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Balancing Tootoo’s popularity and on-ice value

(Note: As the Predators enter the most important offseason in franchise history (to date), we at 24/7 will take a look at some of the key storylines.)

Jordin Tootoo has been ‘The Man’ in Smashville for quite some time now. Opponents may hate him, but Music City loves him. When you walk around Bridgestone Arena on game nights, you see just as many jerseys with the No. 22 on the back as you do with Nos. 6, 35, 20 and 12.

It dates back to his arrival in Nashville, when he won over Predators fans with his fists and hits as a 20-year-old rookie. Back in 2003 when the fan base was still in the process of growing into what it is today, Tootoo was an easy player for the average fan to latch on to. He regularly dropped the gloves, delivered forceful checks and played with such passion.

Without any stars on that 2003-04 Nashville Predators club, Tootoo stood out like a sore thumb. As much as the fans instantly gravitated to him, he embraced them back – and as a result, he became a fan favorite and No. 22 jerseys popped up everywhere.

Fast forward nine years, and Tootoo is still a fan favorite. Every time he jumps over the boards and onto the ice for his next shift in Smashville, a hum of train whistles spreads throughout the arena. Many fans blow the whistles for Tootoo, as in the ‘Tootoo Train’. It’s become such second nature that if you’ve attended Predators games long enough, you may not even notice the sound anymore.

With the Predators, Tootoo has been through it all over the years – most notably last season when he checked himself into the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse and behavioral health program.

Two months later, Tootoo came back a better hockey player and, most importantly, a better person.

He’s tweaked his game as his career has progressed – for instance: 16 fights in 2003-04; 13 total fights over the last three seasons – but he played with more purpose upon his return in 2011.

Tootoo was an unsung hero last postseason, collecting five key points in the Predators’ first-round series win over Anaheim. That carried over into this season, where he posted a career-high 30 points in 77 games, the most games he’s played in over his eight-year NHL career.

With Tootoo slated to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, here is the hard part for GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz: how much do you value Tootoo’s popularity in the stands versus his value on the ice?

Tootoo’s game fell off down the stretch towards the end of the 2011-12 season and he was a healthy scratch for all but three playoff games (which caused him to voice his frustration publicly). He was a liability and, in Trotz’s words, lacked detail. The team’s depth was at an all-time best, too, which contributed to Tootoo’s limited action late in the season.

However, he impressed Trotz enough in Game Three in the second round against Phoenix to draw rave reviews.

“That’s the Jordin Tootoo that was missing a little bit,” Trotz said following that game. “I know when he’s on, a lot of teams [say] he’s hard to play against.”

Was that one performance enough to wipe out his play from the previous two months? If so, was it enough to convince the Predators to keep Tootoo? Both are unknowns, but Tootoo did look like himself in Game Three against Phoenix in which he brought a lot of energy and dished out five hits in 10:11 of ice time.

If the Predators re-sign the 29-year-old, that’s the Tootoo they would want to see on the ice.

He’s no longer primarily a fighter, but he can be an effective forward when he’s playing to his capability – and he proved that in limited action in the second round this past spring.

One thing Poile will have to ponder is how much stock he should put into Tootoo’s career year offensively.

A good chunk of Tootoo’s production came when he was on a line with Colin Wilson and Nick Spaling. When those three were together, it was the Predators’ best line at times. From Dec. 10 through Dec. 28, Tootoo had seven points in nine games alongside Wilson and Spaling. When they were reunited in February, Tootoo picked up six assists in six games before they were broken up again.

When Tootoo wasn’t on that line – which was for roughly 60 games – he didn’t maintain the same level of production, and that’s when he started being passed in the depth chart by the likes of Brandon Yip and Gabriel Bourque.

Tootoo’s future in Nashville could come down to a numbers game. Hypothetically, if most of the free agent forwards (Predators have nine in total) are re-signed then it could be tough for Tootoo to crack the lineup every game next season.

Another factor could be Tootoo’s asking price. The Predators wanted to bring back UFA Joel Ward last summer, but they weren’t going to pay him $12 million over four years like Washington did. Is another team willing to give Tootoo a three-year deal worth $5-6 million where the Predators only want to go one or two years?

Tootoo and the Predators have been through a lot together. Trotz and the organization have helped him get past a lot of his off-ice complications. Because of that and his decade-long status with the fans – Tootoo has been active in the community, whether it’s been charity, the Team Tootoo Fund, or his public appearances on radio/TV – it’s really hard to picture him in another uniform.

If Tootoo signs elsewhere this summer, it will be a PR hit for the Predators to not have one of the franchise’s all-time favorites still on board. At the same time, he has to do what’s best for his future in the NHL.

No matter what the future holds for Tootoo, he will remain a fan favorite and still be ‘The Man’ in Smashville. If Tootoo is still a favorite of Trotz and the price is right, those No. 22 jerseys won’t be outdated next season.

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