How a canceled trip to see U2 helped turn around the Predators' season

SEATTLE — Practically everyone in hockey has heard that the Nashville Predators’ trip to see U2 in February at the Sphere in Las Vegas was canceled because of how poorly the team was playing at that time.

They’d lost six of eight games before the NHL All-Star break and would lose two of their next three games after returning from the break. They allowed more than four goals in eight straight games and lost seven of those games, including a 9-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 15 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

“We’re having trouble getting our mind around what’s important and that’s hockey,” Predators coach Andrew Brunette told reporters after that seven-goal loss to the Stars. “It’s not everything else that goes around hockey. It’s the game of hockey. I don’t know if we’re understanding the importance that our mind has to be in the game and it can’t be in our vacations.”

A message needed to be sent. That prompted Brunette and Predators general manager Barry Trotz to deliver one by canceling the team trip to see U2.

Thanks to Ryan O’Reilly, there’s another story about the Predators, Las Vegas and U2 that has a much different ending.

Back on Feb. 20, the day after they would have seen the concert, the Predators had a game against the Vegas Golden Knights. A smiling O’Reilly shared recently how an unnamed teammate got clever and started playing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as the Preds were coming into the dressing room after morning skate.

The irony in playing that U2 song is the music video shows the band performing and walking the streets of Las Vegas.

“We all just started dying,” O’Reilly recalled. “Trotzy was not there. I don’t think any of the coaches heard it, but all the guys in the room were all laughing about it. It was pretty funny.”

This would be the start of a turnaround for the Predators.

IT WAS AROUND this time a year ago when the Predators were in a completely different place — with little to laugh about.

A franchise that had already gone through quite a few changes by the trade deadline was on the verge of going through even more. They would miss the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons and headed into the offseason hoping some combination of a rebuild, restructure and/or a retool would see them return to the postseason sooner rather than later.

What Trotz did over the offseason created a belief that the Predators could be ahead of schedule with their plans.

The story of the Preds’ season was that they would start seeing some success only for progress to slip away.

That’s what made canceling that team trip to U2 so necessary from the perspective of coaches and management.

It was a bold move, and could have had one of two distinct outcomes: Either they could have spiraled, or used it as an intervention to save their season.

“We sort of addressed that and you saw the response,” Trotz said. “That says a lot about your group and the men that are in that room. It’s the response to our actions after the All-Star break and with the leadership they had, they responded in the right way.”

What gets lost in O’Reilly’s story is the context of what happened after the Predators heard U2 in their dressing room. They beat the Golden Knights for their second straight win in what turned into an eight-game winning streak that has since become their current 15-game points streak.

The streak itself is proof the Predators have found the consistency within their system that eluded them at times this season. That consistency has allowed them to create separation in the Western Conference wild-card race. Seeing that type of commitment and those results is what prompted Trotz to add a pair of top-six wingers at the trade deadline.

Above all, the streak has shown the power of patience and transparency for a franchise that’s gone through several big changes in the past 12 months.

“It was a lot of change all at once. Player personnel, coaching, management. It was kind of the whole gamut,” Predators center Colton Sissons said. “But when you bring in good people and great coaches like Bruno and really high character guys like O’Reilly, [Gustav] Nyquist and [Luke] Schenn who have been leaders on other teams and have had great careers, you’re able to turn things around pretty quick.”

REACHING THE PLAYOFFS hadn’t been the issue for the Predators in recent seasons. Getting beyond the first round was. They had been knocked out in the first round or qualifying round in their four most recent postseason appearances.

It forced the Preds in February 2023 to make a decision about their future, and they believed making changes could help them win even more.

David Poile, the only GM in franchise history, announced he was retiring. Trotz, the first coach in team history, would take over. That set the stage for the Predators to move on from Mattias Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, Tanner Jeannot and Nino Niederreiter ahead of the 2023 trade deadline, when they added quite a bit of draft capital.

Despite the subtractions, the Predators finished three points shy of the final wild card — without two of their best players in Filip Forsberg and captain Roman Josi. Forsberg sustained a season-ending concussion on Feb. 11, while Josi also was diagnosed with a concussion in mid-March that saw him miss the final weeks of the regular season.

Trotz remained aggressive in the offseason. He hired Brunette, who was an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, in May. He bought out Matt Duchene and traded Ryan Johansen. Duchene had three years left on an eight-year contract that saw him earn $8 million annually. Johansen, who also had an eight-year deal worth $8 million a year, was moved with two years left and the Predators retaining 50 percent salary.

Moving on from Duchene and Johansen gave the Preds more financial flexibility.

“I think what we did last year was sort of a retool,” Trotz said. “I felt it was really important. We had too many people that were comfortable. We knew we were going to have a real young team coming up. We’ve got a really good [AHL] team in Milwaukee. Obviously, on July 1 we picked up a couple of cultural pieces in O’Reilly, Nyquist and Schenn to really help our young guys.”

Signing those veterans was partly motivated by discussions Trotz had with other GMs who had been in a similar situation. Trotz recalled that one of them said his biggest regret was not keeping veteran players around who could help shape a team’s culture during a retool.

“He said, ‘Our thought was to let the kids play and just go from there,'” Trotz said. “But what happened was the kids didn’t develop because they were trying to survive and just couldn’t develop. So you need to insulate some of those young guys.”

That became even more evident with how the Predators ended last season. Trotz said watching veteran and two-time Stanley Cup winner Ryan McDonagh lead a young team that was missing Forsberg and Josi made him appreciate the value of having experienced players who could mentor younger teammates.

