LeBrun: How the Predators won NHL free agency — inside the Stamkos, Marchessault, Skjei hat trick

It wasn’t all a dream, right?

Nope, the Nashville Predators really did reel in Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Marchessault and Brady Skjei in a July 1 hat trick that stunned the hockey world.

What did Preds general manager Barry Trotz feel like when he woke up Tuesday?

“I was exhausted,” Trotz laughed as he began an interview with The Athletic.

The next words out of Trotz’s mouth were to give credit to his staff, including his trio of AGMs: Jeff Kealty, Brian Poile and Scott Nichol.

“They just stayed on things,” Trotz said. “Things have to fall right for you, and I think they did because we stayed on top of Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. And it came down to the last minute.”

There were gasps, ooohs and ahs in the TSN studio Monday when we reported from the Insiders’ desk that the Preds were getting both Stamkos and Marchessault.

Two 40-goal scorers in one fell swoop. Nuts.

Jonathan Marchessault scored 42 goals and 69 points for the Golden Knights in 2023-24. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Well, imagine how it felt in that Preds front office when they made that same realization. They would have been thrilled to get one of them, let alone both.

“They are both players that bring a certain swagger to your group,” Trotz said. “They’re serial winners. They’re highly competitive and they’re highly skilled.”

It certainly wasn’t the plan two weeks ago. Because two weeks ago, it wasn’t evident whether either would be available.

“Well, I had a couple of targets,” Trotz said. “Whether it was a center or a top-six forward, I was also interested in (Elias) Lindholm and (Chandler) Stephenson and (Sean) Monahan.”

There’s a world in which maybe Nashville ends up with Stephenson and Marchessault, let’s say. But when Trotz realized like the rest of hockey that Stamkos could actually be available, that obviously presented an attractive option.

“Those two guys from Vegas (Marchessault and Stephenson) were players I had a lot of interest in,” Trotz said. “And then we had some other names. Then Stammer came onto it …

“Stammer came into the fold (as an option) a lot later than the others. That’s where you have to make a pivot and make a hard decision.”

Trotz never really thought Stamkos was a realistic possibility until he ran into Tampa Bay Lightning GM Julien BriseBois at the NHL Awards last Thursday in Las Vegas.

“I said to Julien, ‘Are you getting close on Stammer?’” Trotz recalled. “And he said, ‘Ah .. we got another crack at it and hopefully we can get it done, but if we can’t, we might have to go to market.’

“That was really the first time that I even really contemplated that. Because I thought, ‘They’re going to find a way (to re-sign Stamkos).’”

No, they did not. And if you want to hear a transparent interview it was Stamkos joining us on TSN moments after signing and talking to James Duthie.

But once Stamkos realized the door was closed in Tampa, he focused with his team at Newport Sports, led by veteran agent Don Meehan, on what was next. And one team made the most sense to him among the 10 that showed interest.

“Every time we were looking for things that would certainly interest us in a new team, Nashville kept popping up,” Stamkos said on TSN. “So thankful that they had mutual interest. And listen, as crazy as it’s been the last couple of days — the lack of sleep and the nerves and just that uneasy feeling — once we made that call to Barry Trotz and the Nashville Predators that we were coming, that feeling went away and it’s just been pure excitement.”

On Friday, reports surfaced that Stamkos was going to market, including mine quoting Meehan saying as much, and well, Trotz and his management group huddled and raised the prospect of going after him.

“You guys were reporting that he was probably going to market, so it became more and more evident,” Trotz said.

Trotz also thought Vegas might, in the end, re-sign Marchessault — such a popular figure in that Vegas market. But then Marchessault decided to go to market Sunday night after talks fizzled with Vegas.

In the sequence of things, Trotz said they began the process first by identifying a candidate who could replace Ryan McDonagh on defense, so reeling in Skjei was really the first task.

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The Predators needed Brady Skjei to fill a hole in their top four. (Jaylynn Nash / Getty Images)

Which, in all of this, almost gets overlooked. It’s not like it’s that easy to replace a veteran, top-four defenseman. But Trotz did it.

“My first priority was filling the back end and then trying to add one or two top-six forwards,” Trotz said. “That was the whole thought process going into it.”

So in order of commitments on Monday, it was Skjei first, Marchessault second, and then Nashville waited and got the news that Stamkos was a go.

What a day. It also included re-signing blueliner Alexandre Carrier and not losing him to the unrestricted-free-agent market.

