Did David Poile do enough last week by signing five free agents on the opening day of the NHL's shopping season?
The answer to that question says as much as about the person asking it as it does whatever the team did.
One of the most fascinating aspects of writing about the Nashville Predators is the wide variety of expectations held by portions of the fan base. Like any town, there are those who see nothing less than strong contention for the Stanley Cup as acceptable, and are willing to advocate for change at the highest levels if it isn't achieved. Most, I'd say, are happy to see a team that competes on a regular basis and "punches above its weight", representing a smaller NHL market yet making the playoffs more often than many more affluent teams.
What truly separates Nashville from many hockey cities is the portion of the fan base which really doesn't hold management's proverbial feet to the fire for underwhelming results like what we saw last season. Whether the team succeeds or not, these fans are simply glad to have an NHL franchise to cheer for at all, which is entirely understandable considering the memories of 2007 that haven't quite faded away.
As for myself, I fall somewhere in the middle. I recognize that despite the herculean efforts of the organization over the last several years Nashville remains one of the smaller NHL markets, and with that in mind a certain financial prudence is not only understandable, but comforting - the last time we saw ownership really open the wallet was in 2007, and it turned out to be nothing more than slapping a fresh coat of paint on the house before putting the "For Sale" sign out front.
No, I like my non-traditional teams run in a fiscally sustainable manner, which admittedly adds to the challenge of how such a team can not only compete, but win hockey's ultimate prize. I don't expect the Predators to spend anywhere near the salary cap, but I do want to see them spend wisely.
So how would I appraise last Friday's signings?
Left Wing / Nashville Predators
Jan 17, 1986
Signed for 4 years, $12 million
This one is an unquestioned beauty - Stalberg has earned the opportunity to get Top Six duty, but of course the Chicago Blackhawks are stacked up front and is itching for a chance to prove his worth. As the fancy stats show in Friday's article, his offensive production shows promise without any of the usual alarms which might give us pause (like a ridiculous shooting percentage in a given year). He consistently attempts 10-12 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, whereas most prominent Nashville forwards such as Mike Fisher, David Legwand or Colin Wilson fire 6-8.
Basically, Stalberg should be able to replace Martin Erat's role as a leading offensive force who can play against top opponents. I wouldn't call him an upgrade over Erat in that position quite yet, but it's possible that he could exceed expectations. For Poile to find a suitable winger for one of the top lines at $3 million per season has to be considered a major coup.
As Sam wrote last week, Cullen's presence gives the Predators a chance to roll three lines with a decent scoring threat in the middle. He does help improve the depth at center, by apparently pushing Nick Spaling out of the way.
The fans in Minnesota didn't think he was still worth $3.5 million per season at age 36, and giving a guy at that age a two-year contract shows the kind of leverage Cullen had in negotiating a move to Smashville. I had hoped that the team would take advantage of a golden opportunity to pick up a #1 center in Mikhail Grabovsky, adding to the center depth by adding a nice juicy cherry on top, rather than adding a player who is so similar to Mike Fisher and David Legwand in many ways.
As you can tell, I'm very ambivalent about the Cullen deal. I think he'll certainly help the team to an extent, but not in a way that will really take them to another level.
I don't know if the Carter Hutton signing says more about Nashville's confidence in goalie coach Mitch Korn, and his ability to develop outstanding keepers, or in Magnus Hellberg, who had a strong showing in Milwaukee and may be ready for NHL backup duty himself. Either way, a bargain-basement two-way contract is an unusual gamble by a team whose franchise goalie is recovering from hip surgery.
I'll also add that Pekka Rinne's fantasy stock should be through the roof next season, as I wouldn't be surprised to see him play an absolute ton of games once again.
Hendricks gets high marks for his work ethic and leadership, but are those qualities worth giving a role player a 100% raise and a 4-year contract as he heads into his mid-30's?
