The Nashville Predators find themselves in a precarious spot as the free agency market sets to open. Questions persist about everything from the roster to upper management and what’s worse is that no one seems to have a good sense of where things are headed.
This has been a consistent theme for this iteration of the Predators that began sometime after they lost in the Stanley Cup Final. That 2016-2017 team could be described as inconsistent at best, but they showed up when they needed to. That playoffs left the entire fandom with something that the club had never really had to work with, high expectations. Media members, both local and national, raved about this Nashville team and how their window had just opened.
Years have passed and there have been highs and lows to celebrate and bemoan. Winning a President’s trophy is a serious accomplishment, even if it’s followed three years of serious playoff disappointments. There’s always been this feeling of one step forward, one step back.
For instance, as the Predators acquire Matt Duchene to bolster their offense, Mattias Ekholm arguably has the worst year defensively he’s ever had. Meanwhile, Matt Duchene didn’t really deliver on the scale many of us thought he could. Some could say it’s unlucky, some could say they saw it coming from the publicly available numbers, let alone the privately available numbers that most teams pay for.
Matt Duchene’s disappointing season is actually a good example of the issue the Predators face. Is there a plan? The Predators acquired Duchene to add speed to the lineup, but he was subsequently placed into a position that didn’t utilize his speed, aka his main strength. Why acquire a player who excels in scoring off the rush to play with Mikael Granlund, a player who had fewer rush attempts than Mattias Ekholm at 5v5.
On a basic level, I understand the thought. Player A is good and player B is good so they’ll be good together, but that is not always the case. Systems and matchups affect how dynamic players can be. I had a bee in my bonnet all year because Johansen and Granlund were never given a chance together despite that both play a similar style that could complement each other.
My rambling aside, this complaint leads me to the crux of this article. What are the Predators doing? They’ve put themselves in cap hole and are not so quietly looking to move one of their overpriced centers, meanwhile letting their most consistent forward walk in free agency. Despite these troubles, the Predators aren’t nailed to the wall, there are a few choices they can make. So let’s explore their options and map some pros and cons to each decision. Let’s start with the most optimistic.
There’s a part of me that looks at this roster and says, “why not?” This is probably the last, or second to last year that the Predators’ best players will be at the height of their powers, despite them being past their scoring prime. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are either 30 or about to be 30, Filip Forsberg is the youngest of the important forwards and is already 26. If the Predators are going for it, moves must be made now.
So what can the Predators do? They have roughly 8.2 million dollars in cap space according to Capfriendly.com, although it’ll likely be a little less if they re-sign Colin Blackwell. Eight million isn’t a lot in a normal year but with the flat cap, there’s a possibility that it could be enough for a short term deal for someone worthwhile.
The only issue is, who’s worthwhile? My thought is the Predators should go after a scoring forward, so possibly Evgeni Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Tyler Toffoli, or Taylor Hall. Out of the two Florida forwards, Dadonov is clearly the superior play driver according to Hockeyviz.com, but Hoffman’s sniping ability has kept him relevant. That said, I’m not sure how much longer that’ll be the case considering how bad Hoffman was this season at 5v5.
Toffoli is another interesting case. He’s been in and out of the 20 goal club multiple times in his career. My guess is that if he plays with talented players, he’ll post another 20+ goals, with the possibility of 30. I don’t think he’ll drive play the same way Craig Smith would, but Toffoli is no slouch in his own right.
I say that Toffoli will replace Smith, but likely he’ll replace Granlund on the second line and I think that makes sense. Toffoli plays better on the rush and while he isn’t as good of a passer as Granlund, he’s a better shooter. The only issue is that Toffoli is also “newly” 28 years old and is coming off some nagging leg injuries. He’ll likely scrounge for as much term as he can which can be an issue if injuries, or age, start to catch up with him. This is probably the best move at the best price if Nashville allows Smith to walk away.
The last big free agent the Predators could possibly get is Taylor Hall. Listen, I don’t really need to make a big case for Hall. He’s a league MVP and worse yet, he was a big part of the Arizona Coyotes’ victory over the Predators in the play-in round. Injuries have followed Hall for his entire career and he hasn’t quite looked right since his MVP season, but he could be a game changer for the Predators.
That said, I’m not sure 8 million dollars will be enough to sign him and he’ll likely demand 7 years and trade protection. Hall could be worth it, or he might re-injure his lower body in game 10 of the season and never skate the same again. My feeling is that if you get the opportunity to sign Taylor Hall or a player like him, you take that chance. Who knows, maybe his good friends Ryan Ellis and Austin Watson can convince him to play. If it happens, it’ll be the only way Watson’s value is anywhere near how much he’s being paid.
