It’s finally here. As we prepare for the calendar to turn to 2021, the Nashville Predators are preparing to start training camp for the upcoming season. A season that will look different in a number of ways with a condensed schedule, remade divisions and expanded rosters. The Predators will look different as well after an offseason that turned over much of the roster depth on the ice and added two new assistants, Todd Richards and Dan Hinote, behind the bench. All of this activity is aligned to GM David Poile’s promise of a return to the “Predator Way”. So let’s set the stage for the season to come and look at some key elements of the return to Nashville Predators Hockey.
The Predators remain in the Central Division but it is one that will look quite different with known opponents, old rivals and some new friends. The Blackhawks and Stars are joined by former Central Division teams in the Blue Jackets and Red Wings while the newcomers will be the Hurricanes, Lightning and Panthers. While the division does not have the cachet of the North (all Canada) division or the East there is plenty of intrigue for how the top four spots will shake out to make up the playoff participants.
Even with the loss of all-world winger Nikita Kucherov for the regular season the Lightning are still the prohibitive favorite while the Canes, Stars, Predators, Blue Jackets and Panthers will be competitive for the remaining three playoff spots. The Blackhawks, especially now without captain Jonathan Toews for an indefinite period, and the Red Wings are likely to bring up the rear.
Since the Predators were one of the teams to qualify for the Return to Play tournament, they will start training camp on January 3rd, 2021 (non-RTP teams start on December 31st). The official training camp roster has not been announced as of this writing but over 10 days the invitees will be pared down to the active roster and the taxi squad (more to come on that later). To play out the 2021 season, the Predators will play all of their games within the central division. The schedule will use a baseball-style series format where teams will play multiple games in a row against a given opponent which further reduces the amount of travel required.
To kick things off, the Predators will square off at home in Bridgestone Arena on January 14th against the Columbus Blue Jackets. From there, the Predators will play consecutive games against each opponent including 10 sets of back to backs. To provide flexibility in case there are games that need to be postponed and rescheduled there are a number of two and three day breaks where an extra game could be slipped in as needed. The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin on May 11th with the first two playoff rounds played within the division as well. For the Stanley Cup semifinals and finals, the remaining teams will be reseeded which could make for some very interesting closing series.
About six weeks ago, I covered the Predators offseason here and wrote that the roster activity felt incomplete. Just as it looked like there were no more moves to come, in the last few days GM David Poile added two more veteran pieces to the forward corps in returning winger Mikael Granlund and adding center Erik Haula. Both players are coming off down seasons but are capable of providing offensive production to the lineup.
It was reported that the Predators also showed significant interest in wingers Mike Hoffman and Anthony Duclair. The particularly interesting note to that interest is that Poile spoke multiple times over the offseason about a “youth movement” among the forwards before proceeding to fill every available forward spot with veterans. So what do we make of that? Did Poile change his mind? Was he ever really committed to playing the prospects? Valid questions to be sure and the Predators fanbase would be justified in being concerned that it is more of the same while prospects with a higher potential continue to wait in the wings. However, on paper at least, the veteran acquisitions would appear to create a better overall roster than what was on the ice in 19-20.
I also think the most important consideration is that at the time of those press conferences we did not know what the makeup of the season would be. The shortened and condensed schedule covered above puts more emphasis on being ready right away and having flexible roster depth.
So with training camp just a few days away the roster is likely set so let’s recap the most likely players to be on the opening night NHL roster.
- Forwards – Johansen, Forsberg, Arvidsson, Duchene, Granlund, Kunin, Haula, Grimaldi, Sissons, Richardson, Jarnkrok, Cousins, Trenin, Tolvanen, Tomasino
- Defense – Josi, Ellis, Ekholm, Fabbro, Benning, Borowiecki, Tinordi, Carrier
- Goalies – Saros, Rinne, Ingram, Kaskisuo (teams are required to carry 3 at all times)
The major question will be if any of the prospects can unseat the veterans and push them to the taxi squad for opening night. It is a big year for Eeli Tolvanen to prove his worth and he will now need to show it right from the first day of camp. If the younger talent can outperform some of the veteran players, it does open up some interesting trade bait opportunities down the line as well.
The Taxi Squad
The particularly interesting wrinkle of the 2021 season is the introduction of the taxi squad. In short, the taxi squad is a backup group of 4 to 6 players who participate in team activities in case they are needed to join the active roster. CapFriendly breaks down all the specifics of how the taxi squad players are counted against the salary cap and how they can move in and out of the active roster.
For the Predators the taxi squad provides interesting opportunities to keep some of the top prospects close to the team even if they do not make the opening night roster. With the CHL season in doubt, players like 2019 1st round pick Philip Tomasino and 2020 2nd round pick Luke Evangelista could get an extended run working with the team without burning a year of their contract. The AHL also faced some uncertainty on their ability to move forward with the season but it appears those concerns are being worked out and the Milwaukee Admirals will be able to start in February. Assuming the veterans make up the opening night roster, that leaves spots for prospects like Tolvanen, Trenin, Rem Pitlick and Jeremy Davies who have all been by name as pushing for NHL roster spots.
The important item to note about the taxi squad and who ends up on it starting on opening night is the prevailing assumption that teams will need the taxi squad players at some point during the season. The continuing presence of COVID-19 plus the greater likelihood of injuries in a condensed schedule make it all the more likely that everyone will see ice time sooner or later. The interesting question is if the Predators are willing to burn a year off Tomasino’s ELC if he gets the opportunity and looks ready for regular NHL duty.
The Nashville Predators have an interesting road ahead. While they still have the overall roster talent of a playoff team the results have regressed year over year. Now, coach John Hynes has experience with the team and a new set of depth talent to work with. If the top of the forward corps returns to form, the defense maintains its capability and the one-two goalie punch of Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne avoid the stretches of below average play they experienced last year then the sky is truly the limit. If the forwards can’t rebound, the defensive output slips and the goalies can’t find consistency then the Predators could be facing a long shortened season and some very serious questions about what the future of the roster holds.