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Preds under the radar? Trotz, for one, is sick of it

Nashville is leading the race for the not-so-coveted Presidents' Trophy.

Why are we so surprised?

After two seasons of making the playoffs and patient, gradual improvement, plus taking advantage of the post-lockout leveling effect, the Predators haven't come out of nowhere -- and hold the jokes, please, because any place where Neil Young, the son of a Canadian sportswriter, likes to hang out must be taken seriously.

But we'll pause while Predators coach Barry Trotz steps onto his soapbox, responding to the topic of his team still skating a bit under the radar, despite its record. The Preds had only one representative in the All-Star Game, defenseman Kimmo Timonen, and there remains considerable skepticism about Nashville as a major Stanley Cup threat.

"I have a little bit of a pet peeve, more with the Canadian media out west," Trotz said the other day. "They tend to come in and think that we shouldn't be in the league. They did that with Tampa Bay and they did that with Carolina, and all I know is that those two teams won Stanley Cups. … I have dual citizenship, U.S. and Canadian, but my pet peeve more with the Canadian market is they don't want to let go of [hockey]. We have the best game in the world. And we tend to not want to let it go. We always want to go back to the six-team [or] Canadian [arguments], and I'm like, 'Come on, we've got a great game.'

"I watch coaches and media and players from other leagues, National Football League, baseball and basketball -- they don't trash their league like we do. We do it to ourselves and we wonder why we have trouble getting ratings."

At that point, ever the facilitator, I jumped in with my often-voiced theory that the sport's traditionalists and most ardent fans need to get past the attitude that "new" fans somehow aren't deserving of being admitted to the arena and should have to pass a rules and history test to be allowed to buy a ticket.

"Exactly," said Trotz. "Why wouldn't you want to expand your game? We have 30 million Canadians and 300 million in the U.S., so if you get one-tenth of the nation in the U.S. liking hockey, you double our fan base."

That's part of it, and only the most blinkered traditionalist wouldn't admit it. But the Predators' low profile can be attributed to more than regionalist attitudes.

The Preds' recent run, including a 10-3 record in January, came late, even after the All-Star process. When goalie Tomas Vokoun went out of the lineup with a broken finger, many (and my hand is up) just assumed the best Nashville could do was tread water until his return. It was fashionable to assume that unheralded backup Chris Mason couldn't keep playing as well as he kept playing.

The bottom-heavy nature of the Central Division, still evident despite the coaching changes and improvements in St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago, devalues some of the points. Despite the presence of the speedy Paul Kariya, who was tied for 13th in league scoring as of Thursday, the Preds' balance is more striking than the work of any one skater, and that's a compliment. That said, it's hard to justify not having him, or Steve Sullivan, or David Legwand in the All-Star Game.

"The way we are right now, in the standings, in the league, you'd think we'd get a little more publicity, people looking at us, more guys at the All-Star Game," said winger Scott Hartnell. "But it's kind of a good feeling, too. There definitely are guys having unbelievable years, but it's a collection of three lines, four lines, every night."

"I've been here nine years," said Vokoun, who is back in the lineup and, at least for the moment, is alternating with Mason. "I've been through all the struggles and all the lows. Being where we are feels pretty good. However much you contribute, it's a good feeling."

"I watch coaches and media and players from other leagues, National Football League, baseball and basketball -- they don't trash their league like we do. We do it to ourselves and we wonder why we have trouble getting ratings."
-- Predators coach Barry Trotz

The Predators' adaptability under Trotz, the only coach they have ever had, has been underplayed.

"It's been tremendous," said Legwand, the franchise's first draft choice who joined the team full time in Nashville's second season. "I've been here from the start … We used to go into St. Louis and get beat up every day and it's nice to be on the other side of things now, to be on top of the league and the division. We've really grown as a franchise around here and you still see a lot of draft choices here, and that's a good thing."

Although the Predators were once a boring, trapping team trying to mitigate a talent gap, those paying attention have come to realize they are one of the prototypes for how the game has changed and how it can be played in the anti-obstruction era. They're a skating, puck-moving, pressure team, and they have become fun to watch.

"We've got a lot of skill, raw speed and mobile defensemen," Sullivan said. "Everything that the new NHL requires, we have it."

Said Trotz: "Every year, you sort of get your filing cabinets full of stuff. I looked at a couple of opening-day rosters and I said, 'Oh, my god, how did we ever win a game?' Our team has evolved.

"My philosophy is you draft players, and every player in the league has certain unique qualities. So, you just try to use their skills and unique qualities that they bring to the rink and not necessarily pigeonhole a guy and say, 'This is how you play all the time.'"

But hanging over all of this success are certain realities. The Predators still rank only 23rd in home attendance, averaging 14,516, or 85 percent of capacity, and have had only three sellouts this season. They have yet to win a playoff series after losing in the first round to Detroit in 2004 and San Jose in 2006; and still have to dispel the not-so-ridiculous view that this is a team more suited for the relatively soft regular season than the cranked-up emotion and tighter, physical play of the postseason. (Last season's playoff wipeout to the Sharks came with an asterisk: Vokoun missed the final eight games of the season and the playoff series with a since-corrected blood condition and Mason was unproven.)

The party line, advanced by Commissioner Gary Bettman at the All-Star Game, is the Predators have been embraced by individual fans, but not by the corporate community. The relocation of Nissan's North American headquarters to the Nashville area could help, but a significant playoff run would help more.

"It'll come," Hartnell said. "The last couple of years, it's been unbelievable, the energy and enthusiasm in the building. It's a pretty special barn when it's rolling and rocking. They'll be there when the time comes."

"[Wayne] Gretzky always said you had to learn how to lose first before you could learn how to win," Legwand said. "We've learned our lesson now, and we can take that next step and move forward. All those old dynasties lost first. Then, they went on to be phenomenal hockey teams and went on to build their own dynasties."

Coming down the stretch, the Predators will need to settle on a No. 1 goalie and play whoever that is (probably Vokoun) most of the time. If they stay ahead of the Red Wings in the Central and/or have home ice in the first round, that will be an important step toward proving they aren't paper Predators.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."