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Conversation with Craig Button

Earlier today we chatted with former NHL scout and GM Craig Button, who frequently appears on NHL Network and TSN, about where the Nashville Predators stand at midseason. What does he think of the play of Roman Josi thus far? Should David Poile make a trade? Will the Predators make the playoffs? He addresses all of that in our conversation…

24/7: Coming into the season the biggest question mark was Roman Josi “replacing” Ryan Suter. What’s your impression of Josi’s adjustment to the bigger role?
Craig Button: I think Barry [Trotz] and his coaching staff had a good glimpse of Roman playing last year, so you put him into a position where you can have more responsibility. Obviously with Ryan Suter departing, it becomes necessitated. I think Roman is a good, solid player. The hardest thing to do is to take a player like that and compare him to Ryan Suter, who is one of the league’s top defensemen. I think Roman Josi has acquitted himself very, very well. You look at the Predators and they’ve kept the goals against down, and you can’t do that unless you have good defensemen.

Along the same lines, what are your thoughts on the play of Ryan Ellis in his second season?
I’m a pro-Ryan Ellis person. When you watch him you understand what his capabilities are. One of the big things for him is trying to keep things really strong defensively, but with him you see puck poise, an ability to create things with the puck and being a real threat offensively. It’s something the Predators can really use. He’s always thinking about how to attack and how to exploit the opposition. My guess is that when the season goes on, Ryan is going to get a lot more comfortable game-to-game.

Lately the Preds have been active on the waiver wire. What do you feel they can gain from Bobby Butler and Zach Boychuk joining the lineup, and do you think the Preds can maximize their potential?
One thing about the Nashville Predators – and they’ve done this for their entire existence – is they’re going to take their players, put them in the minors to develop, then they’re going to give them an opportunity at the NHL level. Clearly what’s happened in my view is by looking at the waiver wire with Butler and Boychuk is they’re looking for players outside the organization to come in with opportunities. Both of those players have a lot of speed, so that’s a real positive. Secondly, the Predators are looking for scoring. When you can add some guys that can potentially give you a little bit more scoring, you can end up on the right side more of those one-goal games.

For the Nashville Predators, these are the types of acquisitions that are very low risk and could potentially be the type of acquisition that could give you just enough. I don’t think David is saying ‘We’re getting a 30 goal scorer’, but he’s just trying to strengthen the lineup. That’s why you see these pick-ups on waivers.

There’s been some debate in Nashville as to whether they should have made these moves or simply called somebody up from Milwaukee. As a former scout and GM, what do you look for to determine whether a potential call-up from the AHL is NHL-ready or not?
I don’t think it’s ever fair to ask a young player with limited experience, if any, to come into the lineup and try to change your fortunes. I believe that the best scenario for young players is coming into a team that is forming and having some success – not wild success, but just enough that those players don’t have to be the savior, so to speak.

I [look for] confidence. I think it’s about coming into the NHL and knowing and feeling ‘I can play there.’ It’s not about hoping I can play there or I think I can play there, you have to go out on that ice and believe you can play there. It’s about understanding that this guy is ready to take that initiative to step in and is ready to not be in awe of the NHL.

For a minute I want to put you in the shoes of David Poile. Your team has lost seven of nine and is playing some of their worst hockey in recent memory. Do you feel anxious to make changes, or hold off on an impulse move and focus on the big picture?
I know this about David – he’s not going to do anything that is impulsive. I think David and his management staff fully understand what their team is. You pointed out the record, and those are the facts. But they don’t find themselves way behind in the standings, they still have one of the best goaltenders and one of the best defensemen in the league and they always seem to find solutions from within. When I say within, that doesn’t exclude them from acquiring players. They look from within to solve the issues. They ask ‘What do we need to do? We need to get more out of this player?’ There’s no sense of panic, not any sense of needing to do something impulsive. But these two moves of picking up Butler and Boychuk are a statement that they aren’t happy with the current roster, they’re looking for solutions and at this point in time this is the first step.

If you’re Poile, though, what goes through your mind when your highest-paid skaters are all underperforming offensively?
I would be concerned if there wasn’t an effort. I would be concerned if these were players that are disengaged or disinterested. I’ve seen a lot of the Predators’ games, and I never see that. I see a team that doesn’t score easily and doesn’t have natural scoring ability. I see a team that is competitive because of their goaltender and their good team play. When you look at their team, there’s nothing that stands out and says, ‘Wow, that’s an underperformance.’ The Predators have never been a natural scoring team – it never comes easy.

That natural goal-scoring ability you mentioned – in your mind is that the only hole they need to fill?
When you look at their offensive group, those guys try to get offense. That guy that can make a difference scoring, only needs one shot to put the puck in the net – they’re not out there. When you look back at the Predators, you look at the fortunes of their team when they traded for Mike Fisher. That player came in and strengthened them down the middle. In this case it’s something similar. It doesn’t have to be a superstar – those guys aren’t readily available – but a player where when he comes into the locker room and everyone says, ‘Okay, that’s one more weapon.’

What do you expect this trade deadline to be like compared to a normal 82-game season? More trades or less?
The new CBA material had some changes in it with respect to being able to take on salary in trades, so I think that potentially opens up the trade market. In a 48-game season, I think teams look at it as they’re closer [to the playoffs] rather than farther away. If you have a chance to improve your team, you’re going to look at every option. For those two reasons I think the trade market will increase. Teams also have to be looking at the cap for next season, which will go down to about $64.3 million. Teams will have to be cap compliant. For all of those reasons, I’m expecting more trades at this trade deadline than we’ve seen in previous years.

Finally, your prediction: will the Preds make the playoffs?
I do see them making the playoffs. Forget their last couple of games – you’re going to have spots like that during a season. I think they’re good enough. It’s not like they’re a team that is drastically out of it. They’re not happy about being at the .500 mark, but they are right there. The other thing is they have lots of experience of being in a battle for a playoff spot, so I think that bodes well for them. I’m not changing my preseason prediction. I think they’ll be in the playoffs.

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