Free agency is a harsh mistress. It giveth and taketh away so quickly that one moment you’ll say to yourself “Oh man, we got Matt Duchene for 8 million dollars and 7 years!” to “Oh man, we got Matt Duchene for 8 million dollars and 7 years?” real quick. General manager David Poile might be scared off from going all-in on free agents, but unfortunately, he doesn’t really have any other options to buy.
I know what you’re thinking, we could trade for some help, but I’ll address that a little later. So let’s talk about another option, neutral jing, aka doing nothing.
The old art of doing nothing is one that general managers around the league know all too well. While David Poile hasn’t exactly been at rest during the past few offseasons, this could be the year it changes.
The decision to let Granlund and Smith walk means that there are two open spots on the roster, but who will fill if no free agents are contracted? Poile has talked about a “youth movement” to bolster the vets on the main roster. There’s only one question, who exactly will make the big squad?
My first thought immediately goes to Eeli Tolvanen. The Finnish sniper has played two seasons in the AHL with 36 goals and 71 points in 121 games, or about .59 points per game. These are pretty good numbers for a 19 and 20 year old in a men’s professional league. Tolvanen’s numbers are solid but it’s his play away from the puck that gives me pause. Tolvanen is a capable puck mover in the the neutral zone but has trouble exiting the zone.
On top of that, Tolvanen has never impressed me with his passing or stickhandling. His shot is clearly at an NHL level and lucky for him, that should buy him an extended shot with the big club. But here’s the issue, where does he plug in?
Tolvanen has seven games of NHL experience and two points to show for it, granted he recorded those two in four games in the 18-19 season. The issue is he played extremely limited minutes and against extremely sheltered competition. If Tolvanen needs better players to get him the puck, then he’ll be forced to play tougher competition. If you give Tolvanen fewer minutes against lesser competition, he’ll have to play with worse players that won’t be able to do as much for him.
This entire question depends on if Tolvanen can hold his own without the puck. I still think he needs time to cook, personally, but maybe he’s made a breakthrough over the summer. As I write this, he has one goal and three points in six games in the KHL, so take that as you will.
Still though, there are two top nine spots available, so if Tolvanen steps up, who will take the other? The popular decision among fans is recent 1st round pick Phillip Tomasino. Tomasino had a great D+1 year with the Niagara Ice Dogs and Oshawa Generals while scoring 100 points in 62 games.
From the 17 games I’ve watched over the last two seasons, I think Tomasino will be a surefire top six forward in the NHL. With that said, I’m not sold that he’s NHL ready this year. Tomasino has NHL ready skating and has a decent enough shot to score on NHL goalies, although it could absolutely stand for improvement. My biggest worry is how fearless Tomasino plays in the offensive zone. He’s a bit of a daredevil in how he attacks the slot with the puck and how he chooses to engage in battles against the defense. In juniors, certain players, especially overage players can use their size and physical maturity to bully past younger and less physically mature defenders.
This will work again in juniors, this might work in the AHL or Europe, but there is no way this will work against grizzled NHL defenders. I think Tomasino needs to work on creating space for himself in non-traditional ways while finding passing lanes. Also, it will take time for him to adjust his defensive play to NHL talent. I really like Tomasino and I think he has a bright future, I just think he needs another year in junior or, better yet, Europe.
The other options I’ve seen discussed by both media and Predators management is Rem Pitlick. I’ve only ever seen four of his games so my opinion is not nearly as solid as it is for the other players I’ve mentioned. From what I can tell, Pitlick has looked solid in a scoring role and has 20 goals and 36 points in 63 games during his first season in the AHL.
I could see Pitlick settling in nicely with Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi, but I would not expect anywhere near the level of play that Smith brought.
There’s three other players I’ve seen tossed around in Yakov Trenin, Alexandre Carrier, and Jeremy Davies. I think Trenin has established himself as a good fourth liner, but that’s about it. I think Carrier has proven that he’s ready for a real shot in the NHL and Davies looks like he still needs at least another year in the AHL.
So those are the options to make the jump. I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but I’m not sold on any of them for this year in a role that matters (top six forward/top four defender).
I think this is the most likely path the Predators will take. It’s the cheapest and also the easiest, and we all know what they say about the path of least resistance. The only question that would remain is maybe the Predators trading away a center to make even more room, but I can’t imagine they would trade a known commodity to bet on prospects who are still relatively unknown at the NHL level.
Now, without further ado, let’s get to the third and final option.
Say Goodbye To The Farm
Whenever I play any of the NHL videogames, I do two things. I get Joe Thornton a Cup because I have a moral obligation to do so, and I trade everyone good away for picks to build a club in my own image. Now the time has come for Poile to possibly do the same, not the part about getting Thornton a cup, the part about blowing it up.
