With a smattering of Predators showing up in Denmark in the past week to represent their countries in the IIHF World Championships, the harsh reality of a season of unfulfilled promise is now here, but rather than wallowing in self-pity lets look at what’s in store for the off-season and chart the course for a Cup run next season.
The Future of Goaltending
Pekka Rinne continues to be a polarizing figure in the hockey community. The probable Vezina winner is criticized for having it easy behind a star-studded D-corps, and no matter the numbers from the season he’s a perfectly average goaltender. The fancy stat community does have a leg to stand on in that regard, but he still turned in a fantastic performance during the season, one worthy of the accolades he’s about to receive.
In Nashville he has considerably more support from fans. He’s been a fan favorite for several years and is widely respected as one of the genuinely good people on the team. Fandom though drives biases we have for or against players. This only makes the disappointment of the playoffs that much harder to stomach. At some point in everyone’s life, usually in their mid 30s they realize they’ve lost a bit on the fastball. Are we there with Rinne? He’s alluded to that fact himself during locker room clean-out day. Tom Willis quoted Rinne on twitter over the weekend: “My age is just a number, I still feel great. I still have the passion...but I also think Juuse is deserving of more. And I can’t see into the future, but one of these days I will step aside and the net will be his.” Coach Laviolette gave a similar response, indicating that Rinne will go into the season as the #1, but Saros will push for more starts.
Ideally I’d like to see Saros start north of 30 games. Regardless of what happens with Rinne next season, the organization has to know if Saros is able to take over full time duties in 2019-2020 when Rinne’s contract expires. That conclusion must be solidified by the end of the regular season next year. If Saros is the answer, then the transition from Rinne will be seamless. If he’s not, then there will be a new set of problems to address next summer.
Middle Six Forwards
Although Nashville does have effective depth throughout their forward lines, it was clear from the Winnipeg series that the quality of depth may be a bit lacking. The third line of Sissons-Bonino-Watson, or what made up the third line at the end of the series at least doesn’t contribute much offense. Between the three of them they totaled just 71 points.
As the NHL evolves to one where speed and skill are desired traits, the Predators were again just a bit behind Winnipeg’s impressive array of forwards. When the game turned into a more free flowing, puck-carrying game Winnipeg had the decided edge. When the game ground down and Nashville was able to control the neutral zone, they had the edge. Nashville has to transform their team into an effective scoring top-nine rather than a top-six. Nashville needs an injection of speed.
How do they get there though? Enter Eeli Tolvanen and deadline arrival Ryan Hartman. Tolvanen’s hallmark is his shot, not his speed. It’s not as if he can’t get up and down the ice, but he’s no Nikolaj Ehlers. Tolvanen has represented his country in just about every tournament possible this season and put up 43 points in 60 KHL games, including the playoffs. Using NHL equivalencies, expect about 40-45 points from Tolvanen next season if he plays all 82 games. He’d also be able to provide an immediate boost to either power-play unit with his lethal shot.
Hartman added 6 points in 21 regular season games in a Nashville uniform. He will miss the next 4-5 months after undergoing shoulder surgery, so maybe we can take a few playoff scratches and sub-par performance and chalk it up to a guy trying to battle through an injury that would have sidelined him in the regular season. He could find himself in a third line role next year, providing the team with some edge and net front presence. Check out his shot chart.
Coach Laviolette should tinker with the structure of the middle six forwards during camp. The Turris line was consistently productive throughout the year, but if the goal is to develop a top nine there needs to be more of an offensive production balance between lines two and three. Does that mean Smith should move to the third line, and maybe Tolvanen lands on the second line? That’s a solution but Laviolette will probably want to pair Bonino with Tolvanen until he gets his defensive game in line against NHL competition. Regardless of the choice, the third line will need a puck carrier, and Smith was the third most effective puck carrier in controlled zone entries after Fiala and Forsberg, so it would make some sense to give him a shot down there throughout camp, then evaluate the results through the pre-season.
Third Pair Defense
The third defensive pair was heavily sheltered in the playoffs, in part because of the quality of the top two defensive pairs and and the hesitancy to risk the third pair costing them a goal when it really mattered. Poile has indicated that Alexei Emelin is gone. That leaves Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto. Although passable that trio lacks any top-four ability.
I’ve always had some time for Irwin as a player, but some of his gaffes are startling, and those big mistake plays are the ones seared into our memories. Weber had the lowest possession rate on the team outside of Emelin and Bitetto, so if there is a chance to upgrade there, it should be explored. Bitetto is probably not an NHL player at this point of his career.
