Ever since Matthew Lombardi's injury midway through the second game of the season, the Nashville Predators have struggled to fill a hole down the middle of their lineup. While Cal O'Reilly has done an admirable job centering an offensive line, further injuries to Marcel Goc and David Legwand have pushed Jerred Smithson and Nick Spaling into larger roles than expected, while Colin Wilson is being deliberately kept on the wing, where it is hoped he can learn the NHL game more easily.
The concern now is whether Lombardi's return this season starts to become a question of "if" rather than "when", considering the fact that we're six weeks past the incident and have heard of no progress at all, certainly no clearance to resume exercising, for example. Currently, with Legwand out for at least a couple more games, Nashville boasts a depth chart of O'Reilly, Goc, Smithson and Spaling at center. This foursome has combined for a whopping 11 goals and 16 assists this season, matching the output of Carolina's Eric Staal all by himself.
Clearly, something needs to be done to shore up the Predators' forward lines before they fall out of touch with the playoff contenders in the Western Conference. Their 2.18 Goals/Game ranks dead last in the West, whereas the defense and goaltending have been middle-of-the-pack. Currently they stand in 13th place, and that's no fluke; their goal differential, which is a strong, simple indicator of overall team strength, puts them in the same spot.
Follow after the jump, then, as we ponder a few options David Poile has available...
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Milwaukee Admirals call-up
The easiest option here is to call someone up from Milwaukee to help tide things over until Legwand returns, and Seth hasn't been shy about banging the drum for Jamie Lundmark. A 1st-round draft pick back in 1999, Lundmark has been a marginal NHLer for the last several years, with his best season coming in 2005-6, posting 10 goals and 19 assists for 3 different teams. With 295 career games to his credit, the Predators are Lundmark's 6th NHL team. After missing the opening days of the season due to injury, he's tallied 3 goals and 4 assists in 18 games for Milwaukee.
He may serve as a band-aid for a couple games, but I wouldn't look for anything more than that.
Yes, Linus Klasen got called up once before for the game in Detroit, but he's a winger whose production has tailed off after a torrid start. What the Preds need right now is a center.
The 3 factors of dealing on the NHL market
The next option, then, is to peruse the NHL trade market. Here, however, the parameters change somewhat.
- If a new player is brought into the organization, consideration needs to be given for Lombardi's eventual return. If you acquire a useful center, then have Lombardi come back sometime during the season, you have a logjam on your hands. That's why, unless the Predators have reason to believe that Lombardi is out for the year (and let's be clear - there's been no indication of that), you'd want to get someone who has proven NHL value both at center and on the wing. That way, said player can center a scoring line for now, then move over once Lombardi recovers enough to play.
- As is always the case with Nashville, budgetary constraints restrict the available options. What may help, however, is contract insurance. While exact details are hard to come by, it's likely that the Preds could recover the majority of Lombardi's salary should his absence exceed 30 games. That extra cash, along with the fact that we're already 25% through the season, could allow Poile to add something on the scale of a $2 million player to the payroll, or more depending on which assets go out the door in trade.
- The available parties for such an in-season trades are vanishingly few. Few teams are looking to unload offensively-oriented players in general. For those franchises which are already losing hope for the playoffs, they may want to wait until closer to the trade deadline to get the maximum number of bidders driving up the price of their wares.
Plausible trade targets for the Nashville Predators
With all those caveats in place, let's go window shopping!
|2010 - Blake Wheeler||22||5||4||9||0||14||0||0||1||37|
Why this works: One of the big stories around the NHL currently is the salary cap pinch felt in Boston, where the Bruins need to clear some room as Marc Savard and Marco Sturm prepare to come off Injured Reserve. Wheeler is a big man with good speed, and he scored 21 and 18 goals in his first two NHL seasons. He's in the final year of a contract which pays him $2.2 million this season. He's also more of a wing who has only played sparingly at center, so the long-term fit is especially good. Interestingly, the Bruins tonight have traded defenseman Matt Hunwick to Colorado to help clear up cap space, but still have another move to make - might they be interested in one of the Predators' blueliners, perhaps?
Why it doesn't: Since he'll be a restricted free agent, Wheeler could command a pretty hefty price on the trade market, perhaps more than Poile is willing to pay.
|2010 - Tomas Fleischmann||23||4||6||10||3||10||0||0||1||44|
Why this works: Fleischmann is a versatile forward who put up 51 points for the Washington Capitals last season, has a strong reputation as a playmaker, and is comfortable playing center or wing. He's in the last year of a contract which pays him $2.6 million, after which he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Caps have long been rumored to seek defensive help, something the Predators may be able to offer in trade.
Why this doesn't: It seems like Fleischmann's name comes up in trade rumors all the time, but nothing ever happens. Besides, 51 points as part of Alex Ovechkin's Flying Circus translates to more like 35-40 on a team like Nashville. Caps fans have also pointed out his defensive shortcomings, which may not fit with the Preds' style of play.
So who else is out there who the Predators could realistically acquire, and help plug that gaping hole at center? Sound off with your theories in the comments below...