So Nashville really went 4-for-4 with its UFA objectives. That isn’t easy.

And listen, adding aging players via free agency isn’t the ideal way to build a contender. Everyone understands that. But the beauty of what Nashville has done, even going back to a year ago when they signed UFAs Ryan O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist and Luke Schenn, is that by adding UFAs, even if in their 30s, they haven’t given up any assets. Just cap space.

It will also allow their pipeline of prospects to marinate properly and not get rushed.

“It’s really important,” Trotz said of not having to give up assets in order to upgrade his roster. “We have prospects coming, I mean, legitimate prospects.

“We have two first-round picks next year — which we can either take the picks or use them to get better players. We’ve got two seconds and two thirds next year in a very good draft.”

Point being: While there are no guarantees in the NHL, the Predators have found a way to seriously upgrade a playoff team without deviating from the long-term vision.

That is difficult to do.

And, yes, adding players in their 30s is always a risk, but we can be so data-driven these days that we forget the most important thing: You’re not just investing in players in the NHL; you’re investing in people. And these players aren’t just anybody.

Just like O’Reilly, Schenn and Nyquist a year ago, Stamkos, Marchessault and Skjei are high-character people. And that matters to Trotz and what he is trying to do as far as the culture piece of team-building.

“Absolutely,” Trotz said without hesitation. “I always keep that in mind, especially when you’re dealing with older players — you want the high-character people and the people that are all-in and that are committed to winning.

“And these guys are.”

A new NHL schedule

I tweeted this out before the free-agent market opened Monday, and not surprisingly, it got a fair amount of reaction.

My understanding is that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have had very preliminary discussions on making significant changes to the NHL schedule and calendar — something that wouldn’t probably go into effect until the next CBA in two years’ time at the earliest.

What’s being discussed:

• Beginning the regular season in early October (as early as Oct. 1) and handing out the Stanley Cup earlier in June.

• Cutting the preseason down to four games per team.

• Going to an 84-game regular season.

I get that some people won’t like adding two regular-season games, but overall, what’s not to like in minimizing the useless preseason and getting going earlier in the fall and wrapping things up earlier in June?

They won’t complain publicly, but it’s been brutal for both the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers dealing with their offseason work with so little time after the Cup Final went seven games and ended on June 24, just four days before the first round of the draft in Las Vegas and less than a week before the free-agent market opened.

I mean, is there a better example than Florida GM Bill Zito trying to soak in the team’s parade Sunday in South Florida — a moment he had worked his whole life for — and hours later ramming through an eight-year extension for 57-goal man Sam Reinhart just before midnight (the deadline to get an eight-year deal done)?

So yes, the calendar needs fixing. What the league is discussing with the NHLPA is long overdue. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen. It’s still very preliminary in nature. And as I’ve said before, there are some southern U.S. teams who want the season delayed as long as possible. They try to minimize their home schedules in October.

In a story I wrote in April about how I would re-do the NHL calendar, Dallas Stars governor Jim Lites confirmed that years ago he stood up in a Board of Governors meeting and suggested the NHL delay the start of the regular season until November.

“Yes, several times,” the Stars chairman told me at the time. “It’s less of a problem now, quite frankly, because of the popularity of our sport now in non-traditional markets. But when we came down here in the ‘90s, we were fighting Friday night high school football, Saturday college football, Sunday NFL football.

“You were always up against it. When we were starting the season the first week in October, we were up against that.”

Plus playoff baseball. And those were concerns for many markets — not just Dallas, Lites said.

“That’s what it was really about,” Lites said of his lobbying years ago to delay the NHL season. “And you know, we’ve pushed it back. Gary (Bettman) has recognized it over time and pushed it back a little bit.”

And that is partly why we are left now with a mid-October start to the season and a lighter October schedule overall.

But it stinks. The season ends too late.

The fact that the league is having this discussion is an admission that awarding the Cup on June 24 is far from ideal. The start of the official offseason in June needs to breathe a little more. It needs better spacing between the end of the Cup Final, the draft and the opening of free agency.

So I for one hope the change happens. It’s not awarding the Cup by May 31 (we can only dream!), but it’s something. Fingers crossed.

And with that, I wish you all a fabulous summer. I’m cottage-bound. Catch you sometime in September!

(Photo of Steven Stamkos: Mike Carlson / Getty Images)

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