We can expect that Hendricks will be an industrious checker and penalty killer, but is this the type of player who you throw multiple years at on the opening day of Free Agency? In the past, David Poile has always talked about how teams typically end up overpaying in the opening days of free agency, and I can't help but think that this is a classic example of that dynamic at work.
Um... pretty much repeat everything I just said about Hendricks. Nystrom goes from $1.4 million per year to $2.5 million, and a four-year contract to be... a 3rd or 4th line winger and secondary penalty killer?
I'm sorry, I just don't get it.
There was a lot of talk about restoring the team's gritty identity with the Hendricks & Nystrom signings, but the fiscal prude in me can't wrap my head around going out and signing up two player like this for a collective $4.3 million annually, for four years. It's like doubling down on the Paul Gaustad deal.
At the risk of getting all fancy-statsy, let me bust out with an equation:
Harder To Play Against ≠ Harder to Beat
While I like the idea of getting "tough" players who can actually fill a useful on-ice role (as opposed to a heavyweight "enforcer"), there is certainly a skill deficit as compared to division rivals in Chicago & St. Louis, to say the least.
To sum up the basic situation at forward, then, we have Stalberg slipping into Erat's old job, Cullen (or Legwand) squeezing Spaling out of the 3rd line center spot, and Hendricks & Nystrom adding a little more beef to where we used to have guys like Brandon Yip and Matt Halischuk. There isn't an external replacement for the position which Sergei Kostitsyn (underwhelmingly) filled last season, but I don't know that there's an internal candidate ready to step into that role. We're down two Top Six wingers from last season, but only one was replaced.
The stats analyst in me is glad to see Halischuk & Yip, two of the team's puck-possession laggards, not returning, while Spaling's future in Nashville is uncertain at best.
Does this add up to a significant upgrade? Combined with the natural evolution of individual careers (younger guys maturing, older vets slowing down) I'd say it's a modest step up from last season, but nothing extraordinary.
The Baby Blueline
On defense, the drafting of Seth Jones has energized the organization, as it gives Nashville the potential to re-establish itself as having one of the most dominant set of defenseman in the league - just don't expect that to play out for a little while yet.
The interesting part is that we really should see the kids get a lot of work this upcoming season, more than we'd usually see. In summers past, Poile would tout the possibility of multiple prospects making the team out of training camp, but it always seemed like a last-second veteran pickup would nip that opportunity in the bud (think Francis Bouillon, Shane O'Brien, Jack Hillen). Instead, this summer the Predators proactively opened up a spot by buying out Hal Gill's contract. Gill had a pretty decent campaign and is the type of guy who could take some of the heavy lifting off the younger guys' shoulders (penalty killing & matchups against big power forwards), so his departure speaks volumes about the team's confidence in the rest of the group.
That move opened up spots for guys like Jones and Mattias Ekholm to get to work this fall. In comparison to last season, that could represent a decent improvement; Scott Hannan was basically a disaster, and the rest of the D corps is on the upside of their career rather than the downside, so another year of aging should help Roman Josi & Ryan Ellis.
I would expect this group to be much better in 2014-2015 than they will be this fall, as there will be growing pains along the way. Young defensemen can be made to look awfully foolish at times, but the real test is whether they can learn to move on from those disappointments, refocus and get back to work.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
So has David Poile done enough this summer? I'd say he's restored the Predators as a competitive team that should be in the thick of the playoff hunt next season, and is establishing an environment which can help support the development of the team's most critical prospects (Seth Jones & Filip Forsberg). Fans will certainly enjoy the rough & tough style of play that these Preds should be bring on a nightly basis, too. The depth at center should come in very handy when injuries strike and the team would otherwise be forced to jam an AHL player into a featured role.
The highs may not be particularly high with this team, but the lows shouldn't be as low, either.
I can't help but think that the opportunity to do something bigger and bolder was lost, however, and that in this salary cap/budget-conscious environment, some expensive long-term contracts have been struck which will limit the team's options down the road.