an injury from his junior days as a player in Western Canada. And he's an intense competitor who seldom cracks smiles in public.

All of which make him appear unfriendly and insensitive.

Ah, but remember what momma told you -- that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and that looks can be deceiving, and all that other smart stuff.

"Trotz is completely different than how he looks, if you know what I mean," Taylor says. "He's an intelligent, sensitive guy with a good sense of humour. He's not goofy at all. He's a great interview.

"The problem is, being in Nashville, he doesn't get interviewed as much as he should."

Within the NHL, however, Trotz is highly respected. He's the envy of his counterparts, who live their lives in pressure cookers, constantly fearful of their jobs.

Trotz is as secure as they come in his business. He and his boss, general manager David Poile, are as tight a tandem as there is in the industry. Poile has made it clear repeatedly that Trotz is and always will be his coach. Period. End of story.

"I know (coaching Nashville since its inception eight years ago) is a long reign for someone in this position," Trotz says, "but I think it has to do with being able to go through the whole process and understanding everyone's role. I've scouted (he was on the Washington Capitals' scouting staff in the late 1980s), so I understand what the scouts are doing. I understand what the minor-league coaches are doing because I've done it. I understand what assistant coaches do because I've done that.

"But I think the key is having a really solid relationship. That's the most important thing: There's a trust factor. I trust David's long-term concept. I used to be really confrontational and I could get angry but, here, instead of crying that I don't have enough of this or that, I work with what I have because I understand the process and don't make excuses.

"Everybody in this organization is on the same page, working from the same plan. We're in an age where patience is basically gone. Coaches get pressured by players, fans and management. People are looking for instant gratification and that's not always possible. I'm fortunate to have an owner and general manager who aren't swayed by other people's thinking. They have a vision of how to build a team. We know we can't fill our voids with expensive players. We know we have to build from within so patience and trust are necessary at every level of the organization."

It's clear thinking by Trotz, and it has the Predators ranking as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.

•There's talk that the Philadelphia Flyers are about to clean house and intend to deal every 30-something player they have, including supersar Peter Forsberg.

They've already dumped Petr Nedved, who, we're told, is about to rejoin the New York Rangers.

• The decision by the New York Islanders to trade Mike York to the Flyers is conjuring up images of a salary dump.

Isles GM Garth Snow, however, has salary-cap room and plans to acquire some veteran scoring punch in the near future. His targets: Bill Guerin and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues and Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes.

•Many readers of Metro and
responded to my appeal in last week's NHL Report to send in names of active players they deem worthy of Hall of Fame nominations at this point of their careers.

Here are the names they mentioned the most:

Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Ed Belfour, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek and Brendan Shanahan.

Thanks to those who emailed me.

And happy holidays. See you in the new year.

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