We’ve already established that the majority of the Predators’ best players are past their scoring primes, so there’s a case to be made that this core’s window has firmly shut. And if that’s true, what is the next step? Nashville does not deserve mediocrity. As a town, the fans have proven themselves to be dedicated and deserving of top tier hockey.
As a fan who holds no allegiances to any team, the only thing I hate worse than terrible hockey is mediocre hockey. Terrible hockey usually has a plan, that team is losing so they can make the climb back. You can see it currently with the Ottawa Senators, although their situation is murky and hilarious, and the L.A. Kings, who have proven there is a plan in place.
The issue here is that this involves selling, and the best players are going to get the best packages. So you might have to say goodbye to certain stars and fan favorites. For instance, Roman Josi’s value will never be higher than it is currently after winning the Norris Trophy in a landslide. He’d fetch a bountiful harvest considering his cap space is also team friendly at the moment. But what does this defense do without Josi? What does this team do without Josi? He was their best player and it wasn’t even close most nights.
On top of Josi, Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are two players who would fetch good returns. Forsberg is “young” and on a solid contract while Arvidsson’s team-friendly deal will probably make other teams overlook his recent injury trouble. But with that said, how would it be to watch a game and not see Justin Bradford post his now infamous R.V. gif whenever Arvidsson scores?
Blowing it all up hurts. It’s not fun and I don’t envy the club that has to do it, and at the same time I don’t think the Predators will. But it does feel like a trade is coming, so let’s talk about who might be on the way out and the consequences.
The rumors flying around mostly have to do with centers, specifically Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, and Nick Bonino. When it comes to Johansen and Turris, I believe the Predators will lose the trade. Johansen and Turris have had down years and while Johansen had a bit of redemption in the play-in round, it likely won’t be enough to increase his value.
Most trades involving Johansen and Turris will likely have picks going with them, which isn’t something the Predators can afford to do if they’re committed to a youth movement or rebuilding. It’s a tough spot to be in and I think that only leaves one option, trading Nick Bonino.
Bonino has one year left on his contract at 4.1 million dollars, which will be enticing to a team that needs a third line center with a strapped cap. It also helps that Bonino just tied his career high in points as a Predator in 14 fewer games. Teams absolutely took notice of Bonino’s hot hand as he centered one of the best third lines in hockey.
I know what a lot of you are saying though, “we can’t lose Bonino, he was the reason the Predators had depth”, and that’s not really the case. Bonino had a great season but Smith was doing the heavy lifting. Smith led the line in possession zone exits, possession zone entries, passes to the slot, and puck battles won. He was the straw that stirred the drink in just about every way, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been recognized for it, besides maybe myself and Bryan Bastin of On The Forecheck.
Don’t get me wrong, trading Bonino would hurt the team but his value would fall unless Smith was appropriately replaced, a task not easily done. Bonino’s value is at an all-time high, with people around the league believing he had a spectacular offensive and defensive season, some of which is a little overstated.
Trading Bonino is probably the easiest way to clear up cap space for the future or free agents, but I’m not sure Poile will feel comfortable pulling the trigger on it.
The Predators have three paths ahead of them. Each one poses questions and hard decisions that won’t have a complete impact for a few years. There is no right answer but at the same time, there is no wrong answer. Well, there’s a wrong answer in my opinion, but I’m working on being open to new ideas.
If I were in charge, I think I’d go with option three. I look at this roster and besides Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Juuse Saros, I don’t see a contending team. Josi is a top 3 defenseman at this moment in time, Ellis would be a bonafide #1 defenseman on 20 other teams, and despite an objectively bad playoffs, Saros has demonstrated himself to be a good goaltender.
That said, what else does this team have? Forsberg and Arvidsson are good and first line talents, but they’ve maxed out at 60 points. There’s not enough consistency in their game to be considered game breakers or even stars. Johansen can be good but he’s past his scoring prime and is probably closer to being a second line center than a first. Ditto with Duchene, plus Turris and Bonino are more comfortable in a third line role especially if Turris is forced to play center.
I just don’t see a way that one or two players comes in and totally transforms this team. Maybe Taylor Hall could, but would he take 8 million per year? That remains to be seen. If the Predators wanted to make a significant change, the best option might lie behind the bench. I’m not going to knock John Hynes because we haven’t seen his scheme with a full training camp to prepare. But I feel confident saying that Gerrard Gallant would make a much more immediate impact and help the Predators get to the next step.
As we come to a close, I hope you take one very important lesson away from this article. Despite what others might say, the sky is not falling. The Predators can absolutely make a comeback from the mediocrity of the past two seasons, but not at this course. Something has to change and if it does, I hope management has the courage to stick with it.