Having those veterans, coupled with young players such as Dante Fabbro, Cody Glass, Luke Evangelista and Tommy Novak, among others, is why Trotz was open about the team’s chances and goals. He told reporters and others that the team could be “not that good” or “sneaky good,” but that it was about getting better for the future.

Trotz’s transparency extended to Brunette and the players. Trotz told O’Reilly, Nyquist and Schenn that he wanted them to feel comfortable voicing their thoughts to him whether they saw something good or bad within the team. He also told Brunette that he wanted to be there for him, but not be over his shoulder because he had faith that Brunette could guide the Predators to the next phase in their plan.

In fact, Trotz went to visit the Predators’ AHL team after this year’s trade deadline so he could tell their prospects they’re also going to have a part to play in the club’s success.

“He is someone you can talk to and I think it’s pretty valuable for him to have been a coach for a number of years, knowing what it’s like inside a locker room over a season. He’s been there and he’s done that,” Nyquist said. “Not a lot of GMs probably can say that they’ve been in the locker room and have gone through that. He’s been a great voice of reason and found a way to form this team into something new.”

Trotz changed a roster that had been largely rooted in consistency for several years. Josi said all the changes meant the Predators felt like they were a new team coming into the season. Josi is one of eight players still on the roster from when the Predators last made the playoffs back in 2021-22.

“As someone who has been here for a long time, it’s a different team for sure,” said Josi, who has been with the club since 2011. “But the guys we brought in were quality people. That’s the first thing. It’s guys who’ve been leaders on teams. … I think you need that with a lot of young guys coming up. It made my job real easy this year. We have five or six guys who are leading this team. That’s a huge help.”

PRACTICE DAYS CAN be optional in the NHL, with the understanding that everyone is going to do some sort of work. As the Predators get in a practice at Climate Pledge Arena, the players who are not on the ice are still doing workouts.

All of them are wearing a navy blue hat that has “Relentless” in cursive across the front. This has become the credo for how the Predators are approaching their business.

“The way we’ve been playing, everybody’s been playing the same way within their different skill sets, I think,” Josi said. “Everyone brings something different to the table but we’re all playing the same. Every line is relentless. Every line is backchecking. Our forwards are doing an amazing job with back pressure and forechecking. That’s relentless.”

Every player from Josi to Nyquist to O’Reilly to Sissons used “relentless” at least twice to describe what has made the Predators different during the past several weeks.

Josi said the Predators were able to reach that stage of their evolution because Brunette was patient with them, and his belief in the group never wavered. Brunette joked that the Preds never deviated from the system because of stubbornness.

“I don’t think it was ever a question of buy-in. It was an understanding of ‘Why is he asking me to do this? Why is he asking me to put all this work in? Why is he asking this?’ And you’re not seeing the rewards,” Brunette explained. “That’s always the hard thing. But once they started seeing the rewards and why I was asking to skate that hard, to work that hard, they started to see why.”

During Brunette’s time as the interim coach of the Florida Panthers in 2021-22 and as a Devils assistant last season, his teams scored goals — lots of them. The Panthers averaged a league-high 4.11 goals per game in Brunette’s lone season in South Florida, while the Devils were tied for fourth with 3.52 in 2022-23.

Having such prolific attacks overshadowed Brunette’s defensive philosophies. He said those systems have never been only about offense. It’s about finding ways to play with quickness by moving the puck faster, skating faster and transitioning faster, with the hope that it can lead to having the puck more.

Brunette and his coaching staff have implemented a system in Nashville that relies on all five players doing whatever they can to gain possession.

In order for the system to work there needs to be a checking mentality, which can play a major role in getting and then keeping possession for as long as possible.

Working as a collective has yielded results over their points streak. In that time, the Predators are scoring a league-high 4.33 goals per game. They’re tied for the fewest goals allowed per game, at 1.93. They’re fourth in shots on goal per game, and are 10th in fewest shots on goal allowed per game.

“Our game has been pretty constant all year. We just didn’t always get rewarded for it,” Brunette said. “Until we had that little bit after the break when we had three games when we didn’t play really well. That was our worst stretch of hockey. We were able to find our game and when we found it, we worked hard to keep it.”

Brunette said that’s what made canceling the U2 trip a hard decision. His experience as a player allowed him to appreciate what it meant to have fun with teammates. But it also allowed him to understand that the only way to have fun is to put hockey first.

“We weren’t on our game and we had to get our game going before we could have some fun,” Brunette said. “That’s almost the premise of our whole team identity. Put the work in and then we can have fun.”

Fun for the Predators can be measured in more ways than playing U2 in the locker room for a laugh, or getting a point in 15 straight games. Josi, O’Reilly and Sissons said they’ve had fun watching young players such as Novak get a three-year extension for his contributions, or seeing a rookie like Evangelista become a more well-rounded player beyond the 15 goals he’s scored this season.

Even the trade deadline is an example of that fun. A year ago, Sissons was watching some of his friends go to other teams. This year, he watched the Predators give him a pair of new wingers in Anthony Beauvillier and Jason Zucker, in a season that could also see Sissons hit the 40-point mark for the first time in his career.

“It happened pretty quick and we probably changed our mindset coming up to the deadline after a tough scenario with us canceling a team trip to Vegas everybody heard about,” Sissons said. “We rallied around each other and really came together. When you can be one of those teams that can add at the deadline, that says a lot from the management in that, ‘Hey, we believe in you guys and we want to give you the opportunity here.'”

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