It would never be an easy decision.
With the ability to protect eight skaters from the Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming expansion draft, seven of those names are no-brainers: Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. One simply does not break up the best defensive core in hockey nor one of the top-5 first lines in the league.
However, that leaves only one player left who could be protected. While there are options such as Colin Wilson and Craig Smith, it is likely that neither is selected by Vegas unless some trade deal is in the works.
Pontus Aberg is an intriguing option for Vegas. Vegas GM George McPhee has gone on record saying that he wants a younger team and Aberg certainly fits that bill. During these playoffs, Aberg demonstrated that he has the ability to be a top-six forward in this league. It would certainly be a surprise if Aberg was picked, but it would not be unforeseeable.
Obviously the two key names that have yet to be mentioned are Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal. One of these two players is likely to be protected, and barring any wild decisions, one of them will be a Vegas Golden Knight come June 21st. Which player should the Predators protect?
The Case for Protecting James Neal
Elite scoring has come at a premium for the Nashville Predators over their existence. When David Poile traded Patric Hornqvist for James Neal, he was acquiring the franchise's first bona-fide sniper since Alexander Radulov. Although he had a little bit of a down year this season, everyone knows what James Neal is capable of. He still scored 23 goals and 41 total points this season and is a valuable piece of the Predators’ power play.
Along with his sweet goal scoring touch, James Neal provided solid possession numbers, posting a 52.28% corsi-for. He also created 163 high danger scoring chances, ten more than Jarnkrok.
What is not quantifiable about James Neal has been the leadership he has provided for the Predators. It’s been said before, the Predators are not a stoic bunch. They visibly feed off of energy and emotions and it makes them better. James Neal has always been able to get himself and his teammates fired up. Perhaps that’s why he’s an assistant captain. Furthermore, he seems like a great guy in the locker room, especially for younger players. He is always willing to do anything for the team. Heck, in a statement by the Predators, it turns out that Neal played half of the playoffs with a broken hand. That’s unbelievable commitment to the team. If he is exposed and selected by Vegas, he’d be an excellent candidate to be their captain.
The Case for Protecting Calle Jarnkrok
Ironically, we now move to perhaps the most stoic member of the Nashville Predators. Swedish center Calle Jarnkrok was originally acquired by the Predators from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for David Legwand. As the playoffs began, Jarnkrok played with Neal and Kevin Fiala on his wings as he took on the second line center duties. He posted 31 points this season and scored 15 goals. His 51.40% corsi-for is also less than Neal’s. However, despite playing a heavy two-way style of play, one can also look at Neal generating only ten more high danger chances are a testament to Jarnkrok being underrated in the offensive zone. In fact, because of Jarnkrok’s defensive ability, there were 27 fewer opposing high danger chances when he was on the ice compared to James Neal. This gives Jarnkrok a 58.17 HDCF% compared to Neal’s 54.33 HDCF%.
The biggest case for protecting Jarnkrok instead of Neal comes from the Predators’ lack of depth at center, while they appear to be bursting at the seams with talent on the wings. This problem reared its ugly head these playoffs once Ryan Johansen needed season-ending surgery. Although Colton Sissons was able to step up and play a big role, the only other two options available to the Predators were Mike Fisher and Jarnkrok. Although he performed admirably, rookie call-up Frederick Gaudreau, who ended up centering the fourth line, is a natural winger.
Imagine the same situation next year in a world where Jarnkrok was selected by Vegas and Fisher retires. The Predators are just left with Sissons. Hopefully Gaudreau would be able to take over a similar role and Vladislav Kamenev would be NHL-ready, but those are not guarantees.
On the other hand, if Neal is selected, there are plenty of other options on the wing. While Smith, Wilson, and Fiala are all established middle-six wingers, players such as Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau are licking their chops at the chance to break into the permanent lineup. With Austin Watson, Miikka Salomaki, and Cody McLeod also in the fold, there are not concerns about depth on the wings.
I do not envy the decision David Poile will have to make. Either he is losing an outstanding team leader and fan favorite, or he is thinning out his center depth, the position on the roster that already is the most lacking. Ultimately, if I were Poile, I would protect Jarnkrok because there is simply no way that the Predators could overcome an injury to Ryan Johansen without Jarnkrok, whereas there is enough depth on the wings to support the loss of Neal.