With Friday’s announcement that the Nashville Predators had signed Ryan Johansen to an eight-year, $64 million deal, this summer full of free agent frenzy for the defending Western Conference champs is nearly complete.
Sure, there is still the looming issue of Mike Fisher’s future—the team does need a captain—and there is still around $5 million in cap room left to work with, but the Predators are more than likely done for the time being. I doubt they go after the ageless Jaromir Jagr or the risky Thomas Vanek, though both are still available and always a possibility. They still haven’t replaced James Neal’s goal-scoring ability, but... well, let’s just table that discussion for now.
The Predators have successfully locked up the core of their team for the next several years. The top scoring line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson will be around for at least five more seasons. The Best Top Four In Hockey will be around for at least two more seasons, with P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm locked in for at least five more. Pekka Rinne is in net for the next two seasons. Nick Bonino and Calle Jarnkrok, big pieces of the Preds’ center depth, will be around for relatively low cost for the next four seasons.
However, roster management is never over. Looking ahead a few years, the Predators will have some big decisions to make regarding what the Nashville roster will really look like. The core is secure, for now. But as we all know, in the NHL, success comes on the backs of role players as much as it does on the backs of core players.
The Next Two Years
Because of some fantastic work over the last 3-4 years, David Poile has ensured that the next two years should be relatively stable in terms of the NHL roster. And just in time for the elusive Cup-contending window to be wide open.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Predators have the following positions locked in for both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons:
- 11 of 14 forwards
- 4 of 8 defensemen
- 1 goaltender
That’s some solid consistency over the course of two seasons. Especially when you look at who those players are. Who is missing from those groups? There are really only a couple names that stand out as important (and maybe just one).
Let’s look at the forwards first. The Predators will have the expiring UFA contracts of Cody McLeod (nope), Scott Hartnell (have to see how this season turns out, but potentially a cheap re-up possibility), and restricted free agent Miikka Salomaki.
Salomaki is the toughest call of that group. His participation waned late last year, even as the Predators needed forward depth the most. An undisclosed injury was likely the cause, but we really have no idea. Could Salomaki—like Gabriel Bourque a few years ago—be a flash-in-the-pan, one-dimensional forward who is ultimately blocked by other more dynamic skaters? Unless we see a resurgence of The Wrecking Ball this season, it looks that way.
On defense, the Predators will have Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin, Anthony Bitetto, and (sigh) Alexei Emelin all on expiring UFA contracts. This is actually a good problem, especially considering defensive prospects Dante Fabbro and Sam Girard the Preds have in waiting. All of these bottom pairing guys are cheap (except Emelin), expendable, and will likely play at top gear to prove they can stay on this roster. My gut tells me that one of them will emerge as the best of the group (probably Irwin) and one of the prospects breaks through by the end of 2018.
Plus, it’s not like the Preds can’t go out and get another cheap, 20-something bottom-pairing defender to step into a role like what Irwin or Weber had this year. Look for a maximum of two of those four guys getting re-signed the following year.
The most looming roster question will be with goaltending and it starts next summer.
Juuse Saros: RFA 2018
For the most part, this is an easy decision. The team has made it pretty clear that Saros is the future in goal, so following his entry-level contract with another contract is almost definitely going to happen.
The question is: what kind of contract will this be? And what kind of role will Saros have in 2017-18 that could possibly determine the value and length of that contract? It’s likely that Saros has a more significant role next year, but with Rinne’s recent production, could Saros be prevented from further NHL-level growth by a rejuvenated Rinne? More starts for Rinne means less starts for Saros, which could definitely affect Saros’ next contract.
Here is something else to consider: what if then 36-year-old Pekka Rinne, with his gargantuan seven-year contract expiring in 2019, wants to come back for another season in 2019-20? And what if the Predators oblige that wish?
A Juuse Saros long-term deal in 2018 might go a long way to prevent that from happening. If they sign Saros to a contract that clearly says “This is our guy now” then maybe Rinne rides off into the sunset. But what if they give Saros a short-term “prove it” contract (something like the one-year, $725K deal they signed Rinne to in 2009—or the two-year, $6.8 million deal in 2010) leaving the door open for a Rinne UFA deal as a backup option?
If that happens, I can’t see Rinne wanting to play backup for anything less than $2 million. Do the Preds really want hesitancy regarding Saros to result in paying an aging backup goaltender that kind of money? Or, potentially worse, do they want to hunt the goalie free agent market for veteran goalies? (Ask Dallas how that usually works out)
The aim here is to make the goaltending transition in 2019 as smooth as possible. A long-term deal with their future goaltender (something the Predators have only done once in franchise history) could preclude any unnecessary unpleasantness.
Speaking Of 2019...
Two years from now, the biggest restricted free agents will likely be Kevin Fiala and Pontus Aberg. Add to that list Colton Sissons, Vladislav Kamenev, and a host of other AHL prospects, and you’ve got a round of RFAs that is second only to this past summer’s.
Oh and then you’ve got Ryan Ellis due to be an unrestricted free agent as well.
The summer of 2019 will be a big one for the Predators front office. As I said before, even with the core of this team locked up long-term, key players like Fiala and Aberg could be important to keep around. They are big time performers that have shown the potential to be game changing players. As for Ellis, I don’t think I have to convince you that the Preds need to keep him on the roster and The Big Four intact.
I have faith that David Poile can pull it off. The projected cap space for 2019-20 according to CapFriendly is over $27 million with 11 contracts on the books. With a handful of those 12 remaining spots filled by smaller, role-playing contracts (think Irwin, Hartnell, and others), a handful of those filled by guys on their post-ELC contracts (guys like Kamenev, Ejdsell), and plenty of room for Saros, you’ve still got anywhere from $10-15 million to get the big 2019 guys signed. The cash is there. Poile might not even have to bust out his wizardry skills.
And from there? Well, if you get all those guys signed, with the foundation of guys like Johansen, Arvidsson, Forsberg, Subban, and Ekholm... we could be looking at a very long, very open window. There’s plenty of cap room to make this team a consistent contender—with both core and role players locked up for the next few years—well into the next decade.