Looking internally, Nashville does have two options in Milwaukee. Like Samuel Girard, both Alexandre Carrier and Frederic Allard hail from the Q, a sort of pipeline for Nashville prospects. Both players fit the same sort of profile, each with some admirable offensive traits. Allard was a bit more productive this season in a point per game basis, but I would give these guys, both right shot defensemen a long look in camp to see if either can be eased into the NHL in a 3rd pairing role next season.
Restricted Free Agents
The Preds have three players who are restricted free agents; Juuse Saros, Ryan Hartman and Miika Salomaki. Let’s start with Salomaki since he may be the easiest one. With just 19 points in 125 NHL games, he’s probably a fourth liner or AHLer. He’s already 25, so the front office already knows what they have with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not re-signed, and if he is, it will be a very minor deal just to maintain some depth if there are injuries.
Hartman will probably slot in at a little over a million dollars next year. He’s scored 31 points in each of the last two seasons, so he won’t have much leverage if he asks for more money. David Poile however has a penchant to lock guys up for a long time at very reasonable salaries. Jarnkrok, Arvidsson and Ekholm all fit that bill. A long term deal at a low number wouldn’t at all surprise me either. After dealing away a 1st round pick to acquire him, it’s reasonable to think Poile will go this route. A deal similar to Jarnkrok makes sense.
The most interesting of the three is Saros who just turned 23 last month. He’s been the understudy to Rinne for the last two years and the succession plan is clearly in place. Does the team want to risk a real breakout campaign next year and a higher commanded salary when negotiations begin next summer? Or do they risk Saros not being the true answer if they sign him to a long-term deal? Either choice has it’s risks and benefits. Similar to Hartman, the prudent and perhaps short sighted choice would be to ink him to a one-year deal and revisit again next summer, but the temptation to lock up your potential #1 goaltender to a long-term deal at a reasonable dollar amount is appealing. If Saros is willing to sign something along the lines of 5 years, between 2-3 million per year, that’s something I’d sign. Does Saros want long term stability or is he willing to bet on himself when he assumes the starters role? What happens this summer may give us that indication.
It’s going to be an uneventful June in Dallas for the Predators. After having traded away their 1st, 2nd 4th and 6th round picks, Nashville will only have four selections in this year’s draft. They have their 3rd and 5th round picks along with a 4th rounder from Columbus and a 5th rounder from Chicago. The positive is that Nashville has been able to mine some late round gems in the past. My suggestion here would be to swing for the fences. Draft for skill even if it’s undersized skill and add another goalie in there somewhere. Don’t fall for safe picks from the CHL. Scour Europe and see if you can hit a home run.
Thankfully we’ve seen that from Poile over the last few years. In the last five drafts, the Predators have had 19 selections past the third round and only four times did they add a player from the CHL, and three of those were QMJHL players. The Q is the lightest scouted of the three Canadian leagues. One of the few draft inefficiencies left are the lower scouted leagues that aren’t either the OHL or WHL. Someone like Liam Kirk from England is an interesting name. He will be available later in the draft.
On the whole, the player exit interviews noted the culture and chemistry that the team has. The players don’t want to see many changes in the off-season, a sentiment most likely shared by the front office. So don’t expect drastic changes (like a Subban trade, seriously what a stupid rumor.) If anything this team will nibble at the edges. They have more than enough bottom six forwards and depth down the middle. The top two pairs on defense are set. If Poile goes shopping on July 1st, which is a fool’s errand anyway, it would be for a third pairing defenseman. I think those solutions are already in-house, but if they can find an upgrade to Weber/Irwin and sign them to a 1-2 year deal, that could bridge the gap to guys like Allard, Carrier and Fabbro. I’d like to see them add some speed to play at wing in the middle six, but if someone is brought in that means someone else has to go. It’s an avenue that should be explored.
If we’ve learned anything about David Poile in the last few years, it’s that he’s not afraid to make a big move if he thinks it will help the team. He traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and landed Kyle Turris in-season last year. We don’t know the depth of the discussions, but he at least inquired about Erik Karlsson at the trade deadline. If a team like the Carolina Hurricanes starts to panic and wants to unload some players, you can bet that Poile will be on the phone.
The overriding sentiment is that the team and the front office are content with what they have. The team is in their Stanley Cup window, but based on the current playoff format, the Winnipeg Jets aren’t going away. We may see the same second round match-up again next year. Although the instinct by fans after a disappointing post-season is to do something to shake up the team, but the improvements will be made on the margins. I expect a quiet summer in Nashville.