When Coyotes general manager Don Maloney looks at the Nashville Predators, he might as well be peering into a crystal ball to see the future of his own team.
Theres not a more similar franchise to us in the league, Maloney said. When I came here, I used Nashville as a model for how we wanted to do things.
Like the Coyotes, the Predators play in a non-traditional hockey market that theyve called home for less than two decades.
Like the Coyotes, the Predators have been hampered by cap constraints because that non-traditional market hasnt produced the revenue streams necessary to keep up with the Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings of the hockey world.
Like the Coyotes, the Predators have staked their future on astute drafting, painstaking player development, cerebral coaching, suffocating defense and water-tight goaltending.
And like the Coyotes, the Predators are finally getting a taste of playoff success as they prepare for a Western Conference semifinal series with the Coyotes that begins Friday in Glendale.
All of us here believe youve got to find a way, Nashville general manager David Poile said. There are differences between franchises in terms of size and how it relates to their budgets, but theres always a way to win, and weve been able to find that way.
Nashvilles roster is stocked with players it drafted who came up mainly through the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. Forwards David Legwand, Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith; defensemen Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Kevin Kline, Ryan Ellis and Francis Bouillon; and goalie Pekka Rinne are all products of that system.
But in the past two years, Nashville has also added high-end forwards Mike Fisher and Andrei Kostitsyn, big defenseman Hal Gill and reliable checking forward and face-off specialist Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline while bringing back talented 2004 first-round draft pick Alex Radulov from a self-imposed exile in Russia, giving the club an enviable stable of skill that has it dreaming big dreams.
In that sense, the Predators are a shade ahead of the Coyotes in their development. They won a first-round playoff series for the first time last season -- one year before the Coyotes accomplished the same feat. And now, many analysts have them slated to advance to the Western Conference finals, if not the Stanley Cup finals.
They didnt always have the economic wherewithal to spend their way to wins, said Maloney, noting that the Predators had to let draft picks such as Scott Hartnell and other key players such as Tomas Vokoun and Dan Hamhuis walk in the past because they couldnt afford to keep them. Last year was the first time they were really able to spend, when they were able to get Mike Fisher.
Theyve already got the homegrown talent in place to really solidify their roster, then theyre able to reach outside the box and go and get Kostitsyn and Radulov, who really isnt costing them much.
The Coyotes thought so highly of Nashvilles drafting and development approach that they hired Predators scout Rick Knickle to become their director of amateur scouting this season.
Were starting to see meaningful contributions from our young guys like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker and obviously Keith Yandle, Maloney said. I like our defensive future and our goaltending, but I still feel we have a lot of work to do with our forwards.
The next step is to be able to bring enough skill into our system, because at some point the Shane Doans and Ray Whitneys -- those core guys who have been driving the bus for years -- have to be replaced.
In order to do that, the Coyotes need something the Predators have enjoyed for years: stable ownership. While Phoenix is still awaiting a buyer, Nashville has relied on stable ownership, stable management and the same coach for its entire history (Barry Trotz) while infusing new blood and new ideas into the sales and marketing departments to boost the attendance and visibility of the franchise.
In the past two seasons, the Predators' attendance has risen about 1,700 fans per game to an average of 16,690 this season, allowing them to spend more to acquire stars while also spending more to keep their own. They locked up Rinne with a seven-year, 49 million deal in November and are expected to make a big push to retain Suter and Weber this offseason.
Clearly, success on the ice has also impacted that ability.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Poile asked. Winning drives everything. If you dont have that, you might have the greatest salespeople in the world, you might have the greatest market, but if you dont support some sort of winning team, its going to be tough.
Winnings good for your city. People want to be proud of their city. People want to cheer for their city. You do a lot better business when your team is playing well.
Clearly, there are differences between the Phoenix market and Nashville. While the NFLs Tennessee Titans eat up a lot of interest from August until January, there is little to distract Predators fans from January on -- outside of Vanderbilt basketball -- because the city does not have an NBA or MLB franchise, whereas Phoenix has both.
But Phoenix is the nations 12th-largest television market, while Nashville is No. 29. That difference in size and potential fan base negates some of the effects of competition.
Ive always looked at that franchise as the one that had done the most with the least, but now you look at them and you wonder: Where are the flaws? Maloney said of the Predators. Hopefully, as we get into this series, well be able to find some.